A boy, dressed as Saint John the Baptist for a procession in Venice. Wood engraving by W. Hollidge after F.W.W. Topham, 1870.

  • Topham, Frank William Warwick, 1838-1924.
18 June 1870
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St. John's day, Venice. The Church ceremonies, pageants, and processions on various saints' days in Italy are always striking, but often grotesque, and, to the Protestant mind, sometimes bordering even on blasphemy. Like the miracle play at Ammergau, they are doubtless. in many cases, relics of the Middle Ages, and, as such, strange anachronisms in the nineteenth century. We are not very familiar with Church ceremonies in Italy out of Rome; indeed, an acquaintance with them all over the peninsula would be impossible, for they vary in every town. The intention is very plain, however, of the ceremony of the procession represented in this very clever picture (which we have engraved from the Academy Exhibition) by Mr. F. W. W. Topham, a rising young artist, son of the well-known painter in water colours of the same surname. It is the festival of St. John the Baptist at Venice, and, in accordance with the aim and policy of the Romish Church--ever seeking to render every Biblical incident or Church tradition obvious to the senses--a little rough urchin of the people has been selected to impersonate the youthful precursor of Christ--he who was bred in the wilderness, who was "clothed with camels' hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins, and who did eat locusts and wild honey." To realise this description of John, the boy is paraded naked with the exception of a sheep's skin fastened round his middle. A lamb is also taken to accompany the boy. as an emblem of Him whom the Baptist apostrophised in the text, "Behold the Lamb of God!" The intended significance of the priestly arrangements is, however, sorely perverted by the refractoriness of both boy and lamb. "Some have greatness thrust upon them" is the motto quoted by Mr. Topham in the catalogue, but greatness in this instance is neither appreciated nor welcome. Nature, always in opposition to superstition and priestcraft, here asserts itself. The lamb will not proceed quietly alone, nor will the boy lead it by the cord. Both are equally recalcitrant to the blandishments and threats of the ecclesiastical dignitaries about them. Possibly the boy has heard that St. John's head was cut off, and is therefore in mortal dread lest the same fate should terminate his impersonation of the saint. But we suspect that his objections to the awful ordeal he has to pass through--to find himself (perhaps conscience-smitten as a discovered culprit) in the novel position of being eyed by a thousand observers--arise mainly from the timidity or perversity common to boys all the world over. The eyes which the little blubberer turns up towards us seem, however, to distinctly twinkle with something of malicious devilry, and even of that depth of wickedness the depraved little hypocrite may possibly be capable."—Illustrated London news, loc. cit.


[London] : [Illustrated London news], 18 June 1870.

Physical description

1 print : wood engraving ; image 32.7 x 23.5 cm


St. John's day, Venice by F.W.W. Topham. See page 642. W. Hollidge.


Wellcome Collection 564532i



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