John the Baptist, St., Iconography of
JOHN THE BAPTIST, ST., ICONOGRAPHY OF
The iconography of St. John the Baptist is manifest in both cyclic representations of his life and in noncyclic representations.
Cyclic. The figure of John the Baptist was represented in Christian art as early as the 2d century. In the first stage he was represented only in relation to Christological scenes, especially to the scene of the Baptism of Christ (sarcophagus from Basilica Petronilla, Rome). As early as the 5th century, artists depicted various scenes of the life of John the Baptist on the basis of Biblical texts as well as apocryphal literature and legends. Consequently there existed a rich narrative cycle of the life of the saint already by the 11th century, and in the 13th century it came to include almost 20 scenes (frescoes of Braun-schweig cathedral). The important scenes of the life of John the Baptist are: (1) the annunciation to Zacharias in the Temple; (2) the Visitation; (3) the birth and the naming; (4) the Circumcision; (5) the flight of Elizabeth, his mother, and young John to the mountain; (6) John the Baptist going into the wilderness; (7) the preaching in the wilderness; (8) the axe laid on the foot of a tree; (9) John the Baptist and the people of Israel receiving baptism from him; (10) John the Baptist bearing witness to Christ;(11) the baptism of Christ; (12) John the Baptist before Herod and Herodea; (13) arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist; (14) the feast of Herod; (15) beheading of John the Baptist; (16) burial of the saint by his disciples; (17) burning of the bones of the saint; (18) quenching of the ashes; (19) discovery of the head of John the Baptist.
Noncyclic. In the early Church he soon became an object of veneration of the faithful and was ranked with the 12 Apostles and the four Evangelists. In the ivory sculpture on Maximianus's cathedra in Ravenna (6th century) he is represented with the four Evangelists, holding the symbol of the Lamb of God. In middle Byzantine art he was represented in the scene of the Last Judgment as an intercessor side by side with the Virgin Mary (Deësis). In the illustration to the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, he was represented as foretelling the Descent of Christ into Hell. In the Italian Renaissance, artists invented a religious-genre motif of John the Baptist as a young boy dressed in camel fur and holding a cross-staff. Donatello represented the saint as an idealized youth (Museo Nazionale,
Florence) and in a very realistic manner (Siena cathedral). In the 16th century John the Baptist came to be represented as a playmate of Christ. This was a favorite motif in the series of Raphael's Madonna portraits (e.g., the Alba Madonna; National Gallery, Washington). In the baroque period, especially in the areas of Westphalia and the Lower Rhine, there arose a fervent veneration of the saint as a healer of illnesses of the head and neck. The so-called Johannesschüssel, the head of the saint a charger, became a very popular motif of the period (paintings of Pordenone and Luini).
Bibliography: w. haring, "The Winged St. John the Baptist," Art Bulletin 5 (1922) 34–40. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. carroll, h. leclerq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 7.2:2167–84. g. kaftal, Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting (Florence 1952) 550–560. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 1955–59) 2.1:431–463.