Lorenzo and Jacopo Salimbeni, John and Jesus as Children, from The Life of John the Baptist
Oratory of St. John the Baptist, Urbino, Italy
The context of this image seems to be the return of the Holy
Family from Egypt after the death of Herod (Matthew 3:19-23). The ass, which is also seen in the background carrying Mary, is a standard element in Flight into Egypt images. Apparently the little red path at their feet will lead them across the Jordan, on the other side of which we can see Jerusalem in the background. To reach Israel from Egypt one does not need to cross the Jordan, but that is precisely the route by which the Israelites under Joshua entered the promised land (Joshua 3:14-17), so the route shown here may have typological significance.
As Mary and Jesus enter a wilderness teeming with wild animals, a very young John the Baptist kneels to greet them. Luke 1:80 says John "was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel." That explains the wilderness and the wild animals, but why would John have been there at such a young age? In the 3rd century St. Peter of Alexandria told a variant of the story in which Elizabeth fled with the baby when Herod ordered the slaughter of the innocents, and in anger the king then had Zechariah killed (The Canonical Epistle, canon xiii). In the 9th century Paulus Diaconus, surely relying on earlier sources, wrote a hymn in which John "sought the caves of the desert when of tender years." A modern Orthodox web site tells the story thus:
After the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ and the worship of the shepherds and the Magi, wicked king Herod gave orders to kill all male infants. Hearing about this, St Elizabeth fled into the wilderness and hid in a cave. St Zachariah was at Jerusalem and was doing his priestly service in the Temple. Herod sent soldiers to him to find out the abode of the infant John and his mother. Zachariah answered that their whereabouts were unknown to him, and he was killed right there in the Temple. Righteous Elizabeth continued to live in the wilderness with her son and she died there. The child John, protected by an angel, dwelt in the wilderness until the time when he came preaching repentance, and was accounted worthy to baptize the Lord.We do not see St. Joseph in what is left of the fresco, but quite possibly the artists had him on the other side of the ass. Unfortunately, the writing on the two scrolls is not legible except for the word SUM ("I am") on the one held by Jesus.
"Nativity of the Holy Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist"
Photographed at the oratory by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.