John the Baptist Portrayed in Art

Category: Christianity, Culture, Jesus
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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Saint John The Baptist There are countless portrayals of John the Baptist and the representation of his relationship to Jesus and to the Church. John has been one of the saints most frequently appearing in Christian art. The Baptism of Christ was one of the earliest scenes from the life of Christ to be frequently depicted in Early Christian art. John's tall, thin, and bearded figure is already established and recognizable by the 5th century. In the Gospel of Luke, we are first introduced to him when Mary goes to tell her cousin, Elizabeth, the news of her pregnancy.

Elizabeth, already six month’s pregnant, felt the unborn child “jump for joy” in her womb. According to the Gospels, John declared, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord. ’” Christians interpret this to mean that John was sent to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. John does just this, when he is the one who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and baptizes him. The baptism marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Because this was said to be the beginning, John is know as John the Baptist and John the Forerunner.

We will describe the appearance of John the Baptist further in our analysis and how this depicts his life hundreds of years later. The first work, titled “John the Forerunner” was done by an unknown iconographer in the typical Orthodox style during the 11th Century. It follows the prototypes established for John the Baptist within the Eastern tradition. In fact, the orthodox often refer to John as the Forerunner, as you see in this piece, because as stated before, he led the way for Christ’s arrival. As most orthodox works are, John is very still and lacking emotion, and there is no emphasis on three dimensionality.

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The mosaic relies heavily on symbolism instead, by portraying John with a scroll in his left hand and a gesture pointing up to Jesus Christ with his right hand. The iconic imagery of the scroll symbolizes John’s importance and holiness as a preacher of God. The scroll reads “ECCE AGNUS DEI, QUI TOLLIT PECCATA MUNDI”, or “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” marking John’s prediction of the Messiah’s approach. Typically, we see John dressed in his camel tunic, but here, we see the specifics of his clothing may vary. John the Baptist is also depicted with a halo, emphasizing his ainthood and his major contribution to the life and mission of Christ. In Donatello’s bronze statue of Saint John the Baptist, we see his tunic made of camel hair, along with the iconographic imagery of his raised right arm and his symbolic staff and scroll in his let arm. Although the imagery is still present, Donatello gives St. John emotions with the expression of pain or grief on his face. The adding of emotion was a fairly common trait of the Florentine High Renaissance period, and it also signifies a slight shift in representation compared to our previous Orthodox work.

For quite some time, there was debate over the completion date of the sculpture. In 1973, the restoration of the piece revealed a signature and date of 1438. The date confirms that Donatello carved the sculpture in Florence for the Venetian confraternity of the Florentines. The Renaissance was a time of innovation within religious art. We start to see it with Donatello’s work, but it is strikingly clear in Jacopo del Sellaio’s circa 1480 version of St. John. Sellaio abandons the iconic scroll, traditional clothing, and even John’s gesture made toward the heavens.

Instead, Sellaio shows us a youthful John the Baptist, wearing bright, impressive colors. Included is a small bowl, placed at John’s feet to symbolize the baptism of Christ. Other than that, most of the religious symbolism has transferred to political symbolism, evident in the detail of the landscape. In the distance, we see the Palazzo Vecchio, Brunelleschi’s dome cathedral and the campanile designed by Giotto. Therefore, this work would have appealed to the Church and the people of Florence by combining a sense of religious, social, and political pride, which was also not uncommon during the Renaissance in Florence.

The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist, by Pieter Bruegel, was done in the elaborately detailed Baroque style during the Reformation Period of Northern Europe. In the painting dated 1566, and done with oil on wood, we recognize a village preacher at one of the countless religious congregations that took place during the Reformation. The preacher is identified as John the Baptist, as he is in his traditional camel cloak. St. John is almost lost in the heart of the picture, leaving the colorful, unorganized crowd to be the principal subject of the painting.

We must search for the meaning of the painting by looking closely; scanning to see what story the painter intended to tell. John the Baptist therefore is not in the traditional iconic format here. The size, detail, and landscape seem to be more of the focus, which is a quality of Baroque Reformation art. This change in focus served as a statement for the Protestants, insinuating that the salvation of humankind lies within the individual’s faith alone, not solely with the canons of the Catholic Church. Our group looked at this painting and immediately noticed the “light at the end of the tunnel”, or how the path forward, is lit up so brightly.

John the Baptist is almost preaching and pointing the way from the dark to the light, from wrong to right, towards the path of Christ. This painting is now on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Dutch artist, Bartholomeus Breenbergh, completed his version of The Preaching of John the Baptist circa 1634, which is again in the Baroque Reformation period. Breenbergh does represent John the Baptist traditionally for the most part, keeping his right hand pointed to the sky and his left hand holding a staff. On the contrary though, the attention to individuality and landscape still presents itself, much like Bruegel’s work.

