Representations of John the Baptist range from solitary figures, to evangelism, to baptisms. He did not conform to social standards with his hair-shirt and prepare-the-way message. Artists like someone who stands out. Most paintings and sculptures of John the Baptist display his gruff, non-conformity. His eyes appear other-worldly, focused on the prophecies of what would become and piercing into one’s soul with his message of repent and be baptized. This altar painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, in the Vatican, has John the Baptist gesturing a blessing and carrying his staff with a cross on its top. Even with his red robe, he is set apart from society by his dark complexion and untrimmed hair and beard.
In contrast, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri’s painting of John the Baptist, also in the Vatican, captures a different attitude, other than his fair skin. John looks upward, as if connecting with some source of inspiration which we do not see. His expression is meek, a servant verifying instruction. He has his hair shirt and cross-topped staff. But, he appears very human and young, someone who can act with courage, but also may question his own determination. Without his symbols, we might think he were a common shepherd.
John’s ministry also provides good storyline images culminating with his baptism of Jesus, which I will discuss later in Jesus’ narrative. Eventually, John gets his head lopped off, giving even more blood-and-gore subject matter. Though the story of John the Baptist’s demise is a side story, foreshadowing Jesus’ conflicts with the Jewish and Roman leaders later, during Jesus’ ministry, I shall present two images at this time.
After baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist continued to preach in parallel to Jesus. But, the Gospel accounts change their focus to follow Jesus’ early ministry activity. John offends, Herodias, the wife of the Roman ruler, Herod (and also former wife of Herod’s brother, Philip). She wants John killed for his insults. At a feast that Herod hosts, Herodias’ daughter, Solome, pleases Herod with a dance (also suggesting that he might have wanted more than Herodias). At the Vatican an altar panel, by Florentie School artists, shows Solome dancing for Herod’s guests.
Herod offers her any request. Solome asks her mother what to request, and Herodias directs her to ask for John the Baptist’s head. Bad advise from bad people. Solome adds that she wants it now, on a platter. In the Borghese Gallery, Cavalier d’ Arpino composes the moment the executioner draws his sword to behead John the Baptist. John’s robe and staff lay at his knees on the ground. Two servant women look at John, while the executioner looks toward them. All are carrying out their commands without question.