Objective Art



Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1515) - A Painting by Leonardo da Vinci

Saint John the Baptist is an oil on wood painting by the great High Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Completed in about 1515, it was Leonardo's last painting. The original size of the work was 22.4 x 22.7 inches. It is now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the epitome of the "Renaissance Man" and is considered to be one of the greatest painters of all time.  In addition to being a painter, he was also an alchemist, a cook, architect, anatomist, sculptor, engineer, mathematician and musician.

He was born on 15 April 1452 and spent his childhood in Vinci, a town near Florence, Italy.  As an adult he resided mostly in northern Italy:  particularly in Florence, Rome and Milan.  In 1516, he entered the service of the King of France, Francis I, and was given the use of the manor house Clos Lucé which was next to the king's residence at the royal Chateau Amboise in France.  Leonardo died at Clos Lucé on 02 May 1519.

Leonardo was most famous for his paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and for influential drawings such as the Vitruvian Man. He produced ideas that were vastly ahead of his own time, conceptually describing a helicopter, a tank, a solar power generator, a calculator, and many others. Few of his designs were actually constructed or were technologically feasible during his lifetime. However, he did advance the state of knowledge in the fields of anatomy, astronomy, civil engineering, optics, and the study of hydrodynamics. Of his artistic works and designs, only about 15 paintings survive, together with his notebooks (now in various academic and museum collections) containing drawings, scientific diagrams and notes.

Many historians of the esoteric believe that da Vinci was a hermeticist and a practitioner of alchemy.  Also, he was purported to have been a Grand Master of the secret society known as the Priory of Sion from 1510-1519, having assumed that office upon the death of his friend Sandro Botticelli in 1510.


Painting of St. John the Baptist

The painting depicts Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness.  John is dressed in animal skins, has long curly hair, and is smiling in an enigmatic manner which is reminiscent of Leonardo's most famous painting, known as the Mona Lisa.  In his left hand, St. John holds a reed staff with a cross at one end; John's right hand points upward to the heavens. Some historians believe that the cross and animal skins were added at a later date by another painter. 

One of the most troubling features of the painting is that John the Baptist seems to be portrayed as an androgyne or hermaphrodite.  In my view, da Vinci frequently depicted such images in his art.  Most notably, the Mona Lisa seems to be an androgyne.  In the Hermetic and/or Gnostic symbolique , the "King of the World" (also known as the Demiurge or Rex Mundi) is usually depicted as an androgyne.

The pointing gesture of St. John toward the heavens is frequently associated with John the Baptist in paintings by other Renaissance artists, e.g., in the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald.  Da Vinci used this same gesture in many of his other paintings to signify the presence or remembrance of John the Baptist. Although I demur, some art historians believe that the gesture signifies the importance of salvation through baptism. Whatever the meaning, Leonardo's "John Gesture" would be frequently copied by later painters, especially those belonging to the late Renaissance and Mannerist schools.  My personal interpretation of the so-called "John Gesture" is that it was a hermetic symbolique making reference to the first principal of the Emerald Tablet of Alchemy - "As it is below, so it is above."  In other words, the laws governing life on Earth are the same as those governing the heavens above.

The St. John the Baptist painting does not seem to have been commissioned by anyone.  Leonardo apparently painted it for his own pleasure and it was one of three paintings that he retained in his possession at the end of his life.  Lord Kenneth Clark, in his 1939 book entitled Leonardo Da Vinci tells us that:

On 10 October 1517 Leonardo was visited by the Cardinal Louis of Aragon whose secretary Antonio de’ Beatis left an interesting and puzzling account. He says that Leonardo showed the Cardinal:

"Three pictures; one of a certain Florentine lady, done from the life, at the instance of the late Magnificent, Giuliano de’Medici; the other of St John the Baptist, as a Young Man; and one of the Madonna and the Child, which are placed in the lap of St Anne, and all of them most perfect: …"

After Leonardo's death in 1519, the above three pictures came into the possession of the King of France and are today on display at the Louvre.  They are today known under the titles of (1) Mona Lisa, (2) St. John the Baptist and (3) Madonna and Child in the Lap of Saint Ann.  These three picture are shown below.

The Mona Lisa Saint John the Baptist Madonna and Child in the Lap of St. Ann


Comments by the Art Historian, Lord Kenneth Clark

Lord Kenneth Clark in 1955


The renowned British art historian, Lord Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), was an expert on the life and works of Leonardo Da Vinci.  His assessment of the Saint John the Baptist painting is presented in his well-known 1939 book entitled Leonardo Da Vinci as follows:

