St. John the Baptist: The Iconography

The beheading of St. John the Baptist. About the feast of Passover, Herod ordered him beheaded. His memory is solemnly observed on this, the day when his venerable head was discovered. It was then taken to Rome and maintained for popular devotion in the Church of St. Silvester, in the Campus Martius. – Roman Martyrology for August 29

NATIVITY

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 A Greek history of the 14th century says an angel led him to an even more remote area where he grew up eating fronds and wearing camel skins, a detail also pictured in the same century in this Italian painting.2

A number of images have John as a small boy in camel skin greeting the Holy Family in the wilderness as they journey home from Egypt (example). There are also a huge number of images that place the boy with the child Jesus. In many of them he hands Jesus a symbol of the latter's purpose in coming into the world. In this example he offers the child a cross and a lamb. In this one it is a pear, whose shape echoes the mappa mundi orbs that in other images symbolize Christ or the Father's reign over the universe.

Another boy John–child Jesus connection is seen in a wall painting in Egypt that 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.3 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.4 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.5 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 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.

THE BEHEADING

According to the gospels, Herod's stepdaughter Salome performed a dance that delighted him. For her reward she requested John's head on a platter (Matthew 14:3-12, Mark 6:17-29). In the medieval West there were two ways in which the dance was pictured. In one she thrust her hip slightly and raised her arms above her head (example). This was the usual type in Italy. In the north she was often pictured doing a somersault (example), associating her with the tumbling exhibitions of the jongleurs who were regularly condemned by churchmen (Long, 1156-58). A somersault is not entirely inconsistent with the gospel accounts, where the word for Salome's dancing is saltare, a derivation from saltus, "a leap or jump." William Caxton was probably influenced by "jumping Salome" images when he rendered saltanti in the Golden Legend's account by "springing and dancing."

The above examples put two figures of Salome in the same frame, one dancing and one presenting the head. In later works those two moments tend to be pictured separately, whether in a predella, a cycle (example), or a single free-standing work (example). There are also numerous sculptures of the head alone on a plate or in a shallow bowl (example). Long (1156) also notes a third type of dance seen in Byzantine images, where Salome has the platter and severed head balanced on her own head (example). This is very rare in the West.

PORTRAITS

An important attribute that distinguishes St. John the Baptist in portraits is the lamb, often lying or standing on a book (example). Another common attribute is a cross held like a military standard, 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 (less often in images of the Deësis). Most of the time the artist adds an outer garment of cloth, often toga-like in arrangement and often red (example), the color of liturgical vestments used on the feast days of martyrs. Red garments are also seen in images of the beheading, (example).

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.


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Church tympanum in Dubrovnik (See the description page)


Altarpiece in Poreč, Croatia (See the description page)


Detail from l'Alunno's Altarpiece of the Coronation of the Virgin (See the description page)

ATTRIBUTES

  • Tunic of camel skin
  • Lamb held on a book
  • Long cross, sometimes with a banner
  • Severed head on a platter

MORE IMAGES

  • 9th century: John is pictured with wings in this panel in an iconostasis now in the Vatican.
  • 1320-25: He appears among the attendant saints in Jacopo del Casentino's Madonna and Child Enthroned.
  • 1375: A painting usually identified as the Birth of Mary may in fact be picturing the birth of John the Baptist.
  • 1390s: Among the saints on the left wing of Cenni di Francesco's Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece John the Baptist points to a processional cross in his left hand.
  • 15th century: A portrait of St. John the Baptist in a Spanish altarpiece of the Pietà.
  • 15th century: John the Baptist is one of Fra Angelico's Five Saints
  • 1475: The John the Baptist panel in the rood screen at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.
  • 1485-90: Ghirlandaio's huge fresco in Florence presents seven episodes on the life of John the Baptist.
  • 1490-92 (?): A panel in the predella of a Botticelli Coronation of the Virgin,
  • 15th or 16th century: Statue in a Franciscan monastery.
  • Circa 1500-1504: G. A. da Lodi's Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints includes SS. George and John the Baptist with two bishops.
  • 1539-40: John the Baptist is included in Salviati's Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints.
  • 1540: Pictured as a naked toddler among his relatives in Tintoretto's Madonna and Child with Saints.
  • 1558: Bassano modeled his portrait of St. John in the Desert on images of other eremitical saints in ecstatic contemplation.
  • 17th century: John as a toddler offers some small fruits to the baby Jesus in Gianbattista Mengardi's Holy Family with St. John the Baptist
  • 1750: In the margin of a Mexican nun's badge of the Annunciation.
  • Undated: John the Baptist's statue is among the eight that flank Peter and the Virgin Mary in the St. Peter Altarpiece at the "Frari" in Venice.
  • Undated: The Dance of Salome in Barcelona's Cathedral.

DATES

  • June 24: Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist (Roman Martyrology: "The Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Forerunner of the Lord and son of Saints Zachary and Elizabeth. He was filled with the Holy Spirit even while in the womb of his mother.")
  • August 29: Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist

NAMES

  • "John the Forerunner" is the more common epithet among Orthodox Christians, following Gabriel's prophecy in Luke 1:17, "he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah."

BIOGRAPHY

ALSO SEE

NOTES

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.

2 Nicephorus Calistus, Historia Ecclesiastica, I, xiv.

3 Molanus, p. 296, recommends that John's leather belt not be neglected in images because it emphasizes his relationship to Elijah, who in II Kings 1:8 is "A hairy man with a girdle of leather about his loins." Prophesying to Zechariah in the Temple, the angel Gabriel says John "shall go before him [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah; that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children" (Luke 1:17, compare Malachi 3:23f "I will send you Elijah the prophet…and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.") Also note Jesus' statement that John is the return of Elijah in Matthew 17:10-13, cf. Mark 9:12. Other remarks on this relationship can be found in Matthew 16:14 and 17:10-13, Mark 8:27-28, and Luke 9:18-19.

4 Senn, 138. In the "fraction" the priest breaks the consecrated host in preparation for distributing it to the faithful.

5 Trullo, canon 82. Molanus, II, xi (49).

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