San Giovanni Battista nel deserto (c.1445-1450)

Domenico Veneziano (c.1410-1461)

San Giovanni Battista nel deserto (Saint John the Baptist in the Desert)
Tempera on panel, 28.4 x 31.8 cm
National Gallery of ArtWashington

One of Domenico Veneziano‘s major works is an altarpiece that he painted about 1445 for the Church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli, in Florence. The incident illustrated in this small panel from the base of the altarpiece is John’s act of exchanging his rich, worldly clothes for a rough, camel–hair coat. In the few known representations of John in the wilderness that preceded Domenico‘s version, the emphasis was placed either on the divine origin of the saint’s animal skin or on his preaching. Domenico, however, shifted attention from mere narration to the spiritual significance of John’s decision to forsake luxury in favor of a life of piety. Rather than showing the saint in the usual manner, as a mature, bearded hermit, Domenico painted a youthful figure. Clearly classical in appearance, his saint is one of the earliest embodiments of the Renaissance preoccupation with antique models. However, a fusion of pagan and Christian ideas is suggested; the Grecian type is transformed into a religious being by the golden halo above his head. Another innovative combination of elements exists in the arrangement of this male nude in a landscape that retains artistic features from the High Gothic era of the late Middle Ages. Symbolic rather than realistic, the rugged mountains enliven the drama of John’s decision by emphasizing the desolate nature of his chosen environment. (NGA)