La predicazione di San Giovanni Battista (1505)

Raffaello (1483-1520)

La predicazione di San Giovanni Battista (Saint John the Baptist Preaching)
Oil on poplar, 26.2 × 52 cm
National GalleryLondon

This is the only surviving predella scene of Raphael’s Ansidei Altarpiece for the Ansidei chapel in S. Fiorenzo, Perugia. The main panel of the altarpiece, The Ansidei Madonna, is also in the National Gallery’s collection.

The predella would have been situated beneath the main panel of the altarpiece. It was usual for the predella to depict narrative scenes of the lives of the saints and holy figures featured in the main panel above. This scene would have been placed beneath the figure of John the Baptist. Below Saint Nicholas was a shipwreck, relating to one of his posthumous miracles; that scene seems not to have survived. The scenes were most likely painted on a single horizontal plank of wood, after the predella was already framed.

Here John the Baptist appears as the forerunner of Christ, standing on a hillock preaching to a crowd of men (Luke 3: 1–17). He can be identified by his traditional camel-skin costume, which he wears beneath a billowing red mantle, and by the thin reed cross held in his left hand. He points towards heaven, referring to the coming of Christ. When the altarpiece was intact, he would also have been pointing to the identically dressed Baptist in the main panel above, who points towards the infant Christ.

The main focus of the scene is on the crowd and their varying reactions to John the Baptist’s message. His audience is arranged into four groups, differentiated not only by their varied poses but also by their different costumes and expressions. Raphael has used a wide range of clear bright colours, disposed in a lively rhythm across the panel. No single figure wears the same combination of colours. The shapes of the hats are also particularly varied, enhancing the individuality of the figures. The man in purple in the front row listens with rapt attention whereas the fat man in yellow at the back sticks his thumb in his belt and turns with his hand on his hip to his companion with an expression of scepticism. The range of characterisation suggests that Raphael had seen the lively crowd scenes in the prints of Dürer and Schongauer. The two babies on the rock in the front row of the crowd recall the infant Christ and John the Baptist from other images, such as Raphael’s Garvagh Madonna. One baby clings to his father’s leg in fear at the Baptist’s predictions while the other reaches out to support and comfort him.

Raphael’s sketches in black chalk for some of the figures in the crowd appear on a sheet of drawings now in the Ashmolean MuseumOxford. Infrared reflectography shows that the final design for the painting was transferred to the panel from a pricked cartoon. An inventory of 1771 from the Palazzo Ansidei refers to a similar sized drawing of the same subject, suggesting that the cartoon may have remained in the family’s possession, although its whereabouts is unknown today. (NG)

Main panel:

Raffaello (1483-1520)
Madonna Ansidei
National GalleryLondon



Raphael painted this altarpiece for the Ansidei family chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas in the Servite Church of S. Fiorenzo in Perugia. The chapel had been built in 1484 by Filippo di Ansideo di Simone ‘de Catrano’, a wealthy wool merchant. His will of December 1490 left funds for maintaining the chapel as well as for his burial in the church.

The altarpiece would have been made up of the main panel, featuring the enthroned Virgin Mary and Christ Child flanked by Saint Nicholas on the right and Saint John the Baptist on the left, and a lower horizontal painted panel known as a predella. One of the two scenes from the predella, Saint John the Baptist preaching, is also in the National Gallery’s collection. The other predella scene, which probably depicted a posthumous miracle of Saint Nicholas, is missing.

Niccolò (1469–after 1527), Filippo’s eldest son, inherited his father’s business interests and probably also became patron of the chapel. It was most likely he who commissioned the 22-year-old Raphael to paint the altarpiece in around 15045. The two saints in the altarpiece – Nicholas and John the Baptist – reflect his own name and that of his son Giovanni Battista. The date MDV (1505) is inscribed in gold on the hem of the Virgin’s mantle. As he was from Perugia, Niccolò probably wanted to commission an altarpiece in the style of the famous local artist Perugino. His decision to employ Raphael may have been because the artist was influenced by Perugino and had probably also worked with him after his move to the city in 1502.

This type of unified single panel altarpiece, in which the enthroned Virgin and Child are accompanied by saints, is known as a sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’). It developed from the earlier style of altarpiece known as a polyptych, in which the Virgin and Child would be represented in a central panel and the saints depicted separately in individual flanking panels. Although the saints here are not literally conversing, there is a sense of quiet communion between them.

The Ansidei altar was originally located on a pier at the crossing of the church. The altar was demolished when the church underwent extensive renovations in 176870. Shortly before this, Raphael’s altarpiece with part of the predella was sold by the monks of S. Fiorenzo to pay for the building works. The Ansidei Madonna and predella panel of Saint John the Baptist Preaching were purchased by the National Gallery in 1885. (NG)