Advent, Day 11

LOOK: John the Baptist Receiving Instructions by David LaChapelle

LaChapelle, David_John the Baptist
David LaChapelle (American, 1963–), John the Baptist Receiving Instructions, 1985. Hand-painted negative.

A chronicler of pop culture, David LaChapelle is best known for photographing celebrities—Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Elton John, Courtney Love, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and so on. But he also maintains a fine-art photography practice, creating pieces that regularly reference religion and the metaphysical. His style is highly saturated and dramatic and combines elements of surrealism and pop art. He has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

In this photograph, John the Baptizer hears from God, his eyes rolled back as if in a trance. Perhaps he is receiving words for a sermon—he was a fiery preacher of repentance—or the call to rebuke the tetrarch Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife to marry his brother’s ex. He holds a palm branch, a symbol of martyrdom. For speaking truth to power, John literally lost his head.

(Related posts: “Behold!”; “Prepare the Way”)

LISTEN: “He’s a Keeper of the Fire” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, on Illuminations (1969)

He’s as heavy as a lead weight, baby
He’s as skinny as a wire
He’s a prophet of a new day, baby
He’s a keeper of the fire

He’s got a funny kinda voodoo, baby
You oughta see him at the zoo
He’s got a heavy kinda hoodoo, baby
And he can lay it on you

He can say it like an angel, baby
He can say it like a blowhorn
He can see a-seven devils, baby
And never even give a whole turn

Been haunted like a razor, baby
He’s been tested in the blood
He’s a walker on the hot coals, baby
And he’s a-heavenly bound

I saw him walkin’ in the valley, baby
I could see him through the trees
I saw him talkin’ to the moon there, baby
He was walkin’ on his knees

He can play it like a rainbow, baby
He can play it like a clown
He can play it like a river, baby
And he can follow you down

He’s as heavy as a lead weight, baby
And he’s as skinny as a wire
He’s a prophet of a new day, baby
He’s a keeper of the fire

Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Indigenous Canadian American singer-songwriter, visual artist, and social activist. I’ve not found any indication that she wrote this song with John the Baptizer in mind, but boy does that reading seem to fit! The wild-eyed, desert-dwelling, locust-eating ascetic, burning with a heavenly ardor and treading flat the valleys to make way for his cousin Jesus. John prophesies a new day coming, one involving judgment. He carries the weight of this message. Unfazed by societal ridicule, he continues on in communion with God, inviting folks down to the river to be baptized—cleansed of their sin and awakened to new life, in preparation for the coming of Christ.

It’s worth noting that other songs on Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations center on biblical figures—namely, “Adam” and “Mary.” And the opening track is “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” (brilliantly covered earlier this year by Chris Thile).

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