Reading the story of the beheading of John the Baptist puts me in mind of the image of a large painting in El Prado, in Madrid, some 9 feet high by 31 feet long, painted by the 17th century artist Bartholomeus Strobel the Younger. It’s a busy, colorful painting of Herod’s feast, depicting no fewer than sixty individuals in lavish period court dress. There are ruffles, lace, feathers, armor, embroidery, tiaras, ermine, turbans, bustles, capes, gowns, jewelry, plumes, sashes, boots and spurs among the extravagant wardrobes. The head of nearly every woman is adorned, one way or another; and almost every single adult male in the painting is mustachioed, except the executioner. A little research suggests that the painting is an allegory of Europe at some point during the Thirty Years War, by which is meant that the figures all represent actual historical figures of the time. But an allegory is a particular kind of metaphor that is intended to convey meaning. To me the painting looks like a PBS costume-drama waiting to happen. But what meaning it is trying to convey is not necessarily obvious.
The Thirty Years War was ostensibly a religious war: a painfully long conflict during which the struggles of the European Reformation were fought and decided, as Protestant religion challenged the old order of Catholic rule. But religious wars, like any other kind of wars, are always really about power. And in the early 17th century, distinctions between religious and secular power were fuzzy, to say the least.
Strobel, who was himself a refugee of the war, created a painting that depicts contemporary Spanish, Dutch, English, Saxon, Roman, Polish, Florentine, Swedish, even Irish nobility and military figures, among others, and even one small dog, standing on its hind legs. The image is broad and inclusive, as was the war. But of course the scene is not a battle, but a banquet, demonstrating a canny insight about the reality of war for at least some segments of society.
Or, I should say, most of the painting depicts a banquet. The far right hand side of the long work (maybe about one tenth of the length of the entire painting) shows the aftermath of John’s execution: his headless body fallen to the ground, and spilling a great pool of blood from his neck onto the floor, while the shirtless executioner smirks, and two faithful disciples of John’s resort to prayer.
Otherwise, the feast continues. Guests are dining on pheasant and lobster; wine has been poured; bread is being shared; there is a table laden with fruits; in front of Herod there is a round plate with oysters laid out on the half-shell; an ornate chandelier lights the room; and there are smiles on many, many faces. Salome and her mother grin through pursed lips as they present the head of John the Baptist to Herod, who, in an isolated gesture of distaste, has raised a hand, as if to push the platter away from him. Otherwise, the party goes on. It’s a wonder there isn’t any more dancing.
But of course the painting is only partly about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is also about the unraveling of the religious order of things, and the tensions pulling at the various and complicated players in Europe. It’s about the world order and its relationship to the Christian faith, and the competing versions of that faith. It’s about the small and wealthy minority whose prejudices and squabbles, like their wars, affect the lives of everyone else. It’s about a powerful man who is manipulated by his wife and his daughter, primarily because of his own vanity. And, of course, it is about what becomes of the message (and of the messenger) of Christ in the halls of power, even among those who profess to call themselves Christians. Which is to say that John’s message of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Lord is slaughtered, and presented on a platter for the mild amusement of the ruling class, its carcass left to bleed-out in the next room.
Now, this is an old painting, speaking of another age. But we know our own long wars, do we not? And it might be fair to say that the distinctions between religious and secular conflict have become fuzzy again.
It would be foolhardy of me to suggest who might populate such an allegorical painting in our own day and age. And the costumes would be so much less interesting. But it is possible to imagine a modern canvas on which are represented the vying forces of this world, gathered for a feast with pheasant and lobster and oysters, and champagne. It is possible to imagine, I think, the head of John the Baptist being presented on a platter to some vain ruler, while the message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom of God dies in the next room, alongside John’s body.
When I think of this painting - like when I hear the story of the beheading of John the Baptist - I struggle to find much good news, at first. For, what it appears to depict is the triumph of this world over the message of the coming kingdom of God, and the total banality of the process of killing that message. The party never even has to stop.
In my imagination, however, I can see that the artist who created this enormous painting has actually overpainted an earlier work, which is a crucifixion scene, and which is the fulfillment of the promise of John the Baptist’s cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” In this other painting that, only in my imagination, exists beneath the heavy layers of paint on Strobel’s extraordinary painting, there is bloodshed, too. But this blood is the Blood of Jesus, being poured out, so that his death might sanctify all other deaths, and bring an end to the power of death. The rulers of the nations might well be depicted in this other painting, and they might well be laughing. But they would not be able to see what we can see: that while they are receding into the darkness, light shines forth from the Cross of Christ. John the Baptist might be featured in this imaginary painting, too, holding his head in his hand, in the manner that decapitated saints sometimes do in art. And he would be smiling, for once, confident that his message had not died with him, could not die with him, will never die.
Such a painting does not exist, of course, beneath the fancy dresses and elaborate feast of Strobel’s great work. To look at Strobel’s gigantic painting, is to see that the world he depicted has not disappeared, maybe it hasn’t even changed very much, although the characters and the costumes have changed. The powerful still jostle with one another for power. Religion remains a thing that is exceedingly difficult to do well and which, when done poorly, causes tremendous pain, conflict, and even violence. The world order remains unsettled. And the rich continue to bask in their wealth; the party never even has to stop. And how easy it would be to find a stand-in for John the Baptist: a righteous victim to the vanities of the world.
But the Good News that is absent from this scene is precisely the truth that killing John could not prevent the Savior from coming. Chopping his head off, could not silence the power of repentance to bring sinners into a righteous relationship with God. Spilling John’s blood, could not deprive the Blood of Jesus of its power to bring salvation to the whole world.
What we hear of today in the Gospel is the fruitless foolishness of the powers of this world who believe that Christ does not matter, and that he has not already won the victory. What we see is how foolish they look, and how wrong they are, and how distasteful is their feasting, and how fleeting, like the fashions they wear, is the power they think they wield. For, sooner or later, the party will come to an end - history tells us that it always does - and some new grandees will populate the painting for another generation.
But you and I, will search every canvas, for evidence that it has been overpainted. And somewhere we will find the Cross, and the Blood that saved us. Somewhere we will find an Altar, or a Calvary, and the only feast laid out will be the feast of sincerity and truth, in which righteousness and peace have kissed each other: the feast of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and his Blood.
And it won’t matter what we are wearing, as we paint ourselves onto this canvas, eager to be at the side of John the Baptist, and at the feet of the one who made us, who loves us, and who saves us.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 July 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia