The Saint who baptized Christ
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‘Prophet,’ ‘ardent light,’ ‘friend of the bridegroom,’ ‘the herald of Christ’ and ‘the forerunner’ are all words used to describe John the Baptist in the gospels. Western art has dedicated more space and time to John the Baptist over the centuries than any other saint. What follows is a journey through the Uffizi Galleries collections in order to aid your understanding of the rich wealth of imagery dedicated to John the Baptist since the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century. John the Baptist was a lively, charismatic man, who could also be curt and uncompromising, and he represents the link between the Old and New Testaments, and between ancient Jewish traditions and Jesus’ revolutionary message, in a historic era in which the Middle East was pervaded by upheaval, social unrest, and an eager wait for the spiritual and moralistic rebirth alluded to by ancient prophets.
Christianity depicts John the Baptist in a supporting role, alongside Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. This depiction is based on precise accounts by witnesses to the gospel that testify to his birth into a priestly lineage, and to a life spent in isolation and then dedicated to preaching, before his final beheading on the orders of Herod Antipas. John’s is a measured story, and one that is dominated by the act of baptism itself, a rite of very ancient origins with a purifying, symbolic value. This was to be John’s most important calling, which is why he is most frequently referred to as ‘the Baptist,’ and identified as such in imagery that has largely remained unchanged over the centuries. Said iconography focuses on Jesus’ immersion in the water, a fateful moment that marks the passing of the baton from one protagonist to the next. It was the hagiographic sources that followed – from early Christianity and the early Middle Ages onwards – that littered John’s life with new stories, filling in gaps left by the gospels with fictional narratives, such as a childhood touched by an awareness of his calling, the search for solitude and encounters with the supernatural. These sources also focused on his developing relationship with Jesus beyond the limits of the gospels. This rich collection of stories – and the extraordinary dispersal of ‘authentic’ relics – contributed to an iconography that gradually adapted to fit in with the architectural and decorative styles of churches at the time, as well as doctrinal interpretations and the needs of worship. The result is an uninterrupted chain of effigies, some more symbolic than others – as in the case of the Orthodox and Byzantine Deesis, John the Baptist depicted as an angel, and the impressive ‘platters’ featuring his decapitated head (Joahannessschussel) – and some intended for educational purposes, such as the episode of him ‘preaching to the crowds.’
- 2/36Intro /2
From the fifteenth century onwards, imagery tended to focus on St. John as a young boy, dressed in camel hair and flaunting a slenderness owed to his repeated trips to the desert from an early age. Florentine art writers at the time referred to this subject as ‘San Giovannino,’ in specific reference to his being under ten years of age. It was in this form that Donatello, Desiderio and Michelangelo chose to depict John in their sculptures and Filippo Lippi, Leonardo, Carlo Dolci chose to depict him in their paintings.
Our journey starts with the most famous depiction of a young St. John the Baptist in the Uffizi Galleries, one created by Raphael in Rome in around 1518. This particular painting is known for its immature and slightly brazen depiction of a perfect body, through which all knowledge and studies of ancient history conducted in a Rome governed by Leo X are brought to life with a certain tenderness. This theme is also connected to another important occasion, 24 June, which was the day chosen to celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist, Florence’s principle protector. John’s role as a guardian was established right from the city’s very beginnings, not only in terms of his religious value, but also in civic and political terms. The countless diaries, chronicles and stories written in thirteenth-century Florence provide a brilliant account of what happened during those festivities, from crowds gathered in the Duomo, to festive decorations, processions led by the clergy and lay people, brigades, a candle-lit ceremony in the Baptistery, and palio races through the city markets. It was a real theatrical scene, and one that was repeated many times over the years. The celebration is perhaps best told through the words of the fourteenth-century chronicler, Goro Dati: “When spring comes, which causes everyone to rejoice, every Florentine begins to think about cooking a wonderful feast for Saint John; with clothing and decorations and joy. Everyone puts themselves in good order... and the whole city dedicates itself to celebrations and festivities.”
- 3/36Intro /3
St. John the Baptist
Oil on canvas
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 1446
John sits on a rock enveloped in a warm light, allowing his body to stand out from the craggy brown backdrop – a technique inspired by Leonardo’s teachings. The young man establishes a silent dialogue with the viewer, inviting us to look at the symbols accompanying his time spent in isolation in the desert. His hand is raised and points to a tall wooden cross tied to a tree trunk (a reference to Jesus’crucifixion in Golgotha).Water flows into a clear pool on the left, alluding to the purity of Christ and the baptism he receives from John. The scroll in John’s right hand bears the word DEI, the final part of the phrase ECCE AGNUS DEI, which, according to the gospels, John uttered to Christ upon his baptism, thereby recognising him as the Messiah and saviour of men. On the right-hand side, the rocky terrain yields to a lake bordered by a forest, which gives way to distant mountain peaks. This is a nod to John’s time spent in isolation, which occurred in adulthood according to the canonical gospels, but which medieval and Renaissance hagiographic sources prefer to attribute to his childhood and adolescence to greater emphasise his early calling.
