01. Jerusalem – Tissot
Most of our pilgrimage will take us to villages and desert haunts, but the story itself opens in Jerusalem, within the massive temple complex, within the temple, within the sacred enclosure of the temple. French Bible illustrator James Tissot (1836-1902) has recreated the wider context for us in this gouache watercolor, painted as part of a series of three hundred, fifty pieces reconstructing the life of Jesus. Tissot is credited with being the first artist whose work paid painstaking attention to the archeological evidence that was available at the time.
02. The Angel Appears to Zechariah – Pisano
It is what is happening inside the temple that captures our attention. For that, we turn to one of the panels that grace the doors of the baptistery of the Florence Cathedral. The panel is by Andrea Pisano (1295-1348), and it, too is part of a series, this one containing twenty gilded bronze bas relief panels depicting the life of John. The old man Zechariah is serving as priest before the altar when his work is interrupted by a visitation from the angel Gabriel, who appears beside the altar, his right hand raised in greeting. Zechariah blanches at the sight, but is reassured: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”
03. The Angel Appears to Zechariah – Ghirlandaio
Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494) sets the scene within the chancel of a Christian cathedral; Zechariah is celebrating mass when the angel appears, this time resplendent in his rainbow colored wings.
Art critics have often remarked on the lines of dignitaries who have assembled here, no doubt at the insistence of the patron who funded the work. Historically such a grouping is probably impossible; while offering sacrifice within the sacred precinct of the temple, Zechariah would have been alone, and there would have been no one to observe the exchange with the angel. Yet in a sense we are there, too, vicarious participants in a profoundly holy and significant moment. Through the medium of the biblical narrative, we are allowed to overhear the angel, and to share Zechariah’s consternation.
The angel has made his appearance. Zechariah, startled, looks up from his ministrations. For a moment he is on hallowed ground, represented not only by the altar, but also by his bare feet. One is reminded of the voice Moses once heard from the burning bush in the book of Exodus:
“Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
The angel speaks only to him:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The anguish in Zechariah’s voice is palpable: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” It is an understandable hesitation; he and Elizabeth have tried for children for decades. They are righteous, God-fearing people, and yet this blessing has eluded them.
The observers in the nave seem unaware. Several are engaged in conversation, and none of the eyes are trained on the angel. They are there but they are not there. So Zechariah and the angel are alone after all. Ghirlandaio is signaling us from the 15th Century that one may well be influential enough to insist on being painted into a holy scene, but that does not make one holy. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was right: Earth may indeed be crammed with heaven, and yet only those who see take off their shoes.