In the Doni Tondo Michelangelo placed the Holy Family outside in a landscape. He used the setting of one of the most popular legendary subjects of the day, the encounter of the Holy Family with the infant John the Baptist on the return from their sojourn in Egypt. Obviously, the infant John had also been saved from the murderous designs of King Herod. While the Holy Family had fled to the safety of Egypt, popular legends recounted the escape of the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth by taking refuge in a desert cave or grotto.
Scripture does not record how long the Holy Family remained in Egypt but the legends claimed that when they finally did return to Judea, they encountered the young John the Baptist in the desert. The significance of the meeting was not lost on theologians, ordinary folk, and the artists who found a ready market for paintings of the meeting of the two infants.
The meeting in the desert was regarded as a precursor of the meeting at the Jordan some thirty years later that marked the beginning of the public life of Jesus. At the Baptism of Jesus, John had proclaimed, “behold the lamb of God”, a prophecy of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. When artists portrayed the two infants meeting and sometimes embracing in the desert, they were depicting the acceptance by Jesus of his sacrificial mission.
Leonardo’s so-called “Madonna of the Rocks” is a good example of the encounter with the young John the Baptist. Leonardo placed the meeting in the cave or grotto in which the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth took refuge. One version, now in London, even depicts the Baptist showing the little cross to the infant Jesus.
Leonardo’s equally famous depiction of Mary, her mother Anne, and the two young boys is also a version of the encounter in the desert. In the original cartoon Leonardo included the two boys but he substituted a lamb for the Baptist in the final version. Leonardo exhibited the cartoon on his return to Florence shortly before Michelangelo began working on the Doni Tondo but Michelangelo finished his painting before the completion of Leonardo’s final version.
In Michelangelo’s tondo the young John does not embrace or gambol with Jesus. Neither does he cozy up with the Holy Family or even join up with the group as he does in so many depictions. He stands behind or leans on a parapet that separates him from the Holy Family as if he were a member of a congregation. As Mary elevates her Child, it is as if John is observing the elevation of the Host at Mass. His words, “Behold the Lamb of God”, form part of the “Agnus Dei”, one of the most ancient prayers of the Mass.
The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was reenacted at every Mass. When the priest elevated the Host at the Consecration, the congregation could not only see the Host but also a crucifix on the wall above or hung on the altar screen. It is difficult to know what went through an ordinary person’s mind at that point in the Mass. Early in the twentieth century Pope Pius X urged Catholics not to bow in reverence but to look upon the elevated Host and say to themselves the words of doubting Thomas, “my Lord and my God.” But during the Renaissance we most likely have to turn to the artists for the answer. When John the Baptist approached Jesus either as a child in the desert or at the Jordan years later, his words, “behold the Lamb of God” called to mind the elevation of the Host at the Consecration.
There are points of comparison between Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and an earlier Florentine tondo by Luca Signorelli commonly called the Medici Madonna but actually a depiction of the return from Egypt. In the foreground the Madonna sits on the ground while her son appears to be taking his first step. St. Joseph is absent but a bust of John the Baptist as a man appears in the fictive frame above the tondo. Beneath the bust is a banner with the words “Ecce Agnius Dei”.
|Luca Signorelli: Medici Madonna|
Most scholars have noted that Michelangelo placed the Baptist in the midground of the Doni Tondo as a link between the Holy Family in the foreground and the five nude young men in the background of the Doni Tondo. It has been argued that the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Hebrew prophets, acts as a link between the Old and New Covenants.
In the background of the Signorelli tondo mentioned above there are also some practically nude young men in various poses. It has been argued that Michelangelo must have been aware of the Signorelli Medici Madonna. But in each case who are these nude young men, or what do they represent? This question is the one that seems to absorb modern scholarship the most, and I will turn to it in my next post.