- 4/36Intro /3
Despite the complex network of symbols and references to sacred history, Raphael chooses to interpret certain passages from the gospels more freely, such as the boy’s clothing. In this particular painting, John is not wearing a camel hair as the scriptures dictate, but is instead wrapped in a precious leopard skin. This is a luxurious detail, and one that Raphael had already included in a painting of the young Saint John entitled Madonna dell'Impannata, in which he plays the role of witness to the formidable love of three female figures for the baby Jesus. The positioning of John’s limbs is reminiscent of a famous statue of Laocoön, while his protruding right foot – as in the Giove Ciampolini– is a reference to the classical world, which Raphael hoped to modernise and make familiar with his typical sympathetic poetics of affection and feeling. It was precisely this sense of fusion and continuity between ancient and modern cultures that marked the extraordinary years of Leo X’s pontificate, an era which saw Raphael complete his final two rooms at the Vatican, the Logge and a series of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. This impressive depiction of Saint John can be found at the Uffizi Galleries and went on to inspire numerous other paintings. It was commissioned by Cardinal Pompeo Colonna following his appointment in 1517 and was subsequently acquired by the Medici collections.
- 5/36I. St. John the Baptist. An icon of faith
Giovanni del Biondo
St. John the Baptist and stories from his life
Tempera on panel, gold background
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, Coll. Contini Bonacossi inv. no. 27
John the Baptist is depicted with a beard and long, unkempt hair, his face marked by wrinkles, a reference to a life of penance dedicated to God since childhood. He may have been a Nazirite, i.e. a member of the Jewish people consecrated to God at a young age and required to follow specific precepts, such as not cutting one’s hair or drinking wine.
Under his himation – a garment worn by ancient Greeks and often seen in depictions of the apostles – he wears a rough, camel hair tunic held together by animal skin, which mimics his description in the gospels (Matthew 3:4, Mark 1:6 ). This garment renders John a prophet – in line with various passages from the Bible (2 Kings 1:8; Zechariah 13:4) – and consistently features in depictions of the saint and the hermits in general. In Giovanni del Biondo’s painting, John the Baptist is holding a scroll inscribed with EGO VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO (I am the voice crying in the desert, John 1:23), which is a direct quote from the gospels. Together with the cross in his right hand, this proclamation identifies John as the forerunner sent to announce the advent of the Kingdom of Heaven and to prepare for the coming of Christ. Here, John is shown standing triumphantly over King Herod Antipas, his executioner, which is somewhat of an iconographic rarity. The king is holding a cartouche in which he expresses repentance for the sinful, cruel life he has led, using the words uttered by the wicked before judgment, “NON INSENSATI VITA ILLORUM EXTIMABAMUS INSANIAM ET FINEM ILLORUM SINE HONORE ECCE QUOMODO COMPUTATI SUNT INTER FILIOS DOMINI ET INTER SANCTOS SORS ILLORUM EST” (We foolishly considered their life to be madness and their end to be without honour. Behold, how they are numbered among the children of God, and their lot is among the saints - Book of Wisdom 5:4-5).
- 6/36I. St. John the Baptist. An icon of faith
Giovanni del Biondo
The saint himself is surrounded by scenes from his life, from his prodigious conception by his elderly parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, to a period spent praying, preaching and baptising people in the desert, up to his final moments spent imprisoned before his beheading at the hands of Herod, Salome and her mother, Herodias. John’s story ends with the descent of the risen Christ to the underworld (Harrowing of Hell) to free the righteous, among whom is John. This is the only episode that is not inspired by the gospels, but it was nevertheless very popular in the iconographic traditions of the Christian East and was based on the predictions of the prophet David, as mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (2:29-32).
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Saint John the Baptist - Angel of the Desert
Tempera on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, deposits, inv. 1890 no. 9366
John the Baptist is dressed in a camel hair tunic – often worn by the prophets and ascetics – over which a deep red himation is laid. He is depicted blessing people and carrying a bowl containing his severed head, a symbol of martyrdom and a reference to the relic of John’s skull, which is highly venerated in the Orthodox world, after its solemn journey to Constantinople in the ninth century. The inscription reads С(ВЯ)ТЫ ИОАНЪ ПР(Е)ДТЕЧА, which identifies him as Saint John the Forerunner. The saint stands barefoot on the earth with a large pair of colourful wings that depict him as the ‘angel of the desert.’ This particular iconography was widespread in the Christian East from the thirteenth century onwards (the oldest example of which can be found in the Church of St. Achillius, Arilje in Serbia) and celebrates John as a heavenly messenger preparing for the coming of Christ (from the Greek ἄγγελος, or messenger, from which the word angel derives). The image itself refers to the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi recounted in the gospels, ‘Behold I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare the way before thee’ (Matthew 3:2, 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). The image therefore celebrates John as the greatest of the prophets.
