John the Baptist : biography
The beheading of St. John the Baptist is a standard theme in Christian art,Wetterau, Bruce. World history. New York: Henry Holt and company. 1994. in which John’s head is often depicted on a platter, which represents the request of Herod’s stepdaughter, Salome.The story appears in and , without the name Salome He is also depicted as an ascetic wearing camel hair, with a staff and scroll inscribed Ecce Agnus Dei, or bearing a book or dish with a lamb on it. In Orthodox icons, he often has angel’s wings, since Mark 1:2 describes him as a messenger."John the Baptist, St." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
The Baptism of Christ was one of the earliest scenes from the Life of Christ to be frequently depicted in Early Christian art, and John’s tall thin, even gaunt, and bearded figure is already established by the 5th century. Only he and Jesus are consistently shown with long hair from Early Christian times, when the apostles generally have trim classical cuts; in fact John is more consistently depicted in this way than Jesus. In Byzantine art the composition of the Deesis came to be included in every Eastern Orthodox church, as remains the case to this day. Here John and the Theotokos (Mary) flank a Christ Pantocrator and intercede for humanity; in many ways this is the equivalent of Western Crucifixions on roods and elsewhere, where John the Evangelist takes the place of John the Baptist (except in the idiosyncratic Isenheim Altarpiece). John the Baptist is very often shown on altarpieces designed for churches dedicated to him, or where the donor patron was named for him or there was some other connection of patronage – John was the patron saint of Florence, among many other cities, which means he features among the supporting saints in many important works.
A number of narrative scenes from his life were often shown on the predella of altarpieces dedicated to John, and other settings, notably the large series in grisaille fresco in the , which was Andrea del Sarto’s largest work, and the frescoed Life by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, both in Florence. There is another important fresco cycle by Filippo Lippi in Prato Cathedral. These include the typical scenes:See Tornabuoni Chapel for further information on these scenes the Annunciation to Zechariah, John’s birth, his naming by his father, the Visitation, John’s departure for the desert, his preaching in the desert, the Baptism of Christ, John before Herod, the dance of Salome, and his beheading.
His birth, which unlike the Nativity of Jesus allowed a relatively wealthy domestic interior to be shown, became increasingly popular as a subject in the late Middle Ages, with depictions by Jan van Eyck in the Turin-Milan Hours and Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel being among the best known. His execution, a church feast-day, was often shown, and by the 15th-century scenes such as the dance of Salome became popular, sometimes, as in an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem, the interest of the artist is clearly in showing the life of Herod’s court, given contemporary dress, as much as the martyrdom of the saint. Salome bearing John’s head on a platter equally became a subject for the Northern Renaissance taste for images of glamorous but dangerous women (Delilah, Judith and others),On this see Chaper V, "The Power of Women", in H Diane Russell;Eva/Ave; Women in Renaissance and Baroque Prints; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1990; ISBN 1-55861-039-1 and was often painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder and engraved by the Little Masters. These images remained popular into the Baroque, with Carlo Dolci painting at least three versions. John preaching, in a landscape setting, was a popular subject in Dutch art from Pieter Brueghel the Elder and his successors.
As a child (of varying age), he is sometimes shown from the 15th century in family scenes from the life of Christ such as the Presentation of Christ, the Marriage of the Virgin and the Holy Kinship. Leonardo da Vinci’s versions of the Virgin of the Rocks were influential in establishing a Renaissance fashion for variations on the Madonna and Child that included John, probably intended to depict the cousin’s reunion in Egypt, when after Jesus’ Flight to Egypt John was believed to have been carried to join him by an angel. Raphael in particular painted many compositions of the subject, such as the Alba Madonna, La belle jardinière, Aldobrandini Madonna, Madonna della seggiola, Madonna dell’Impannata, which were among his best known works. John was also often shown by himself as an older child or adolescent, usually already wearing his distinctive dress and carrying a long thin wooden cross – another theme influenced by Leonardo, whose equivocal composition, reintroducing the camel-skin dress, was developed by Raphael Titian and Guido Reni among many others. Often he is accompanied by a lamb, especially in the many Early Netherlandish paintings which needed this attribute as he wore normal clothes. Caravaggio painted an especially large number of works including John, from at least five largely nude youths attributed to him, to three late works on his death – the great Execution in Malta, and two sombre Salomes with his head, one in Madrid, and one in London.