The Birth of John the Baptist
Desco da parto
Oil on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 1532
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. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’ Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbours were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.
John was born into a priestly family in Ein Karem, about seven kilometres west of Jerusalem. His father, Zechariah was of the Abia class, while his mother Elizabeth, was descended from Aaron. The two were observant of the laws of the Old Testament but had no children, as Elizabeth was no longer fertile and ‘both of them were ahead in their years.’ John the Baptist’s conception is therefore marked by a prodigious event. One day, while Zechariah was selling incense at the Temple, a messenger of God, the archangel Gabriel, appeared before him, and said, ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will give you a son whom you will call John.’ Zechariah, incredulous at the announcement of his unexpected fatherhood, expressed his doubts to the angel, who punished him for his hesitation, condemning him to remain deaf and dumb until John’s birth. The scene painted by Pontormo, commonly referred to as the Nativity, also depicts the child’s circumcision, which took place eight days after the joyous event. Zechariah is depicted writing the name of his son, John, under Elizabeth’s attentive gaze, which means, ‘the Lord gives grace.’ A maid approaches the infant, another standing behind her, and checks his writing. The circular format frames a sober, composed environment where the only liveliness is offered by the child’s pose, who is attempting to escape the nurse’s grip.