- 8/36I. St. John the Baptist. An icon of faith
Below John are two of the most well-known events to occur in his life, his birth, celebrated on 24 June, and his beheading, celebrated on 29 August. In the first scene, John lays next to his mother Elizabeth, while his father Zechariah stands to the side. On the right, the executioner is about to strike John with his sword, who is bowed with his hands crossed over his chest – a sign that he accepts his fate. To the right stands the young Salome with a platter, ready to collect John’s head, which she has requested from Herod Antipas in exchange for a dance performance. Inscriptions accompany the two episodes and identify the subjects (Nativity of Saint John the Forerunner; Beheading of the venerable Saint John the Forerunner), as well as the bowl containing John’s head held by the saint himself (Holy Head of John the Forerunner) and the figure of God above (The Lord Sabaoth).
- 9/36I. St. John the Baptist. An icon of faith
St. John the Baptist
Oil on panel
Gallerie degli Uffizi, Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, inv. Palatina 1912 no. 380
Depicted in a half-bust, three-quarter view, John the Baptist occupies the foreground, beguiling the spectator with his intense expression. His long, untidy hair, troubled look, and parted lips – as if he is about to speak – depict an icon of faith who ignited religious devotion and encouraged spiritual reflection and repentance.
The painting’s severe, tormented aspect evokes a period of intense loneliness spent in the desert, a circumstance symbolically represented by the camel hair outfit underneath John’s red tunic, and a crucifix composed of two simple reeds. The saint’s unkempt appearance juxtaposes his striking red robe – the colour of martyrdom – which is embellished with a decorative trim, golden damask embroidery and fringes. It is worn proudly by the Baptist, as if it were a cape. John holds a cartouche in his hand with a worn inscription that reads EGO (SUM) VOX (CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO), ‘I am the voice crying in the desert.’
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This is the proclamation with which John alludes to himself as the forerunner of the Messiah in the gospels. It is also the verse that explains the scene depicted in the background on the right, where an intense light ignites the sky and appears to come from a comet or meteor. Said light is a physical representation of the descent of the Holy Spirit when John baptises Jesus. It is therefore a manifestation of the divine presence that will accompany the lives of both men and a witness to the passing of the baton, thereby anticipating the sacrifice of both John, beheaded at the hands of Herod, and Jesus, condemned to die on the cross.
This painting was commissioned by Ercole II d'Este, as is evidenced by the inscription M. HERCULUS D. CA. on the back. Dosso’s personal style usually found expression in impressive paintings, consisting of feathery brushstrokes, with which he painted the misty undergrowth, pools of water, and sudden flashes of cosmological light in this artwork.
- 11/36II. The Birth and Childhood of John the Baptist
The Birth of John the Baptist
Desco da parto
Oil on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 1532
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’ Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbours were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.
John was born into a priestly family in Ein Karem, about seven kilometres west of Jerusalem. His father, Zechariah was of the Abia class, while his mother Elizabeth, was descended from Aaron. The two were observant of the laws of the Old Testament but had no children, as Elizabeth was no longer fertile and ‘both of them were ahead in their years.’ John the Baptist’s conception is therefore marked by a prodigious event. One day, while Zechariah was selling incense at the Temple, a messenger of God, the archangel Gabriel, appeared before him, and said, ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayer has been heard and your wife Elizabeth will give you a son whom you will call John.’ Zechariah, incredulous at the announcement of his unexpected fatherhood, expressed his doubts to the angel, who punished him for his hesitation, condemning him to remain deaf and dumb until John’s birth. The scene painted by Pontormo, commonly referred to as the Nativity, also depicts the child’s circumcision, which took place eight days after the joyous event. Zechariah is depicted writing the name of his son, John, under Elizabeth’s attentive gaze, which means, ‘the Lord gives grace.’ A maid approaches the infant, another standing behind her, and checks his writing. The circular format frames a sober, composed environment where the only liveliness is offered by the child’s pose, who is attempting to escape the nurse’s grip.Artwork detailsBirthing tray. Birth of St John the Baptist (back), coats of arms for the union of Girolamo della Casa and Lisabetta Tornaquinci (front)Architettura | Gli Uffizi
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Born six months before Jesus, to whom he is related, John becomes the forerunner the moment his conception is announced. The one who will have to ‘prepare a willing people for the Lord.’ His father, having recovered the power of speech, prophesises his destiny, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:76-77). We are given no further information about his childhood other than that, “the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” (Luke 1:80). Aside from the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist is the only saint whose liturgy celebrates his birth on 24 June, precisely because it is intrinsically linked to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.Artwork detailsBirthing tray. Birth of St John the Baptist (back), coats of arms for the union of Girolamo della Casa and Lisabetta Tornaquinci (front)Architettura | Gli Uffizi
