The Golden Legend has entries for both the beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29) and for his birth (Luke 1:5-25, 57-66). In the latter, it points out that the medieval church year celebrated the nativities of only two persons, Jesus and John the Baptist. John's is pictured in the first and third panels of the Salimbenis' remarkable fresco cycle in Urbino. The panels follow Luke faithfully except in placing the Virgin Mary at the birth. She is placed there in the Golden Legend (she "did the office and service to receive St. John Baptist when he was born") and more explicitly in the Historia Scholastica ("the Blessed Virgin was the first to lift him up").
Orthodox images of John's birth typically picture servants setting a table with cups, utensils, and a platter of food (example).
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
This is the one area in which the art relies on traditions rather than scripture, which says only that "the child grew, and was strengthened in spirit; and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel" (Luke 2:80). One tradition, still maintained at the web site of the Orthodox Church in America, says the child was taken to the wilderness by his mother to escape the Slaughter of the Innocents, and that he remained there even after her death.1 Thus we have one image in which John as a small boy in the wilderness greets the Holy Family as they return from Egypt. The boy wears the camel skin that the gospels ascribe to the adult John (Matthew 3:1-4, Mark 1:4-6). There are also a huge number of images that put the child in a camel skin and place him with the child Jesus (one example from Italy, another example from Croatia). A wall painting in Egypt also interweaves John's escape story with the escape of Jesus narrated in Matthew 2:13-18 (van Loon, 263-67, 273).
In the late 15th through the 16th centuries some portraits presented John the Baptist as a beautiful youth (example) or a handsome and well-muscled young man (example). The hair, which is often an unruly mop in earlier images, is in these a luxuriant mass of curls. A sculpture in this tradition even dispenses with the camel skin.
JOHN'S PREACHING AND THE AGNUS DEI
The camel skin is important not only because it is specified in the gospels but because, along with the leather belt that is also pictured in some cases, it refers to John's status as the promised return of Elijah, who was similarly dressed.2 Thus adult portraits normally have John wearing it either alone (example) or under a toga-like outer wrap (example). An earlier mosaic reaches for a more hieratic effect by stylizing the camel skin, taming the hair, and adding a dalmatic, toga, and sandals.
The Salimbenis have a panel for John's preaching against Herod, but most images of his preaching focus on the moment when he saw Jesus and declared, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). This verse is important both because it sees Jesus as the antitype of the Passover lamb whose blood protected the Israelites in Egypt and, more important, because since the 7th century it has been used in the Roman liturgy as the Agnus Dei hymn that accompanies the fraction of the host.3 As early as the 6th century the Synod of Trullo noted that many churches had images of John pointing to a lamb that symbolized Christ.4 The synod declared that it would be more appropriate to show him pointing to the human figure of Christ, and this does happen especially in larger images (example), but pictures of John pointing to a lamb continued in favor despite this ruling (example). The lamb will sometimes have a cruciform halo (example). The saint may also point to the Christ Child (example) or even the Trinity (example).
JOHN'S BAPTISM OF CHRIST
This is another very common subject in the art, especially in the first millenium. See the separate page discussing Christ's baptism.
According to the gospels, Herod's stepdaughter Salome performed a dance that delighted him. For her reward she asked for John's head on a platter (Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29). The earliest image I have observed, from about 1200, interweaves the dance, the request, the beheading, and the presentation of the severed head into a single composition, with Salome appearing twice. This approach is similar to an altarpiece panel from the early 14th, where the beheading is separated architecturally but the request and presentation appear in a single composition, again with two representatons of Salome.
But the Salimbeni cycle (1416) separates the episodes chronologically, and later works treat the dance (example) and the martyrdom (example) as separate events.
There are also numerous sculptures of the head alone on a plate or in a shallow bowl (example from Mexico).
An important attribute that distinguishes St. John the Baptist in portraits is the lamb (example), often lying or standing on a book (example). Another common attribute is a cross held like a military standard (example), sometimes with a banner attached (example). Finally, the severed head itself may be used as an attribute, as in this reliquary in the Louvre and this predella panel in Dubrovnik.
Portraits normally show St. John the Baptist clad in camel's skin, but most of the time the artist adds an outer garment of cloth, often toga-like in arrangement (example). Not all images of the Deësis have him in the camel skin.
St. John the Baptist's portrait is found in a remarkable number of images of St. Catherine of Alexandria, either as an adult (example) or as a child bystander at St. Catherine's betrothal to the child Jesus (example).
The saint is also sometimes a bystander at the crucifixion (example) and accompanies subjects as diverse as the Anglo-Saxon royal saints, Our Lady of Mercy, and the Pietà.
As a child, John the Baptist also figures in Madonna and Child images, sometimes accompanied by adults such as his mother Elizabeth (example). Sometimes John and Elizabeth are added in the background or to the side of another main scene – for example, an Annunciation and a painting of St. Helena's vision of the Presentation. John is sometimes even presented as a child in solo portraits and statues (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-14.
1 "Nativity of the Glorious Prophet." Also see canon 13 of Peter of Alexandria's Canonical Epistle and Paul the Deacon's hymn Ut queant laxis.