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Saint John the Baptist

Circle of Leonardo da Vinci (Anchiano, 1452-Amboise, 1519)
Late 15th / early 16th century
58.4 x 44.5 cm (panel); 77 x 60 cm (framed)
Oil on panel
  • Collection of Thirlestaine Castle, Cheltenham of Lord Sir John Rushout, 2nd Baron Northwick (1770-1859)
  • Sold at Christie’s, London in 1950 as an original work by Leonardo da Vinci

This oil-on-walnut panel representing St John the Baptist bears a close association with Leonardo da Vinci’s work of the same subject, datable to 1508, 1513 or 1516, and on permanent display at the Louvre. Though slightly larger, the Louvre work, also executed on a walnut panel, undoubtedly served as a model for the painting in this exhibition. St John the Baptist bears the exact same pose, has an identical tilt of head that is crowned by long tufts of thick curly hair and, similarly, his right hand is directed upwards towards an unseen heavenly realm. The enigmatic smile and the gradual emergence of the Baptist figure from a background of profound darkness in the painting belonging to the circle of Da Vinci have indisputably been derived from the Louvre panel. Having worked in the circle of the High Renaissance master, it is clear that the artist of the panel painting on show was relatively well versed with the handling of the chiaroscuro and sfumato techniques that Da Vinci refined to highly impressive attainment.

Scientific investigations of the panel painting linked to Da Vinci’s circle have brought to light the possibility of a date earlier than that of the Louvre version. Close examination has also established that the walnut support belongs to the second half of the 15th century. Apart from the visual proximity that binds the Louvre and the painting under discussion together, diagnostic scientific study has found that the latter’s material constituents are congruent with the painting methods adopted by Leonardo and his circle. This significant result therefore corroborates the authorship of this panel painting to an artist who avidly followed in the great master’s footsteps.

The existence of variations upon the original treatment of the theme as well as virtually exact representations are sufficient to prove the popularity that Da Vinci’s Louvre painting considerably enjoyed. Suffice it to say that Da Vinci was first and foremost audacious in his representation of the Baptist whose iconography in art had long dictated the appearance of a haggard hermit. His long hair, the reed cross that he holds in his left hand and his camel-hair garment are the only remnants from religious tradition that Da Vinci adheres to for his Baptist figure. Otherwise, the graceful ease of pose, the androgyny, the ambiguous smile and the provocative look, bordering onto a dose of the erotic, drastically sever Da Vinci’s preacher-saint from the stereotypical manner of representation that past and contemporaneous artists followed for their interpretation of the Baptist.

The circumstances behind the materialisation of the painting in this exhibition remain unknown. Despite this dearth of information, there is no doubt that the artist was clearly spellbound by Da Vinci’s maverick treatment of his subject. To the best that his, at times, limited technical skills permitted, the unknown artist put to practice all the non-conformist features seen in Da Vinci’s painting.

Clearly the artist endeavoured to aspire to Da Vinci’s distinctive finesse that endowed the Baptist with a then unprecedented quality of spiritual presence. The artist’s intention to approach Da Vinci’s style is evident from the overall subdued atmosphere that is dominated by the striking chiaroscuro enabling the saint to subtly come into relief for dramatic effect. It is also seen in the warm yet dull light that adds to the overall sense of mystery that imbues the entire work. It is detected in the muted brushwork for a general sfumato finish, and the Baptist’s slightly teasing eyes and smile that confound, just as his mystifying presence does. The slightly wooden treatment of areas of the Baptist figure, as well as a dependence on linear qualities, betray some lack of confidence in drawing. Yet it can be safely said that the artist of the panel painting in this exhibition fell deeply under the widespread influence of Leonardo da Vinci.

Audio Guide – Maltese

Audio Guide – English

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