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Adoration of the Baby Jesus with Saints John the Baptist and Bernard
Tempera on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 8353
John the Baptist bursts onto the scene to find the Virgin Mary in adoration of the Baby Jesus in a painting by Lippi inspired by Saint Brigid’s account of the Nativity, (14th century), which was a very popular figurative subject. The event takes place in a wild setting, with jagged rocks and woodland giving way to a flower meadow where the child lies. John the Baptist points to the child while pronouncing the words inscribed on his scroll, ECCE AGNUS DEI (John 1:29), thereby recognising the baby as the saviour. He also gestures to a pool of water flowing from the rocks between him and the Virgin Mary, which is most likely an allusion to Jesus as a source of eternal life (John 4:13) and to the sacrament of baptism. In line with a trope that saw great success in Florence in the fifteenth century, John the Baptist is depicted as a child dressed in a camel hair typically worn by the ascetics and prophets. Episodes relating to John’s childhood were taken from apocryphal texts and were popular and widespread in the Christian East in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with updated versions of John’s life giving rise to new figurative themes.
- 14/36II. The Birth and Childhood of John the Baptist
In Filippo Lippi’s painting, several trees have been cut away to make way for a path, which is a reference to a sermon given by John the Baptist in which he cites a need to cut down trees that do not bear good fruit (Matthew 3:10) as a means to promote penance and sincere conversion. A cross often accompanies depictions of John, especially in works from the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and those of Byzantine ancestry.
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In addition to John the Baptist, the founder of the Camaldolese order Romuald features in the background of this composition, absorbed in meditation. The sacred image is therefore an invitation to practice penance and meditation as a way to be closer to God, following the example of the saints John the Baptist and Romuald. The painting comes from the Camaldoli monastery, home of the religious order, and it once stood above the altar of a chamber dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and built by Piero il Gottoso de’ Medici in 1463 for use by the family. The coats of arms of Piero and his wife Lucrezia Tornabuoni originally adorned the altarpiece. Patron Saint of Florence, John the Baptist was a subject of particular devotion for Lucrezia, who also wrote a poem about him.
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The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (Panciatichi Holy Family)
Oil on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 n. 8377
And John came, fell to the ground and embraced the feet of Messer Jesu.
Anonymous, Life of Saint John the Baptist, Florence, 1500s
In an almost suspended atmosphere, a cold, intense light illuminates Mary – who has the appearance of a majestic, classical statue – while she and Joseph watch over a sleeping Baby Jesus, lying serenely on a pillow atop their travel bag. This detail, together with a background dominated by towering walls and the flag of Bartolomeo Panciatichi, suggests a connection to the Flight into Egypt, which medieval and Renaissance sources – perhaps in an effort to embellish the original story told in the gospels – identify as one of the very first occasions on which Jesus met John, who was sometimes miraculously transported by an angel to Egypt to be reunited with the Holy Family, or who was alternatively described as already residing in the desert that Mary, Jesus and Joseph traverse to return home.
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Sixteenth-century writings on the ‘Life of Saint John’ expand on the two children and their embraces upon meeting, recognising each other as carriers of a shared fate and martyrdom. Bronzino’s depiction, however, is dominated by Jesus’ deep slumber, over whom little John is gently bent in order to place a kiss on his cheek. Jesus’ pose symbolically anticipates the Deposition of Christ, while the formal references to classical sculpture and the Doni Tondo bear powerful witness to Bronzino’s primary sources. However, it is this very tender gesture – of both affection and reverence – that accentuates the sense of human familiarity in this painting, which was intended for private viewings by the artist’s erudite client, a Florentine academic who existed on the fringes of the religious turmoil and reform that were dominant in Italy in the mid-sixteenth century.
- 18/36III. The Life of St. John the Baptist: Preaching
John the Baptist Preachin
Oil on copper
Uffizi Galleries, Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, inv. Palatina 1912 no. 291
This account of John the Baptist preaching and meeting with crowds who have travelled from Israel to listen to him speak and be baptised, is one of the most pertinent passages of the gospel, as it defines the context in which his crucial encounter with Jesus would take place – a baptism in the waters of the River Jordan and the passing of a baton that would initiate the final, tragic part of their short lives, destined to end in martyrdom. The wealth of details included in the sacred texts lent themselves to emotional images animated by landscapes and narrative digressions that were usually contemporary to the world of the artist, as is often the case in Nordic paintings, in particular.
