John the Baptist Portrayed in Art

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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. 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 sainthood 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...
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