TO JESUS THROUGH JOHN: ‘St. John the Baptist’ by Leonardo Da Vinci (1513 – 1516)
‘Where the Spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art’ – Da Vinci
Born in 1452, Leonardo da Vinci (literally of Vinci, a region near Florence, Italy) had an uninhibited search for knowledge. A multifaceted genius and a blue-sky thinker, his interest in architecture, engineering, sculpting, mathematics, science, anatomy, biology, astronomy etc won him the epithet ‘The Renaissance Man’. His absolute thirst for unending knowledge and his infinite ‘why’s’ produced several substantial cross-disciplinary connections that unravelled the science of art and the art of science. Till date, most of his works continue to stir controversies, theories, feuds and fantasies.
One such masterpiece was executed by this creative genius during the final years of his life (1513 – 1516) which also coincided with the metamorphosis of the High Renaissance into Mannerism. Considered to be an exclusive ‘Leonardesque’, the ‘Saint John the Baptist’, reflects Da Vinci’s profound progress in thought and steady stride in skill. An oil painting on walnut wood, the ‘St. John the Baptist’ is currently housed in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France.
The work depicts the Baptist in solitude as he appears to advance out of the deep shadows that surround him. The reed cross held to his chest and the animal pelts that partially cover his illuminated body iconographically indicate to the Precursor of Christ and the Patron Saint of Florence. His right hand and his forefinger is upraised, hailing to the heavens, a gesture that professes his mission on earth to preach penitence and thus ‘prepare the way’ for the coming of the Messiah.
Half-length and marginally turned, the subject gazes at the viewer with subtle steadfast eyes. His oval and faun-like face is framed by a cascade of curls that tumble down in two hemispheres. His nose is straight and fine, highlighted along its ridge while his mouth bears an enigmatic, allusive and familiar smile. This ‘Leonardesque’ motif, without batting an eyelash, instantaneously reminds us of the greatly acclaimed Mona Lisa.
The perplexity that surrounds this ambiguous smile is supported by an irony. St. John the Baptist in popular art is portrayed as a gaunt and fiery ascetic – the prophet of the desert – who nourished himself with locusts and wild honey. However the depiction by Da Vinci is far from favoured narration. It propels us to probe further into the history of this mystery.
It is important to note that contemporary and relevant sources do not refer to the subject as the Baptist. Rather Vasari, best known for his vital biographies of Italian Renaissance artists, talks of an ‘angel’ in the Medici collections, which he attributes to be the work of Leonardo. The account astonishingly coincides with the description of what we now regard to be the painting of ‘St. John the Baptist’. Thus, it has been suggested and contested that the artist initially perceived to paint an Angel of the Annunciation. However, at some later stage, the subject was eventually developed into this intriguing yet extraordinary figure. Whatsoever the purpose of the painting, this spectacular work of art spells out yet another ‘Leonardesque’ motif commonly called ‘the John’s gesture’ and relentlessly imitated by several painters till date.
The beauty of this painting also dwells in its sfumato technique of execution. In fine art, the term ‘sfumato’ is derived from the Italian word ‘fumo’ meaning ‘smoke’. Thus as defined by Da Vinci himself, sfumato refers to a technique of oil painting ‘without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane’. Here the colours blend in a subtle manner that creates a gradual tonal spectrum ranging from dark to light and vice versa. It imitates the region beyond the concentration of the human eye. For example: Notice the upraised finger of the Baptist.
John the Baptist, the man of the desert, devoid of illusions or delusions, kept at his task of announcing and pointing out to the One who is to come. Notice the subtle light that radiates through the Baptist surrounded by stark darkness. He illuminates the words of the Gospel of John, chapter 1: 6 – 9: ‘There was a man, sent by God; his name was John. He came to bear witness to the Light so that all might believe through him. He was not the light but he came to bear witness to the Light. For the true Light was coming to the world’. Thus as the enlightened Baptist pronounces ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, in his light, we encounter the Light of the World.
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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