Alessandro Allori’s small copper artwork is a typical product of Counter-Reformation art, in which a devotional system is combined with a need for clarity of representation. A muscular John the Baptist stands out due to his expressive gesture, enchanting the crowds who have rushed to listen to him. Some are engrossed, some are enraptured, such as the woman on the left, dressed in sixteenth-century robes, who is attracting the attention of distracted companions. In the foreground, two men with books and inkwells impersonate the evangelists, entrusted to pass on the tale of this extraordinary event to future generations, which is set not in the desert, but in a damp, dewy mountain forest.
- 19/36III. The Life of St. John the Baptist: Preaching
On the left, behind the bald man in a yellow cloak, we can see the bowl with which John baptises Jesus. It is simply resting on a stone, but nevertheless foreshadows the arrival of Jesus and his disciples, who appear in the background of the painting, behind a dry, hollowed-out tree trunk, which is a reference to a saying by John the Baptist, “And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
- 20/36IV. The Life of St. John the Baptist: Baptism
Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci and collaborators
Baptism of Christ
Tempera and gold on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 8359
Jesus and John stand with their feet immersed in the River Jordan, while John pours water on the head of the Son of God from a bowl, according to the rite of baptism by infusion. In Florence, this practice almost entirely replaced baptisms by immersion from the fourteenth century onwards.
Above them shines the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, above whom we can see the hands of God. The main textual source for this depiction is the gospels (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22), which tell of how the sky opened up after the Baptism of Jesus, and the Spirit Saint and dove descended, accompanied by the voice of God. As such, the Holy Trinity manifests itself here at the moment of baptism, as was widely argued by the Church Fathers.
- 21/36IV. The Life of St. John the Baptist: Baptism
Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci and collaborators
On the left, two angels kneel, holding Jesus’ clothes and devoutly observing the scene with their hands crossed over their breast as a sign of acceptance of the divine. The angels are not mentioned in the canonical gospels nor in the apocrypha, but they have appeared in numerous depictions of the Baptism of Jesus since the fifth century and can be traced to the Christian East. They are perhaps intended as a prefiguration of the angels who served Jesus at the end of the temptations inflicted by the devil during his forty days spent in the desert, immediately after his baptism (Matthew 4:11). They may also be a reference to the ritual of baptism itself, during which the bishop would be assisted by deacons. The angels hold Jesus’ clothes, a sign of the Son of God’s new life.
- 22/36IV. The Life of St. John the Baptist: Baptism
Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo da Vinci and collaborators
Verrocchio’s composition, which took several years to complete and required the help of several collaborators, including a young Leonardo da Vinci, is framed by rocks and various plants, including a palm tree on the left – a symbol of glory.
- 23/36IV. The Life of St. John the Baptist: Baptism
Baptism of Christ
Oil on canvas
Uffizi Galleries, Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, inv. Palatina 1912 no. 186
I baptise you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
St. John the Baptist is a recurring presence in Veronese’s catalogue, both as a protagonist (as in La Predica at the Galleria Borghese in Rome), a co-protagonist (as in multiple depictions of the Baptism of Christ) and as a prestigious addition to compositions of wider involvement.
When looking specifically at paintings by Veronese that tackle a similar subject, it appears the artist’s intentions with this particular work were to encapsulate his past experience. The artist focuses his attention on the foreground, which is free from structural distractions such as landscapes or client intrusions. The centrality of the Holy Trinity is confirmed by the triad of angels, as well as the extended axis leading from the dove to the baptism bowl and the head of Christ, all of which are also partially linked by a tree trunk. This tells us that Veronese chose to focus on the Baptism of Christ as told by the synoptic gospels, not only eliminating irrelevant details, but also returning to depict Christ stood with his arms crossed, a pose with which he experimented in his youth. This is a very significant detail as it alludes to Jesus’ crucifixion, and reminds us that baptism represents its foreshadowing. By choosing to be baptised in the River Jordan due to its cleansing properties, as John did with his followers, Jesus agrees to share the sins of men, embarking on a path of suffering and redemption that would ultimately culminate on the cross. This fate has already been sealed by the voice of the Father and proclaimed by the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, who together along with Jesus, comprise the Holy Trinity, thereby fulfilling John’s prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah as ‘the one who is baptised with the Holy Spirit and fire.’
