The Birth of John the Baptist – 24 June 2019

In this scene, busy with women, it is easy to miss the infant, newly born. His mother (Elizabeth), an older woman, lies in the bed. One midwife stretches out her arms, causing our eyes to move from left to right, where another midwife or wet-nurse holds the baby (John) to her breast. In the background a maid prepares refreshments for the mother. Three visitors, in highly fashionable contemporary dress (for the time of the painting) visit the new mother.

On the right of the picture (fresco) an attractive and lively young woman arrives with a platter of fruit on her head. If we look carefully we see that Elizabeth’s attention is on this arrival, and we notice that their clothes are painted using the same colour pigment, visually linking them together. Who is the young woman? She is reminiscent of the figure of Salome dancing in a picture by Fillipo Lippi. In a preparatory drawing for this fresco, the young woman carries the head of John the Baptist on her platter. It is women who enable John the prophet to be born, and women who are responsible for his death.

The picture is a fresco from the cycle on the Life of St John the Baptist (1486-90) by Domenico Ghirlandio , in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The three female figures standing in the center of the fresco are members of the Tornabuoni family.


When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

Luke 1:57-58

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of all their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

from the Benedictus

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Collect of The Birth of John the Baptist