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Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist is believed to have been his final oil painting, with it arriving between the years of circa 1513-1516.
The artist passed away just three years after this work was completed, and so it can be said to display many of the qualities that he developed across the length of his career. There is the incredible handling of light which brings St John the Baptist to our attention, as well as the precise layers of colour which produce his lifelike features. Da Vinci had produced many different styles of paintings by this point, and had also learnt how to fuse different genres together effectively. Here he chooses relative simplicity, relying on his subtle touches which created an impactful finish. The piece was eventually attributed solely to Da Vinci in the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to advancements in artistic research.
Da Vinci chose a member of his studio to pose for this artwork and used many of the styles that had already appeared earlier in his career - see the grinning smile, for example. He had also worked with religious themes throughout his lifetime, and so was entirely comfortable with these themes. He released a number of secular portraits several decades earlier, but would continue to return to topics such as this time and time again. Much of this was forced by those commissioning his work, but it would also be fair to say that he continued to find inspiration in passages from the Bible throughout his lifetime.
"...Describing Saint John emerging from the darkness in almost shockingly immediate relation to the beholder, Leonardo magnifies the very ambiguity between spirit and flesh..."
The finest Renaissance artists were able to bring humanity and the divine together using extraordinary technical skills that had been developed over generations and passed down through regional art schools. Saint John the Baptist remains a good example of that, and the subject itself would have been well known to Da Vinci, because of his knowledge of Christianty but also the large number of depictions of the Baptist that related artists had already completed, both as paintings but also sculptures too.
The following article examines Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist in detail, detailing its technical qualities, as well as the meaning behind its imagery. There is also discussion about the path that this painting has taken over the past few centuries, as well as where it resides today for those looking to view it in person. We also place it within the context of Da Vinci's wider career, and the other works which came earlier and may have influenced elements of this piece. The artist passed just three years after completing this piece, and it represents his technical peak as a portrait painter after years of honing his talents across Italy.
Table of Contents
- Who was Saint John the Baptist?
- Model for the Portrait
- Size and Medium
- Famous Paintings of Saint John the Baptist
- Large Image of Saint John the Baptist
This portrait displays the culmination of decades of work and experimentation by Leonardo da Vinci, as he perfected his ground-breaking artistic techniques which helped to lift the Italian Renaissance to a new level. This painting alone would inspire members of Raphael's studio, for example, as well as influencing how later generations would tackle the same subject. Da Vinci was able to take what had gone before, but to improve upon it in a seamless but impactful new directions. Saint John the Baptist came right at the end of his career, with many believing it to have been his very last painting. In truth, religious themes such as this persisted throughout his lifetime and were a steady stream of inspiration, but also income, to renew momentum within his career. He would also depict the saint at different points in his life, in order to best suit each particular composition.
Who was Saint John the Baptist?
John the Baptist was an important figure from the 1st century BC, living until around AD 28–36. He is sometimes known by other titles too, and also features prominently within Islam as well. He is regarded as a prophet of God and for this reason was sainted in most versions of Christianity. He worked as a preacher but perhaps is best known today for several key events within his life that appear in the Bible, including in the Baptism of Christ. Leading up to Da Vinci's contributions, Saint John had already appeared within western art for many centuries, with certain forms of iconography already having been formed, just as had happened with Mary and Christ and other leading figures from Christian scripture. Sadly, the Baptist is believed to have been beheaded in early AD, and this sad moment has also featured within several macrabre interpretations across the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
The meaning behind this painting is to portray Saint John the Baptist receiving "God's Light". It is therefore the balance of light within the portrait that is critical to both the inspiration for the work, as well as its aethetic appearance. Da Vinci chooses to leave the majority of the content in near darkness, producing an impactful artwork which draws on all of the technical skills that he has developed across the length of his career. The Sfumato techniques that he makes use of here are perfectly suited to the concept of Saint John receiving light onto his face and body, with these impressive subtle variations making up for a simple composition. The opening verses of St John's Gospel tell of how he was sent to witness this light, and the significance of this leads the artist to darken out all detail from the rest of the painting.
The painting depicts Saint John the Baptist emerging from the darkness in order to receive the light of God upon himself. The saint looks towards the viewer whilst grinning in a manner that was repeated in several other portraits by the artist. He points directly into the sky, signifying the source of light and underlining the meaning behind this painting. The heavy contrast of light and dark means most of the scene is hidden, helping to build the significance of the saint's upper body and face. One can just about make out his long, curly hair, though the light falls more on his prominent nose, cheek bones and forehead. We then see his right arm sweeping across the composition, with everything below slowly drifting off into the darkness.