... In the same years 1514-15 I would place Leonardo’s last surviving picture, the Louvre ‘St John’. It is usually said, on no evidence, to have been painted in France, but if this were the case we could hardly account for the numerous contemporary Italian copies. No doubt Leonardo had been working on the subject for years and the actual date of its execution as a picture can never be established. The ‘St John’ is the least popular of Leonardo’s works. Critics have found it so little to their taste that they have called it the work of assistants. This is certainly false. The ‘St John’ is a baffling work, but every inch of it smells of Leonardo. Even if we dislike it we must admit its power to trouble the memory, both as image and design. The initial cause of our uneasiness is iconographic. We are aware, from the little reed cross which he holds, that this extraordinary creature is intended to represent St John, and our whole sense of propriety is outraged. Every critic has laboriously pointed out that this is not a satisfactory presentation of the Baptist, and we must try to answer the question why Leonardo, who attached so much importance to the interpretation of a subject, has created an image almost blasphemously unlike the fiery ascetic of the Gospels. To a certain extent, the answer is to be found in the origin of the design. At the end of his second Florentine period, Leonardo became interested in the subject of an angel. There is a rough sketch of it on a drawing in Windsor dateable C. 1505, and we know that he finished the picture, for Vasari describes it as being in the cabinet of the Grand Duke Cosimo — ‘a head of an angel raising its arm in the air so that it is foreshortened from the shoulder to the elbow, the other arm being laid on the breast, showing the hand.’ A figure corresponding to this description has come down to us in several paintings which are clearly replicas of a Leonardesque original. We can see that this angel was very like the St John in general conception, but with the one important difference, that the St John’s right arm is bent across his breast so that his hand points upwards over his left shoulder. The angel’s arm is seen in foreshortening, the hand and index finger pointing upwards; and from this gesture we see that he is an Angel of the Annunciation. Leonardo, with an audacity which is almost disturbing, has shown us the Announcing Angel from the point of vision of Our Lady. We can imagine what complex ideas Leonardo might have wished to express in this strange conception; for the Annunciation can be made to imply that union of flesh and spirit, human and divine, which he wished above all to express. Just as the forces of nature, subject to material analysis up to a point, became suddenly incomprehensible, so the Angel of the Annunciation, though taking human shape, was the agent of a mystery; and mystery to Leonardo was a shadow, a smile and a finger pointing into darkness.

As an Angel, then, this figure is understandable; and if it shocks us, that is largely because we have taken for granted the pagan notion that an angel must be a type of fair-haired physical beauty, fragile or lusty as the taste of the period shall demand. It is less easy to understand how this image could be converted, with a single change of gesture, into a St John, and I must confess that some years ago, when art was supposed to consist in the arrangement of forms, I believed that Leonardo made this alteration for purely formal motives:  that he bent the arm across the figure in order to achieve a denser and more continuous volume. It is true that the St John looks much more solid than the Angel, but we can be sure that Leonardo would not have varied the pose solely for that reason. Between the two figures there is more than a formal connection. They are, in fact, the two messengers announcing the birth of Christ. The Angel points upwards to God; St John points over his shoulder —‘there is one that cometh after me’.  Even this difference does not quite dispose of our difficulties, because the type and expression which can be understood in an Angel may seem to us inconsistent in a St John. And here we must assume that Leonardo had formed of St John a curiously personal conception which we must interpret as best we can. Of several possible interpretations I offer the following which is at least in keeping with Leonardo’s spirit. St John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Truth and the Light. And what is the inevitable precursor of truth? A question. Leonardo’s St John is the eternal question mark, the enigma of creation. He thus becomes Leonardo’s familiar —the spirit which stands at his shoulder and propounds unanswerable riddles. He has the smile of a sphinx, and the power of an obsessive shape. I have pointed out how this gesture — which itself has the rising rhythm of an interrogative — appears throughout Leonardo’s work. Here it is quintessential. The design has the finality of a hard-won form rendered in an intractable material. Leonardo, who could give life to every pose and glance, has subdued his gifts as if he were working in obsidian.

The Louvre ‘St John’ being the most idiosyncratic of Leonardo’s works, was also the most influential; and part of our distaste for it is due to the large number of pupil’s copies which it recalls: for to most people the Milanese school is like the Cheshire cat — only the smile remains. Of these monotonously smiling figures I will mention only one, because it occurs in all early literature as an original Leonardo. This is the so-called ‘Bacchus’ in the Louvre which, reversing the role of Heine’s pagan gods, is really a converted St John the Baptist. As such he is described by Cassiano del Pozzo, who saw him at Fontainebleau in i6z; he adds, ‘it is a most delicate work but does not please because it does not arouse feelings of devotion.’ Presumably for this reason some painter was told to add a crown of vine leaves and change the cross into a thyrsis: and in the 1695 inventory St Jean dans le desert is crossed out and Baccus dans an paysage written instead. These alterations no doubt involved complete repainting, and were probably accompanied by a transference from panel to canvas; as a result the ‘Bacchus’ makes a poor impression and has been rejected from the canon of Leonardo’s work by all serious scholars. But the original design was due to Leonardo and has been preserved in a highly finished red chalk study in the Museum of the Sacro Monte at Varese, which, in spite of retouching seems to me an authentic drawing of about the period 1510 -12. It shows St John completely nude, with a clear, articulate, muscular body, in contrast to the smooth fleshy limbs of the Louvre Bacchus. Whether Leonardo himself did a painting from this drawing we shall never know. Probably he left the execution to Cesare da Sesto, who was working closely with him at this date, and whose style is still perceptible in the Louvre picture. ...

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