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Geertgen Tot Sint Jans - John the Baptist in the Wasteland

by Alexandra Tuschka

Oh well, the great boredom seems to have broken out in this man. He sits, bearded and barefoot, on a stone, rests his head in his hand and looks into the distance. Only from close up and through the detail of his rubbing feet can one detect an inner movement. A white lamb has accompanied him up to here and is looking over. Both figures are surrounded by a nimbus. Actually, one could enjoy the time: numerous forest animals can be seen in the wide grasslands; there is not a cloud in the sky. On the right we see that the city of Jerusalem depicted here will be a few hours' walk away.

In this work we are dealing with an unusual version of a very popular pictorial motif: John the Baptist, who - as explained in the biblical text - goes into the desert as an ascetic. However, the lush landscape here cannot be understood as a "desert"; the title of the picture thus corrects this to a "wasteland". In the 15th century, this was rather understood as uncultivated land, as can be seen here. Deserts were often unknown to contemporaries of the time. This lively, green and splendid scene here is therefore more reminiscent of depictions of the Garden of Paradise. This contrast expresses all the more the religious attitude of the protagonist, who looks inwards in all the lush beauty of nature. The melancholy expressed in the posture is reminiscent of the type of "Christ at rest" or "Christ in misery" common in the late Gothic period.

While the animals, such as the magpie, heron, pheasant and swift, all have a reference to reality and could thus also be found in a forest and meadow landscape, the deer and rabbit can also be added as symbols of physical love as an aspect of interpretation. The lamb, however, is to be understood purely symbolically. It copies the posture a little by also crossing its front hooves. The animal becomes John's attribute, since in the Bible he compares Jesus with the "Lamb of God". His sacrifice frees mankind from all sins.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans - John the Baptist in the Wasteland

Oil on poplar wood, c. 1507/08, 122 × 80 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Unknown - Christ at rest

Lime wood, c. 1500, private collection


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