The crowd around John the Baptist seems to be preoccupied and somewhat inattentive, further symbolizing the Catholic and Protestant split. John the Baptist may be talking of the Saviors arrival, and has scared those who do not or refuse to believe. Breenbergh’s piece can be viewed in person in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. Spanish artist, El Greco is credited for his Counter Reformation work in his rendition of St. John the Baptist. The detailed landscape we have discussed previously is still incorporated, however, the focus and iconography are extremely emphasized.

Paying tribute to the traditional St. John the Baptist, El Greco removes the confusion of the Reformation style and retains his pose, staff, camel tunic, and lamb. The images we have seen so far have not included the lamb, but in earlier images of St. John the Baptist, the lamb was commonly interchangeable with the scroll or staff. If the scroll or staff were absent from the image, then a book or object with a picture of a lamb on it would be present, in order to keep the iconography of Jesus Christ within the context.

We see El Greco taking the initiative and mixing the Catholic Church’s traditional conventions with the Baroque style, which essentially is the definition of Counter Reformation art. Another example of Counter Reformation art during the Baroque period can be seen in Mattia Preti’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching. Similar to El Greco’s work, the symbolism and iconography is much more in-depth compared to the Reformation art in the north. The Counter Reformation style resorts back to the heavy emphasis on symbolism in art, a quality that seemed to fade during the Renaissance.

This return to symbolism served as the Catholic Church’s statement on the importance of tradition and its restoration after the Protestant Reformation. John the Baptist looks almost exhausted, assumed from preaching, as the background shows the sun setting after a long day. The lamb is also laying down, looking towards where John is pointing to the coming of Jesus. In Philippe de Champaigne’s 1657 version of John the Baptist, we are able to see him up close and large in size in comparison to other portrayals as well as to the background of this painting in general. De Champaigne has St.

John looking out, assuming that he does not yet have your attention. His glare seems to take you in and point you in the direction of an approaching figure. As the Forerunner, Jesus’ precursor, John the Baptist is announcing the coming of the Messiah with the staff and scroll announcing “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world. ” John the Baptist is about to hand over his reign as preacher to the greater one who is on His way. This painting almost transcends time, John is not just pointing us back to the past, but to how Jesus’ mission is still in the future.

The picture shows Jesus as someone we haven't met, haven't heard of, and can barely see yet. It is showing its viewer the coming of Jesus then and as He will come again, as the scripture tells us. The life-size marble statue of St. John the Baptist, by Giuseppe Obici, shows that during the 19th century, the Catholic Church was still holding strong to its iconic representation of St. John the Baptist. By this point, the traditional conventions displayed in this sculpture should be obvious, furthering the importance of iconography in art, at least by the Catholic Church’s standards.

Just twenty-two years after Obici’s ever-symbolic John the Baptist, French sculptor Auguste Rodin breaks the mold of the Church’s iconographic representation. In Rodin’s version, St. John is stripped of his normal tunic and left nude, a feature that would not have been popular amongst the ideals of the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century. The religious symbolism is also removed from this work. The lamb representing his holiness as a preacher is left out, and although it appears St. John’s gesture towards heaven remains, this convention is left out also.

Sources say that the statue was originally holding a cross in his right hand, but was soon removed to take away any narrative context for the figure. Without the cross, there aren’t any religious connotations involved with this piece, other than its title. Some may consider this to be a sign of the Church’s declining influence on art and a beginning to the contemporary age of the 20th century. Moving on to Modern art, the work done last year by a young English artist, Lara French, entitled “John the Baptist” after its inspiration, the medieval work on the right.

This abstracted piece of modern art removes itself even further from the original icon of John the Baptist, maybe as far as physically and symbolically possible. We speculated and talked as a group about any possible connections between the two, and came up with very few. We therefore look forward to hearing what our classmates have to say and to see if they find any features that we missed. In conclusion, we have looked at works ranging from the 11th century to today. The early Orthodox works appear highly iconographic and unconcerned with anything else.

The Renaissance introduced to the world new ways to look at religious art. This was mainly due to the growing power and pride of Popes, aristocratic families, and the politics of Florence at the time. The Church lost some of this power during the Reformation, in which the Protestants used art to make statements about their beliefs. In reaction, the Catholic Church did the same by restoring their tradition and iconography in their art. Finally, as the need for patrons declined and the presence of artistic freedom increased, iconography in art is now generally decided by artists themselves.

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John the Baptist Portrayed in Art. (2018, Aug 07). Retrieved from

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