Artist: Lucas Cranach the Elder
Medium: Oil on poplar panel
Size: 87 x 58 cm
Date: c. 1530
Location: Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
TWENTY SAINTS IN TWENTY DAYS: PART 17 – ST JOHN THE BAPTIST
John the Baptist (c. 6 BC – c. 36 AD) was an itinerant preacher and a major religious figure who led a movement of baptism at the Jordan River. Most biblical historians agree that John baptized Jesus at "Bethany beyond the Jordan," by wading into the water with Jesus from the eastern bank. Christians believe that John the Baptist had a specific role ordained by God as forerunner or precursor of Jesus, who was the foretold Messiah. In addition to the Canonical gospels, John the Baptist is also mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus, whose accounts of John appear compatible with the account in the New Testament. In the Gospel accounts of John's death, Herod has John imprisoned for denouncing his marriage. John condemned Herod for marrying Herodias, the former wife of his brother Philip, in violation of Old Testament Law. Later at a banquet her daughter dances before Herod, who, in appreciation of her dance, offers her a favor in return. Herodias tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist, which is subsequently delivered to her on a plate.
This is one of the characteristic portraits which were painted in large number by the artist and his workshop. It has been surmised that most of the sitters of these portraits were noble ladies of the court in Saxony. This image has taken the events depicted in the New Testament, and transported the scene to 16th century Europe. In fact, if one were to only view the top two-thirds of this painting, it would seem like many genteel portraits of court ladies that were done in the same period. It is not until the head of the Baptist is viewed on the platter, with the gory neck wound, mouth agape, and eyes fading, that the horror of what has transpired hits home.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (October 1472 – October 1553), was a German Renaissance painter and printmaker. He was court painter to the Electors of Saxony for most of his career, and is known for his portraits, both of German princes and those of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. He painted many religious subjects, first in the Catholic tradition, and later trying to find new ways of conveying Lutheran religious concerns in art. After Luther's initial hostility to large public religious images had softened, Cranach painted a number of "Lutheran altarpieces" of the Last Supper and other subjects, in which Christ was shown in a traditional manner, including a halo, but the apostles, without halos, were portraits of leading reformers. He also produced a number of violent anti-Catholic propaganda prints, in a cruder style, directed against the Papacy and the Catholic clergy.