Leonardo da Vinci Paints St. John the Baptist
St. John the Baptist is an oil painting on walnut wood by the artist Leonardo da Vinci.
Completed from 1513 to 1516, when the High Renaissance was metamorphosing into Mannerism, it is believed to be his last painting. The original size of the work was 69x57 cm. It is now exhibited at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France.
The piece depicts St. John the Baptist in isolation. St. John is dressed in pelts, has long curly hair, and is smiling in an enigmatic manner which is reminiscent of Leonardo's famous Mona Lisa. He holds a reed cross in his left hand while his right hand points up toward heaven. It is believed that the cross and wool skins were added at a later date by another painter.
Some have also argued that St. John's appearance is androgynous or hermaphroditic, a theory that is supported by a sketch by Leonardo known as "The Angel in the Flesh".
The pointing gesture of St. John toward the heavens suggests the importance of salvation through baptism that John the Baptist represents. The work is often quoted by later painters, especially those in the late Renaissance and Mannerist schools. The inclusion of a gesture similar to John's would increase the importance of a work with a religious conceit.
In St John the Baptist, Leonardo avoids the absolute definition of space by setting the figure against a dark background. A profound sensation of three-dimensional form has been created through the use of chiaroscuro.
Leonardo was aware of the inherent dangers of this system. Earlier in his notes he warned that a figure will not be discerned against a dark background and will not appear to be detached from it. From a distance nothing will be visible but the illuminated parts. However, in the shadows of the body of St John the Baptist, Leonardo has retained just enough light for us to be able to comprehend his form fully. As in the moon, even the dark areas of his figure retain a “slight glimmer” of reflected radiance.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Works