St. John (1984)

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One of the earliest paintings in the Chapel Series, St. John is a portrait of a homeless man that Cobb met on St. John’s Avenue in Austin. The links to name “John” are strengthened since the background is the confluence of the San Juan (i.e. “St.. John”) and Green Rivers in Utah above Lake Powell. The imagery of John the Baptist is somewhat traditional. His right hand points upward to signify the new life of the resurrection. His left hand faces downward and indicates death.

But the dominant theme is one of homelessness. John the Baptist was willing to be homeless to bring in the Kingdom. And, as Cobb remarked, “There is an advantage to being homeless: that you are ready to do the Lord’s work.” But a deeper and more profound truth remains; in fact, we are all homeless, looking for the lasting city that is to come (Hebrews 13:14).

Here is an example of the layering of meaning: Cobb has shown great technical expertise in the construction of this work in the depth and detail of the egg tempera and the squares of gold leaf. But what does each component signify? Pigments from the earth, mixed with egg yolk seem to hearken back to man’s creation from the ground itself (Gen 2:7), recalling the wonder that all humans are made of dust, yet are also in the Imago Dei (Gen1:27), and crowned with gold, since God has “made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5). As in many other paintings of John the Baptist, this man—the homeless “John”—points the way to heaven, to the resurrection, and to the new life in Christ. And he also has his left palm facing down, reminding us of the victory over death for those who believe. Yet Cobb’s theme is more subtle still: like this man, we are all, in some sense, sojourners here. Like the Baptist, and like Jesus, we should never feel entirely at home in this life. We are all homeless and should be ready to act fearlessly and freely in the giving of ourselves to God and to others.