St. John The Baptist

When Leonardo died his possessions were pitifully few. He had three of his paintings, the Mona Lisa, the Virgin and St. Anne and his final painting, that of St. John the Baptist. This painting dates from his final years in Rome, around 1509-1516.

Many people are critical of this work, finding it a disturbing representation of a character normally portrayed as gaunt and fiery, living in a desert and surviving on a diet of locusts and honey.  In Leonardo's painting St. John seems almost to be a hermaphrodite. He has a womanish arm bent across his breast, his finger raised towards heaven, and that same enigmatic smile so admired on the face of Mona Lisa, a smile which can be seen in other Leonardo paintings like that of St. Anne. His face is almost faun-like and framed by a glorious cascade of curls. The finger pointed towards heaven was to appear quite often in Leonardo's work (the Burlington House cartoon is another example) and denotes the coming of Christ.

St. John The Baptist -- The Louvre, Paris
St. John the Baptist
The Louvre, Paris

From the encircling darkness emerges this mysterious figure holding a reed cross and wearing an animal skin. An examination of this painting using monochromatic sodium light has revealed both of these items were added later by a different artist. Two suggestions have been made for the lack of a background:

    • It may have been an attempt to focus on the spiritual side of the topic and the presentation was designed to emphasise the saint's isolation.
    • Possibly it is the work of another artist and behind the dark shadows there exists a hidden landscape. However, to date no examinations have been able to find concrete evidence to support this suggestion.

    Other versions of St. John have also been attributed to Leonardo with the Municipal Museum at Basle having one. Also, in a private collection there is a sketch in which Bacchus is depicted in a state of sexual arousal. His right hand is upraised with the pointing finger, the angle of the head and facial expression very similar to that of St. John the Baptist

    Many of Leonardo's pupils were to copy St. John the Baptist and their work appears in various collections. Other paintings mentioned in this article which are on a similar theme and presently thought to be the work of Leonardo may later prove to be those of other artists. Typical of Leonardo's paintings, these will be heavily debated especially as so many copies of his original were done by students.