The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1566), a painting on faith and fallibility
In the Christian tradition, the figure of Saint John the Baptist, foretold the coming of a Jesus during the first century CE. Considered a great prophet of the age, he preached the following: "Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Many listened to his sermon: "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” (Matthew 3, 2-4)
Centuries later, during the 16th-century movement known as the Reformation, John the Baptist, a traveling preacher who spoke directly to people of the coming of a savior, was given greater importance and particular actuality. His itinerant preacher successors during the Reformation were looked upon as delivering the Word of God directly, not needing authorization from the hierarchy of the Church.
In 1566 – the year Bruegel painted this image of St. John preaching – many illegal assemblies (hagenpreken) were held in the Netherlands. Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anabaptists gathered in the open, on the outskirts of the cities held under Spanish Catholic rule to listen to Protestant sermons.
Unlike his predecessors who preferred the high vantage points of panoramic and world landscapes, Bruegel used a low vantage point to give the viewer the illusion of being part of the scene. We develop a strong connection with the crowd that has gathered on the large forest clearing to listen to the sermon.
In Bruegel’s oeuvre it is in this late painting that the relationship between the narrative and the viewer becomes the most intimate and direct.
The vivid and realistic landscape is neither like Bruegel’s local environment, nor connected to the original biblical location.
The scenery is the sole creation of the painter’s imagination, reminiscent of the experience he gained during his travels through Germany to Sicily in the first half of the 1550s.
Bringing a Biblical scene into a contemporary setting was a general custom in Netherlandish and German art. By doing so Bruegel, however, aims not only to show the Gospel’s eternal truth for contemporary and future generations, but to also deliver judgement over human kind: just as in the past, in the present we are only able to receive the word of God within the barriers of our immutable fallibility.
Among the audience there are no two poses, gestures, faces or even clothing that are the same.
Expressions of alertness, devotion, ecstasy or indifference are all individually expressed.
The art of Bruegel in not limited to schemes, canons or a set of rules, he is not restrained by prototypes. Just as in this painting life itself unfolds before our eyes in its inexhaustible bounty.
One of the significant details of the painting is the palm reading taking place in the centre of the foreground.
With his back to the preacher, a nobleman, who might be Spanish judged from the black clothing and white collar is giving his hand to an itinerant fortune teller wrapped in a striped blanket.
The fortune teller's wife wears a large yellow hat and a crimson patterned yellow robe, her naked child is munching on an apple.
Palm reading was officially frowned upon by all Christian congregations because any attempt to read or predict the future was considered a denial of the unfathomable divine will.
The man sitting between the fortune teller's wife and the soldier peeking out from behind the tree can be no other but a pilgrim, who has interrupted his journey to listen to the sermon and to further strengthen his faith.
The characteristic staff, the hat decorated with shells, and the thick clothing, providing protection against the adversities of the weather, are all typical equipment of a pilgrimage.
Taking in St. John the Baptist's sermon, the large assembly, and perhaps the river baptism scene in the distance, is the group of figures perched in the branches of the large tree to the right. Although they form part of the audience, seated up on the hill they are somewhat separate from the crowd, as if they were in a theatre box or balcony.
Pieter Bruegel I
The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist (1566)
Oil on wood, 95 × 160.5 cm
Budapest, Szépművészeti Múzeum
text by Vilmos Tátrai