Jenny, we’re beginning our journey of the Baptist’s life with the time before he was even born. And for that reason, I wanted to bring you here to King’s College London, which is where I work and teach, and specifically here to the chapel. As you can hear, the choir are rehearsing. And they’re rehearsing a piece that’s enormously important in the church’s regular cycle of prayer and worship. It’s called the ‘Magnificat.’ It’s the song that the Virgin Mary, who is pregnant with Christ, utters when she meets her kinswoman Elizabeth.
Who is also pregnant with John the Baptist, so he’s present in the story, but not yet born. And this song is in part a response to the miraculous events that have surrounded both these two pregnancies, because Mary is a virgin and didn’t expect a child and she’s got a very special one, and Elizabeth thought she would never have a child, that she was barren, and yet she too is pregnant. And so as they meet, Mary is inspired to utter this extraordinary hymn of praise to God. We don’t know whether she actually sang it or not,.
But it’s in the Gospel of Luke in the form of a canticle and it’s exultant. As you can hear, the music often tries to accentuate just how joyous this piece of music is. And they’re singing in English. They are. But you described it as the ‘Magnificat’, so there’s a Latin version and this is the English version That’s true. Of course, for much of the church’s history, and still very often, Latin settings of it were the norm. But ‘Magnificat’, what does that refer to then Well the word is odd, it sounds a bit like magnificent, doesn’t it But actually it’s.
Episode 2 Visitation Saint John the Baptist From Birth to Beheading National Gallery, London
A verb and it means to praise or proclaim greatness to magnify in English, to magnify God. It’s proclaiming the greatness of God. As the canticle goes on, we hear of various revolutions in the world. Not just the miracle of these two pregnancies, but the fact that the rich are going to be put down and the poor are going to be raised up and the humble and meek are going to be given a new sort of liberation. That sense that the whole world is being turned on its head almost something that’s perfect for John the Baptist because.
He’s going to be a revolutionary figure. Precisely. And actually now, hearing you describe the ‘Magnificat’ and then hearing it, what immediately comes to my mind are representations of the Visitation. So that is the moment when the Virgin comes to the house of Elizabeth. Actually, the National Gallery has a few images like this. There’s one in particular I’d love to show you after we finish listening to the choir. It shows Elizabeth falling to her knees as the Virgin comes and welcomes her. Ben, I’ve had the Gallery bring this painting down. It’s not currently on display, but I’ve.
Asked them to put it on an easel, because this is the painting I had in mind when you were explaining to me the meaning in the words of the ‘Magnificat.’ It’s by an artist whose name we don’t know. We just know him as the Master of 1518 and it’s a fragment of an Altarpiece. As you were explaining to me this is the ‘Magnificat’ of the song sung daily, I just imagined people coming to pray in front of this altarpiece and having that in mind. In a way it’s a visualisation.
Precisely of that text, isn’t it Absolutely. This moment of meeting and the prominence of these two pregnant bellies too. Elizabeth is placing her hand on Mary’s and Elizabeth’s own is catching the light. There’s a sense that there’s a very special space being created between them. It’s a beautiful idea of coming together I think the artist has created. You can imagine that the Virgin has travelled afar from the city of Nazareth and taken this path, as it has this kind of winding path of her greeting. then Elizabeth has come down those steps and out of the house to greet her cousin. This.
Is a joyous occasion, isn’t it Yes, and our eye almost has to make the journey and be part of the pilgrimage. I think that would probably be the intention of the artist as well. Really visualizing what this moment was like for the two women. Yes. The space even between them has a sense of huge anticipation, a space that something is going to happen. Charged. It’s a charged space, yes. It seems to me that the circling of their arms gives a sort of visualisation of a circle of cause and effect between the different significant characters.
In this scene beginning with the Christ Child in Mary’s womb who, as we know from the Gospel account, stimulates John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb to leap in recognition. It’s as if he’s already doing what he’ll do later in life and pointing to Christ. He, in turn, stimulates Elizabeth to utter her own loud exclamation, Blessed are you among women. She utters it to Mary. Her mouth is open there, so you can imagine she’s fallen to her knees and she’s uttering those words. Yes. And even those words are terribly important in Christian tradition, because they become.
Part of the Hail Mary. Then Elizabeth’s utterance, filled with the Holy Spirit as she is according to the Gospel, makes Mary respond with her ‘Magnificat’. So the circle is complete. So it’s a sort of a double moment of recognition. The two women are meeting, and recognizing that each other are pregnant. Actually, it’s the first meeting of the two unborn children, isn’t it Absolutely. Actually, according to the Gospel accounts, the second meeting is actually at the Baptism. So, there’s this interesting combination here of the unborn children and almost you can.
Anticipate the next time they will meet if you know the accounts. And interestingly, the National Gallery owns an Italian picture dating from around the same time as this northern picture that includes both the Visitation and the Baptism. So I’ve asked the Gallery to bring it down if you just have a look over here. So this is Zaganelli’s 1514 altarpiece. And as I mentioned, it has this curious combination of both the Visitation with the Virgin and Elizabeth on the left, and the Baptism. Then some music playing angels, and an angel hovering down at the centre, as well.
And Mary and Elizabeth instantly recognizable partly in terms of their different ages. Again, the miracle of the Virgin birth and the miracle of the birth of the woman so old she is thought to be barren. Her face is visibly that of an older woman. Unlike the Master of 1518 where they’re sort of embracing and celebrating in their pregnancy. Here, it’s both the Visitation and sort of the next moment, if you will. Look at the gesture of Elizabeth pointing forward to the Baptism. It’s as if that intimate space they created between them suddenly gets opened out to us.
Also, there’s a pointing forwards by Elizabeth which curiously anticipates a gesture the Baptist will be associated with, that pointing gesture. She’s sort of almost a prophet herself, isn’t she, in this respect A prophetess And what’s being disclosed as her arm moves open is the visibility of the future, which is currently invisible in their wombs. It’s as if the invisible is becoming visible in this single painting, isn’t it You can image that being such a challenge for artists, how to represent the invisible visibly. And that’s actually a theme that I think we’ll revisit throughout these segments,.
Of how artists face that challenge throughout the life of the Baptist. Yes, and I suppose prophets have to do that too. They have to conjure up for people a vision of something that is not yet. And I feel as though these two parents, these two mothers, are performing the prophetic function John will grow into. But there’s another prophet who’s not present in the picture, but very important to John’s story. That’s his dad, isn’t it Zacharias, yes. We will be examining the role of Zacharias in both the birth and naming.