St. John the Baptist in Prison, Visited by Salomé,
Drawing possibly by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591–1666),
Mid 17th century,
brown ink and iron gall ink with brown wash
20.5 x 25.6 cm (8 1/16 x 10 1/16 in.)
© Princeton University Art Museum. Gift of Nathan V. Hammer
John in his prison sent his disciples to Jesus
John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.’
As the messengers were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes? Oh no, those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces. Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says:
‘Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way before you.
‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.’
Reflection on the drawing
In today’s Gospel reading we hear about John the Baptist being locked up in prison (as depicted in our 17th century old master drawing) and that he sent his disciples to ask Jesus some questions. We may have thought that John would have known all the answers already, but no, even he had questions for Jesus. It is a passage that can give us comfort: if even John the Baptist, the powerful, austere, humble man who held such a high esteem among the Jews, still had questions, then it ok for us to have lots of questions too.
John the Baptist doesn’t just sit on the question though… No… John takes initiative and sends messengers to Jesus. So, rather than just endless pondering over questions, he takes firm, resolute action and sends his friends to seek the answers straight from Jesus himself.
And what does Jesus do? Well, Jesus does not send back reassurances; he just asks the messengers to open their eyes and see the evidence of Jesus’ life and all the miracles he did. It would have been easier for Jesus to reassure John in a very straightforward way, but by not doing so, he asks John to keep digging more and more deeply into the mystery of his own faith.
We are not exactly sure who this drawing is by. It certainly is in the style of Guercino or even by his hand. A full attribution hasn't been confirmed. We see Saint John in his prison cell. He is looking through the prison window at Salomé, who is paying him a visit. The beautiful brown ink strokes on paper are full of dynamism and life. We see a master artist at work. John’s gaze is strong, resolute and focussed.
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