Model for the Portrait
The model posing for this portrait of Saint John the Baptist is believed to have been Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, who is better known today by academics as Salai. He himself worked under Da Vinci as an apprentice and would pose for him several times. Salai actually made several copies of the completed painting himself, and so has a strong connection to Da Vinci's portrait of Saint John the Baptist. Salai was hugely inspired by his teacher, and regularly produced his own versions of Leonardo's most famous paintings. He is believed to hae been technically proficient but perhaps lacked the innovation needed to build a strong artistic legacy of his own.
Saint John the Baptist has only recently been confidently attributed to the hand of Leonardo da Vinci. As with a number of other Leonardo da Vinci paintings, it would take until the 19th and 20th centuries that experts would become confident in their attribution, when previously these artworks had been connected to all manner of related artists. Part of this confusion has been caused by a lack of documentation as well as the collaborative methods used by a number of art studios within Italy during the Renaissance. It was only as recently as the 1960s that X-Ray technology was used by art historians on this particular painting, and that helped to finally put some of the attribution controversies to bed.
Once the attribution had finally been established, with art historians able to examine the specific layers of paint used by Leonardo, then the discussion moved on to establishing the precise date of this piece. Most today believe that Leonardo da Vinci's was completed between the years of 1513-1516, though some academics have claimed it might have arrived around a decade earlier. Many of the theories around this alternative dating have come from related styles from other artists which may have influenced this painting, as well as some study drawings which might have been produced in preparation for this oil work. Very few artworks from Da Vinci's career have ever been pinpointed down to a particular year.
Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519. That places this piece right at the end of his career, and many still believe that it was actually his final oil painting. A sculpture from 1510 for the Florence Baptistery by Giovanni Francesco Rustici bears many similarities to this artwork, and may well have served as an inspiration, particularly because it also covers the same theme. The painting is also documented in 1517 as being spotted within the artist's studio, giving us an additional clue as to its completion.
Size and Medium
Saint John the Baptist is sized at 69 cm × 57 cm (27.16 in × 22.44 in). Leonardo da Vinci used oil on walnut wood for this piece and the brushwork is considered technically similar to his work on the iconic Mona Lisa. The artist used various types of wood for his canvases, and much of that would have been dictated by availablility rather than preference. He would often need to glue panels together for his larger artworks, such as the two versions of Virgin of the Rocks, for example.
Leonardo da Vinci's Saint John the Baptist from 1513-1516 resides today at the Louvre in Paris, France. There is some confusion over how it made its way into this impressive collection, but we know for sure that it was in the artist's studio until 1517. Academics have suggested that it may then have made its way into either an estate in Milan or someone connected to the French King in 1518. It then made its way to Fontainebleau, as part of the permanent collection of the French King. It was sold into the collection of Charles I in England, before being sold again and eventually making its way into the Louvre, where it remains today. It has been joined within the institution by a number of other Da Vinci paintings, making this an important venue for understanding more about the artist.
Famous Paintings of Saint John the Baptist
John the Baptist is an important figure from religious scripture, and his appearances go far beyond just Christianity. He lived as a mission preacher in 1st century AD and is generally accepted as having baptized Jesus Christ. Events from his life would regularly touch on other key figures within the Bible and so inevitably he would start to appear within religious art, particularly across the Italian and North European Renaissance. The two main artistic disciplines during this era, painting and sculpture, would turn to the Baptist for inspiration many times over, and the full list of entries would be too long to include here. Some of the highlights to look out for, alongside Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Saint John the Baptist, include the likes of Caravaggio who covered this figure at least five times in total.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jan van Eyck experimented with different scenes of the Bapatist, and there were also interesting contributions from Filippo Lippi, Andrea Pisano, Andrea del Sarto, Raphael and Titian. Saint John the Baptist would continue to appear in the centuries that followed, but not as frequently, with religious art more generally starting to fall into the shadows as secular portraiture and landscape art started to become more popular. This transition increased in speed after the Baroque era, though even as recently as the late 19th century we would see new examples within movements such as The Pre-Raphaelites.
Large Image of Saint John the Baptist
The artist used subtle layers of transparent paint throughout this painting which is easier to see from the larger image below. The painting came right at the end of his career, by which point he had perfected his technical work and was able to produce lifelike portraits like no other. Da Vinci would therefore take what had gone before within Italian art and then add his own innovations on top, and these ideas helped him to stand out from the rest of those involved in the Renaissance era. He was perhaps fortunate to have trained within a diverse studio, in which painting, drawing and sculpture were all present, helping to inspire him and open his mind to the types of possibilities that were open to him.