The Subject and Cult of Saint John:
The story of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist comes from the Gospels of Matthew 14:6–12 and Mark 6:21–29. Saint John was arrested for criticizing King Herod’s incestuous marriage to Herodias, the wife of his slain brother Philip. Herodias’s daughter, Salome, delighted the king by dancing for him during his birthday banquet, and as a result, Herod offered to give her whatever she wished. Herodias, seeking revenge against John the Baptist, instructed her daughter to request the prophet’s head on a platter. Although reluctant, Herod was bound by his promise, and he ordered the execution. Salome subsequently presented the grisly object to her mother.
In 1206, after the Fourth Crusade, a relic of Saint John’s head was brought to Amiens where a cathedral was built to house it. It attracted many pilgrims due to the object’s reputed healing powers. However, as many as thirteen other relics of the saint’s head have been claimed by other churches, and the growing popularity of the cult of Saint John led to an extensive sculptural tradition representing his head on a charger. Housed in churches, these sculptures were carried in processions and displayed on altars to mark the summer feast days of Saint John’s birth (June 24) and beheading (August 29) (see Barbara Baert, Caput Johannis in Disco
, trans. Irene Schaudies, Leiden, 2012, pp. 61–82).
Saint John the Baptist is considered a precursor of Christ, and in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries his execution was seen as a portent of Christ’s Crucifixion. Images including the charger were thus associated with the Last Supper, which likewise recalls Christ’s sacrifice and the celebration of the Eucharist. The York Breviary, printed in 1493, comprises a text on the Feast of the Decollation of Saint John the Baptist that elucidates this: “Saint John’s head on the dish is a sign of the body of Christ, which feeds us on the holy altar” (Stuebe 1968–69). The liturgical function of visual representations of the theme is recorded in one panel of an early sixteenth-century German altarpiece on the life of Saint John (Pfarrkirche St. Johannes der Täufer, Gutenstetten). Here a large-scale painting or sculpture of the saint’s head on a charger, seemingly come to life, is shown prominently placed on the altar and venerated by a large crowd (see Additional Images, fig. 2).The Painting:
The relatively small size of the MMA Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Charger
supports the notion that the painting was intended for private devotion (Henderiks 2011 and 2015; see also MMA 13.124
). The circular support and the trompe-l’oeil rendering ingeniously mimic the actual platter that held the saint’s head. The painting was likely displayed in a home, not framed but propped up on a table like a precious plate, thus enhancing the mimetic quality of the image (Sprinson de Jésus 1998 and Henderiks 2015) (see Technical Notes). It also may have been hand-held for devotional practice. Versions of the subject designed for personal use, such as medals and amulets, were utilized for healing and protective purposes (see Baert, Caput Johannis in Disco
, pp. 61–82, 98–104), and devotional paintings such as the MMA example may also have had reputed apotropaic powers.
The composition was a common one by the end of the fifteenth century, and its popularity continued through the early seventeenth century. The MMA painting is one of more than twenty surviving versions. The prototype, presumed lost, was probably designed by Dieric Bouts (active by 1457–died 1475), the leading painter of late fifteenth-century Leuven, and most copies come from his workshop or that of his son, Aelbert (for the artists’ biographies see MMA 30.95.280
; see also MMA 32.100.55
and MMA 71.156–57
). Although the MMA painting reveals no apparent evidence of a pattern transfer (see Technical Notes), these copies and variations were produced from common workshop patterns.
The 2014 cleaning and restoration of the MMA painting uncovered an important detail formerly obscured by overpaint: a forehead wound just above Saint John’s right eyebrow, rendered with a few strokes of red and blue paint (see Technical Notes). The placement of the wound on the forehead corresponds with a hole in the skull of the famous relic at Amiens (Stuebe 1968–69; Lane 1978). It appears in other versions from Aelbert’s workshop, and apparently refers to the story that Herodias vengefully stabbed the head with a knife when Salome presented it to her. This narrative detail developed from apocryphal retellings of the life of John the Baptist, dating back as early as the fourth century, in which Herodias threatens to stab or does stab the tongue of the saint, as recounted in texts by Saint Jerome and Pseudo-Serapion (Stuebe 1968–69). In Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint John Altarpiece
(Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), the stabbing scene is depicted behind the foreground scene where Salome receives the severed head on a golden charger strikingly similar to the one depicted by Aelbert (see Additional Images, fig. 3). A sixteenth-century bronze medal (Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp) also repeats the scene of Herodias wounding the saint’s head, in a highly portable format designed for private use (see Baert, Caput Johannis in Disco
, pp. 98–99).The Attribution:
In her monograph on Aelbert Bouts, Valentine Henderiks (2011) described the MMA panel as a transitional workshop painting, falling stylistically between the group by Dieric and those which can be attributed to his son Aelbert. In light of the recent restoration, which has once again revealed the high quality of the MMA painting, Henderiks has revised her opinion, and now attributes the work to Aelbert around 1500 (Henderiks 2015). The refined execution, and the emphasis placed on the saint’s pronounced features, contribute to the unsettling naturalism characteristic of works by Aelbert (see Technical Notes). The painting is closely related in its approach to another example by Aelbert’s hand (Landesmuseum, Oldenburg; see Additional Images, fig. 4). Nevertheless, the subtlety of the glazes used for Saint John’s face in the MMA painting differs from the more linear technique and the greater exaggeration of the features seen in the Oldenburg painting, dating somewhat later, around 1500–1510.
[2012; updated by Anna-Claire Stinebring 2015]