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The painting was originally kept in the Oratory of the Fiorentini confraternity in Ancona. An inscription on the back tells us that it was repaired due to ‘damage caused by mice, damp, and other disasters.’ In fact, it had already been damaged numerous times by the time it arrived in Florence in 1667, following its purchase by Ferdinando II de’ Medici. The Grand Duke, who was passionate about Venetian painting, assigned it a privileged spot in the Tribuna, but first sent it to Baldassarre Franceschini, AKA il Volterrano, to ‘tidy it up’ and carry out conservative restorations. Franceschini also designed a new frame, which was made by Jacopo Maria Foggini. Shortly thereafter, in 1699, Grand Prince Ferdinand expressed an interest in the painting, wanting it for his collection and commissioning Niccolò Cassana to tighten and stretch the canvas.
- 25/36V. The Death of St. John: a Beheading
Lucas Cranach the Elder
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Uffizi Galleries, Department of Prints and Drawings, inv. 3146 st. sc.
So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
One of the aspects of Saint John the Baptist’s life that most fascinated artists of various eras was his grizzly end – death by beheading.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, who addressed the theme in around 1513, worked at the court of Frederick III of Saxony in Wittemberg at the time, where he strengthened his friendship with Martin Luther, thereby becoming an important painter and populariser of the Protestant Reformation. The events of St. John fitted in well with this context, as they represented an example of moral strength against worldly corruption. His virtuous figure contrasted strongly with that of Salome, who had requested his beheading at the whim of her vindictive mother, Herodias, whose sinful marriage to Herod Antipas had been criticised by John.
- 26/36V. The Death of St. John: a Beheading
Lucas Cranach the Elder
Texts have no qualms in revealing the bloodiest details. In the foreground, a soldier picks up the saint’s severed head to offer it to Salome. The girl appears on the right, escorted by armed men and followed by handmaids with a platter in hand, ready to accept her macabre trophy. In the centre is John the Baptist’s headless body, soiled by blood flowing copiously from his neck. The soldiers appear bored, observing a rather routine scene, indifferent to the drama that has just taken place, while the executioner scrupulously returns his sword to its scabbard.
A few years earlier, Cranach chose to focus on the same subject, dwelling on the moment immediately preceding it, when John the Baptist meets Salome’s gaze for the last time before the sword puts an end to his life. The subsequent moment is tackled by the artist in a slightly later painting preserved in Kroměříž Castle (Inv. KE 2367), in which Herodias’ daughter has already collected his head on a platter. The following scene – which sees Salome return to the palace to interrupt her mother’s meal with her second husband – is tackled in various pictorial depictions of Herod’s Banquet (including in the Gemäldegalerie - Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Inv. 3567 and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Inv. 1936.339).
As such, stories of John the Baptist recur in graphic, pictorial works created by Cranach and others at his workshop, as does the figure of a triumphant woman, who is depicted either in fashionable clothes or nude and adorned with contemporary accessories, such as Giuditta, Venus or – precisely – Salome, who is shown in a feathered headdress, dress and jewels in a woodcutting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (Inv. 132)
In the lower right-hand corner appears a small dragon, the artist’s emblem.
- 27/36V. The Death of St. John: a Beheading
Oil on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 5374
John the Baptist’s beheading was a very popular subject in the Middle Ages and beyond, gaining traction in early sixteenth-century Italian art, and in northern regions in particular. Compared to other narrative variations, such as that of Bernardino Luini, whose depiction can also be found in the Uffizi collection (sheet LINK), attention here is paid entirely to Salome – who sits isolated against a dark background – and the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Emphasis is placed on Salome’s uncertain grip and her downward, repulsed gaze, showing Herodias’ daughter to be somewhat ‘demure,’ despite her request – as told in the Gospels of Mark (Mark 6:14-29) and Matthew (Matthew 14:1-12) – to have John the Baptist’s head delivered to her on a platter. The sensitivity alluded to in this painting is entirely foreign to that of her wicked mother, and seems to find extension in the typically Nordic background, and its juxtaposition with the direction of the balustrade-handrail and platter. The mighty head of John the Baptist, which has strong physiognomic features and is rather large in size, might instead allude to the role of John as told by both Mark and Matthew at the beginning of the story of his martyrdom, whereby Herod affirms that he is the Baptist ‘risen from the dead’ in the face of Jesus’ growing fame and miracle powers (Matthew 14:1-3).
