RENDEZVOUS AT DA VINCI’S JOHN THE BAPTIST

da vinci john the baptist agron belica

Global News Centre

Submitted by Robert Bangor

April in Paris! What a perfect time to visit the world’s most beautiful city! Mitchell and Margaret Ritchie had decided to take a well-earned holiday from their responsibilities in New York. Their eldest son was following in his father’s footsteps and had become an officer in the marines; their younger son was in a business school being groomed to take over Mitchell’s business when he retired. Margaret was now active in social services, especially those concerning fallen women and unwed mothers. It was a Saturday, and they were moving slowly through the collection of art and artifacts in one of the world’s greatest museums: the Louvre.

“I’m sure she danced, but what Greg is saying is not at the beheading of John the Baptist.” “That’s hard to believe,” Ritchie persisted flipping through the pages to find 103. “I thought it was an historical fact.” He speed read the page and looked up at Greg. “Wow! Josephus was quite a man! A soldier and a writer.” The marine in Ritchie was pleased by that.  “We have a volume of his works somewhere in our library,” Margaret informed him. “You can check it out when we get back home.” Ritchie returned to study da Vinci’s portrait of John on the cover.

“There is something strange about it,” he said more to himself than the others. “I’ve never seen a saint depicted like this. da Vinci was a genius. What did he see in the man? There is something added, something…” He paused, searching for a word.  “Ethereal, esoteric?” suggested Julie. Mitchell looked at her and nodded. Greg sat back in his chair and smiled with satisfaction. “Now you are beginning to get it,” he said to Ritchie. “I wonder if Da Vinci saw something in John that others had always missed when trying to paint him. Maybe he was inspired to make John different because he was different from other holy men. Da Vinci was kind of an inspired dreamer, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps,” Ritchie said, trying to hide his skepticism. Then he paused to reflect on da Vinci’s brilliance and innovative genius. He was perhaps the greatest figure in the Renaissance and maybe he saw something special in the character of the Baptist. But what difference did that make today? “So what?” Julie leaned forward and answered him. “Because it is a search for the truth. If history has treated him unfairly, then we need to know to correct the record. Knowledge is it’s own reward.” Mitchell grinned. “That’s rather difficult at this distance in time.” “That’s what I thought too,” put in Greg now catching Mitchell’s attention. “Did you ever hear of the Mandaeans?” Mitchell frowned and bit his lip in thought. “Vaguely. Aren’t they some sort of a sect somewhere…”

“In Mesopotamia, modern Iraq; also in Iran and elsewhere,” Greg answered. “They still exist and they still revere John the Baptist and testify to his mission. And beside the testimony of Josephus, there are a lot of other things in that book you’re holding. It’s a search for the truth about John. Knight and Crook have done a lot of research and it sure shook up my ideas about someone I hardly ever thought of before. Some of the possibilities are really amazing!”  “Amazing?” Ritchie looked startled. “What sort of things? Give me an example.”

At that point, the waiters suddenly descended upon them and began setting out the food they had ordered. Succulent smells began teasing their nostrils and they began checking each other’s plates in anticipation. The pleasures of French cuisine and cooking invited them to put aside the past and to enjoy the repast of the present.  As the conversation switched to family talk, exchanging news about children and the sights of Paris, Ritchie tried to listen for a few minutes but soon found himself flipping the pages of the book once again. The beheading of John at Salome’s behest was too ingrained in his worldview to be so easily dismissed by a paperback book. He looked up and found Greg looking at him curiously. Greg had noticed the perplexed expression on Ritchie’s face.

“Something wrong?” Greg asked sotto voce, not to interrupt Margaret and Julie. Ritchie nodded. “Credentials. What about the author’s credentials that allow him to make such assertions about John? I read his bio, but I didn’t see anything about a university degree there.” Greg smiled. “The scholarship of the establishment? Good things come out of the colleges and universities, but not everything. There are still plenty of independent thinkers and entrepreneurs doing business in this world. Knight doesn’t have the formal credentials—he is largely self-taught—but that doesn’t stop him from using his head and doing the research to challenge conventional wisdom. Remember, Leonardo da Vinci had no formal education and look what he did!

Anyway, Knight points out that John has two functions in the Bible: to validate Jesus and to have a dramatic death. Working with Dr. Crook, Knight easily disproves the Salome story and shouldn’t that cause some suspicion about the first? And then there’s the business of the crucifixion: Knight asks who really was on the cross? That’s a question not many will dare to ask aloud.” Then he stopped to take a breath. By this time, Margaret and Julie had paused in their conversation and were listening too. “There is one other thing.” He had everyone’s attention. “Look at the picture of John on the cover again.” “Why didn’t he paint him with his head on a platter like most artists do?” Mitchell muttered as he looked at it again before passing it around so Margaret and Julie take a look too. “Da Vinci never painted John’s head on a platter,” Greg chuckled. “Maybe for a reason. Anyway, where’s his right hand?” “Pointing at the cross,” said Mitchell.

“The symbol of the crucifixion,” remarked Margaret. Greg nodded. “Now look at his left hand. What’s it doing?” Mitchell had the book now and studied the picture closely. He looked up at Greg in surprise. “It’s pointing to himself!” “What does that suggest?” Greg asked with a sly grin. “That it is someway related to himself,” said Mitchell carefully. “Good Lord! It could mean that he is saying that it was he was put on the cross! That’s incredible!”  “At least in da Vinci’s mind,” Margaret reminded everyone. “There are also questions about Roman law at the time,” Greg continued. “Roman law?” echoed Mitchell.

“Yeah. At the time, Roman citizens sentenced to die were not crucified, just beheaded. Josephus mentions John’s death at Macherus and others say he was beheaded then, like a Roman citizen, which he was not… It all just doesn’t add up.” “And Paul claimed Roman citizenship and was beheaded instead of being crucified,” mused Mitchell remembering his Sunday school lessons as a boy. “And that,” put in Julie who glanced proudly at her husband before smiling at Mitchell, “opens the door for a lot of other questions and mysteries.” “Yeah, there are a lot of other things that don’t add up in the official versions, leaving lots of room for speculation,” Greg said. “It’s really fascinating.” Ritchie was thoughtful for a few moments and then said slowly, “Yes, I can see that.” “And, can you believe this?” Greg stopped dramatically to make sure he had their attention. “This Knight fellow is not only a student of comparative religion, but also a well-known artist.’”

At that point, the waiter arrived at their table to ask about dessert and the conversation switched to other things. Mitchell’s curiosity had been aroused by the mystery of John the Baptist and it was still occupying a corner of his mind. He started to return the book to Greg, but Greg waved it back.

“Keep it,” he said, pleased that he had awakened the big ex-marine’s interest. “We have another copy in our luggage.” Mitchell thanked Greg and, amid the clatter of dishes, looked again at the portrait of John on the cover. John’s enigmatic smile reminded Mitchell of the famous smile on da Vinci’s earlier portrait, Mona Lisa. He looked at it again.

Was the Baptist smiling at him? Trying to tell him something? Why the strange position of the hands linking the cross to himself? Maybe it was the passion of the Baptist and not the Christ. Maybe something about it could be found in the book he was holding. He suddenly realized that the table talk had stopped and the others were staring at him. He put the book beside his napkin, keeping his hand on it protectively, and glanced around with a little embarrassment.  “Um, I was just thinking we should go back to the gallery after we finish here and maybe take another look at that picture and those hands.”

Greg smiled to himself. The mystery of John the Baptist explored by the book had caught Ritchie’s interest. Wait till he gets to the part about the crucifixion!

—Robert Bangor
© 2015, Robert Bangor

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