In one of the pendentives of the cupola in the Parma Cathedral is the figure of St. John the Baptist reproduced in our illustration. The background is made to resemble somewhat the interior of a shell. On billows of clouds sits the prophet, with a lamb in his arms, and a circle of angels playing about him.

St. John the Baptist was a cousin of Jesus, and the first to recognize the true character of the carpenter's son. While Jesus was still living in obscurity in Nazareth, John went forth to preach in the wilderness about the river Jordan. His manner of life was very singular. He "had his raiment of camel's hair and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey."[28]

[28] St. Matthew, chapter iii., verse 4.

The preacher was stern in denouncing sin and in warning evil-doers of the wrath to come. The burden of all his sermons was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." When the people asked him what they ought to do, his answers were full of common sense. "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise." To the tax-collectors, he said, "Exact no more than that which is appointed you;" to the soldiers, "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely."[29]

[29] St. Luke, chapter iii.

The authorities sent from Jerusalem to question the claims of the strange preacher; but his reply was in the words of the old Hebrew prophet, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness."[30]

[30] St. John, chapter i., verse 23.

It was the custom of John to baptize his converts in the river Jordan. One day Jesus presented himself for baptism, and John saw in him one whose shoe's latchet he was not worthy to unloose. At once he proclaimed him to the people as the "Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world."[31]

[31] Ib., verse 29.

With the entrance of Jesus upon his ministry, John's work was fulfilled. "He must increase, but I must decrease," said the prophet humbly.[32] He was soon after cast into prison by King Herod, whose vices he had openly rebuked. Thence he was taken out only to be executed.

[32] St. John, chapter iii., verse 30.

It must be confessed that Correggio cared very little about making a true character study of St. John. There is not much in the figure of our pendentive to suggest the stern and fearless prophet of the wilderness. The humility of the countenance is perhaps the feature most appropriate to the character. The shy, haunting expression in the eyes is, too, such as belongs to one who, like St. John, lived much alone in the woods. The tunic is short and sleeveless, showing the strong limbs of the hermit.

Cathedral, Parma

For the rest, the Baptist's face has the same gentle amiability we have already seen in St. Matthew and Joseph. The type is a common one with Correggio. A certain resemblance runs through nearly all his male figures, whether of smooth-faced youth, bearded manhood, or hoary old age.

The tenderness of St. John for his little lamb is the chief motive of the picture. He carries it on his left arm, supporting the weight on his knee, and the innocent creature puts its nose close to the prophet's face. The lamb is the accepted symbol of St. John the Baptist, in allusion to the words with which he addressed Jesus at the Jordan, "Behold the lamb of God." The same figure is used in the book of Revelation, where the Lamb is described "in the midst of the throne." Standing for the person of Christ himself, St. John holds the sacred emblem with reverence. To understand why his face is lifted in this direction we must remember that his glance is directed toward the vision in the dome just above.

The angel figures of this pendentive are among the most beautiful and characteristic of the myriad throng of the cupola. The impression made by this great spirit company upon one standing beneath the dome has been described in some lines by Aubrey de Vere:—

"Creatures all eyes and brows and tresses streaming,
By speed divine blown back; within all fire
Of wondering zeal, and storm of bright desire.
Round the broad dome the immortal throngs are beaming,
With elemental powers the vault is teeming;
We gaze, and gazing join the fervid choir,
In spirit launched on wings that ne'er can tire."

While the spirits in the upper part of the cupola are massed so closely together that we do not see the full beauty of each one, these in our picture may be studied separately. There are six in all, and their purpose is to call the attention of the worshippers to the prophet. The two in the rear, whose bodies are hidden in the clouds, gaze upon him adoringly. One on each side points with outstretched finger to the lamb, as if repeating the Baptist's words, "Behold the lamb of God." The angel astride the cloud in front was interrupted in the same task by a little fellow suddenly shooting out from the clouds beneath him. He peers into the opening at one side, but still lifts his left hand towards the prophet above him.

The six figures are arranged in a semicircle, and their slender limbs and lithe bodies trace rhythmic lines of grace. The most charming of the company is perhaps he at the right, whose eyes meet ours with a bewitching smile.