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The painting is mentioned several times in the Medici inventories, which document movements between collections and changing attributions. Registered at the Casino di San Marco in the legacy of Carlo de’ Medici with the title Herodias and first attributed to Giovan Francesco Penni (1666), it was later sent to the Uffizi (1667) and attributed to Pontormo (1704 ). Transferred to Pitti in the second half of the eighteenth century (1761), it returned to the Uffizi, where it was attributed to Federico Barocci (1795). This muddle of attributions was later resolved by Roberto Longhi, who put forward the name of the Spanish painter Alonso Berruguete in the 1950s, dating its execution to around 1514, during a crucial era in Florence, which started in 1508, but anticipated and deviated (in 1510) from the Roman experience. The devices used by Berruguete in this painting were in fact influenced by the masters he admired at the time, whose works he was able to view in the flesh. His techniques were most strongly influenced by Raphael’s The Parnassus, exhibited in the Vatican Rooms, and Michelangelo’s works in the Sistine Chapel, which Berruguete reinterpreted with originality and ‘a freedom of influence,’ which Longhi attributes to artists at the time who had no qualms about drawing on the repertoire of Italian art, particularly those working in Spain.
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Salome receives the head of John the Baptist
Oil on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Gallery of Statues and Paintings, inv. 1890 no. 1454
This painting by Bernardino Luini belongs to an extensive catalogue of artworks depicting Salome with the head of John the Baptist. It was a very prevalent subject among Lombardy’s artistic circles at the turn of the sixteenth century (a movement with which Leonardo da Vinci was often associated), and its popularity is most likely linked to Aimery d’Amboise, Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller and brother of Georges, a French client of Andrea Solario, one of Leonardo’s most trusted followers. In fact, some sources attribute the unearthing of a new relic of St. John to this French nobleman (a bone fragment taken from a skull preserved in Amiens), which would have further contributed to the subject’s success at the time. The event was often depicted in a half-bust format featuring three or four characters. Rarer depictions featured a full figure or just the platter itself holding the head of John the Baptist – a reference to the medieval Johannesschüssel model. Here, Luini adopts the former compositional model (a horizontal format featuring three characters) and takes inspiration from the evangelist Mark (Mark 6:14-29), which is evident from the presence of the guard, who is absent in Matthew’s account (Matthew 14:1-12). Generally speaking however, the story begins with John the Baptist being imprisoned by Herod Antipas for publicly condemning his relationship with his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias has a daughter who we know to be called Salome thanks to Flavio Giuseppe’s Antiquities of the Jews. Salome is merely identified as the ‘daughter of Herodias’ in the gospels, which lends itself to the idea that she was but a pawn in her mother’s games. After charming Herod Antipas with a dance performance, Salome is granted a reward, and she asks for the head of John the Baptist to be brought to her on her mother’s behalf. What follows – and on which both Mark and Matthew agree – is the delivery of John’s head to Salome on a platter. Salome is often depicted as disturbed by the barbaric sight – such as in Alonso Berruguete’s well-known painting located at the Uffizi – and the iconography was frequently used as a means to extol the beautiful artefacts made by local goldsmiths in fifteenth-century Lombardy.
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Rather than referring to the gospels, Luini was instead inspired by Leonardo and his famous Testa di Fanciulla – traditionally known as La Scapigliata (Parma, National Gallery) – on whom he bases his depiction of John’s head, with eyes lowered and lips parted, as though he is whispering to the servant next to Salome. In fact, the painting was originally attributed to Leonardo when it was sent from Vienna’s imperial collections to Florence in 1792 as part of an exchange between the Habsburg-Lorraine family collections. Quoted several times by Stendhal in his writings, it was definitively traced to Luini in the 1830s. Over time, critics have put works from this era into chronological order, thereby reducing the centrality of this particular painting, which they attributed to a later date in the 1520s.
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Head of John the Baptist in a Bowl
Uffizi Galleries, Pitti Palace, Gallery of Modern Art
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet. On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.
In Florence in the 1840s, debate focused on just how closely the canons of neoclassical beauty had to be followed, and whether natural beauty could be pursued instead, which was studied through the works of the masters of the Florentine fifteenth century.
In the features of a lifeless John the Baptist, the young Consani sought to depict beautiful, pure forms, though they were inevitably plagued by his subject’s tragic expression and the terrible violence to which he was subjected. In fact, the sculptor embraced a certain truthfulness, as is evidenced by the intricate work on John’s beard and hair, and the raw rendering of the cut across his neck. The white marble serves to highlight the contrast between the horrifying subject and the form in which it is offered to us.
Consani was awarded a commendation by Florence Academy for his accurate depiction in this sculpture created for the Duke of Lucca, Lodovico di Borbone, who financed his studies in Florence. The Head of John the Baptist was exhibited at the Academy in 1842, in the same exhibition in which Giovanni Dupré’s Death of Abel (whose bronze version is found in the Gallery of Modern Art at Palazzo Pitti) caused a stir due to its accurate rendering of anatomical details, such as to make one suspect that it had been taken directly from a cast.
The iconography of John the Baptist’s head, shown alone on a platter, is rooted in the medieval Nordic tradition of the Johannesschüssel, cult objects that solicited the deepest feelings of devotion due to their dramatic expressiveness, and which were primarily attributed to the region of Padova and the fields of painting, sculpture and goldsmithery.
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Andrea del Sarto
St. John the Baptist
Oil on panel
Uffizi Galleries, Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery, inv. Palatina 1912 no. 272
There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
By choosing to depict the sculpted figure of a young Saint John the Baptist standing out against a dark background, enveloped in an intense light, Andrea del Sarto is referring directly to the opening passage from the Gospel of John, which focuses on the Baptist’s role as a forerunner of Christ and a prophet of his coming.
Aware of his mission, the saint depicted by del Sarto in this painting stands proudly by a stone that almost looks like a sacred table. His body is half-hidden by bright red drapery on which he rests a hand holding a traditional scroll featuring the inscription Ecce Agnus Dei (Here is the Lamb of God), which alludes to Christ’s crucifixion.
In Florence, figurative traditions reserved a lot of space to this saint, patron of the city and protector of various guilds (such as those belonging to furriers, tailors and wool carders), and entire decorative series were dedicated to him. Among these is a painting by Andrea del Sarto, whose commission is linked to the rich Florentine banker Giovanni Benintendi. Eager to celebrate the homonymous saint and the sacrament of baptism – which occurred in anticipation of the ministry of Christ – Benintendi commissioned a group of artists to create paintings for a wooden headboard placed ornamentally in his palace’s antechamber. St. John the Baptist was to be the focus of the decorative series, which also included the Adoration of the Magi by Pontormo (exhibited in the Prometheus Room at the Palatine). The artwork was later donated to Cosimo I in 1553 and thus became part of the Medici collections.
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Andrea del Sarto
Andrea del Sarto focuses on John the Baptist’s attributes in the lower half of the painting, where we find the simple terracotta bowl used to baptise Jesus and the other neophytes in the Jordan River on a rock, as well as a camel hair and a humble cane crucifix. These are the symbols of the years of penance and prayer spent by John in the desert, dwelled upon by the hagiographic sources and the numerous biographies written in the vernacular and dedicated to the saint at the end of the fifteenth century.
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Andrea del Sarto
The naturalistic rendering of Baptist’s face was standard practice for Andrea, who often studyied live models for his works, which he initiated with a series of preparatory drawings in black or red pencil in order to explore potential positionings and expressions. The young man’s beautiful head, with a proud gaze, thick, curly hair, and dry, bare skin are somewhat reminiscent of Michelangelo’s formidable David.
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Young St. John in the Desert
Oil on canvas
Uffizi Galleries, Pitti Palace, Gallery of Modern Art
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.
This depiction of the young prophet seems to take inspiration from a joyful hymn that John’s father Zechariah proclaims after the birth of his son, when he announces his name after regaining the faculty of speech. It is a metaphor for salvation, but also a geographical reference, as it alludes to a road prepared for those arriving on their way to Jerusalem, as the desert surrounding the city forbade the most popular routes.
And John lives in the desert:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
John makes reference to conversion, dressed in a camel hair as tradition dictates (Zechariah 13), in the inhospitable desert, feeding on the only sources of sustenance that man can trace there. His distant gaze looks beyond the present, into the future of salvation that follows a time of preaching and martyrdom
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This bright, thick painting is somewhat reminiscent of the rough surface of a fresco. The slender, kind figure of the very young saint is inspired by famous fifteenth-century depictions by the likes of Donatello and Desiderio da Settignano, and the splendid San Giovannino Martelli by Bargello in particular. The tufts of vegetation and the lizard climbing the wall seem to allude to the erupting vitality of the naturalistic details with which Ghiberti framed the circular bezels of the North Doors of Florence’s Baptistery.
In the 1920s, past masters were systematically studied in order to pick up the thread of tradition shunned by avant-gardes at the beginning of the twentieth century. And it was in the wake of this return that Bacchelli, after being interested in Cubism and Futurism, and having lived in Rome (where he was friends with Armando Spadini), Paris (where he met Auguste Renoir), Brazil and Argentina, returned to the peninsula. “Now I walk like a lover through these Italian cities of ours... and I find within me a great love in the light of the sun that perhaps the Impressionists have taught me better than any modernist; and among the ancients, the masters of the Florentine fifteenth century and the Venetians.”
The Saint who baptized Christ
Coordinator: Anna Bisceglia
Introduction: Anna Bisceglia
Texts: Anna Bisceglia, Laura Donati, Patrizia Naldini, Daniela Parenti, Katiuscia Quinci, Chiara Toti, Chiara Ulivi
Texts Review: Patrizia Naldini
Translations: Eurotrad Snc.
Graphics: Andrea Biotti
Photos Francesco del Vecchio e Roberto Palermo
Please note: each image in this virtual tour may be enlarged for more detailed viewing.