Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Charger

Aelbert Bouts (Netherlandish, Leuven ca. 1451/54–1549)
ca. 1500
Oil on poplar
Diameter 11 1/8 in. (28.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Rupert L. Joseph, 1959
Accession Number:
Not on view
This grisly depiction of John the Baptist's severed head was once an extremely popular image, due to the saint’s growing cult in the Middle Ages. Since John was considered to be Christ’s forerunner and herald, his execution was interpreted as a metaphor for the latter’s crucifixion. This panel is one of more than twenty versions which were produced through the transfer of the design from a common workshop pattern in the circles of Dieric Bouts and his son Aelbert. The mimetic potential of oil painting is used here to create the illusion of a real head on a real platter.
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]
Support: The support is a single plank of poplar [identified by Peter Klein, based on visual inspection], with the grain oriented vertically. The wood could not be dated with dendrochronological analysis. As a possible explanation for the use of poplar in the Metropolitan panel and fruitwood in another version of the composition in the Landesmuseum, Oldenburg (inv. no. 60.55.2) rather than the far more commonly used oak, Hélène Verougstraete-Marcq and Roger Van Schoute (1989) note that lathe turners provided some circular supports for paintings and that this class of craftsmen was not permitted to work in oak. This theory is intriguing, but no physical evidence remains that could indicate that the MMA panel was produced on a lathe.

The panel measures 7/16 inch (1.1cm) thick. Exposed woodworm channels on the reverse indicate that the panel has been thinned. The back of the panel has also been roughly beveled and painted black. There are shallow carved indents on the front of the painting, at the top and bottom edge. These indents could relate to how the painting was supported for display, at an earlier date. Two wood inserts have been added along the right side, presumably to repair old damages.

Preparation: The panel was prepared with a white ground. The appearance of the gold background, applied over a light reddish bole, is characteristic of mordant gilding. There is no trace of a barbe, suggesting that the painting was not originally painted in an engaged frame.

No underdrawing was detected using infrared reflectography.

Paint Layers: The artist has taken advantage of the translucent glazes possible with oil paint to achieve a remarkably illusionistic effect: the head truly seems to sit atop the golden charger. Glazes also suggest that the dead saint’s skin is just beginning to sink in to the hollows of the skull, giving the impression that he is only recently deceased. The delicacy of the technique is particularly evident in the inclusion of tiny details that together enrich this simple composition: the glint of the teeth, the fine strokes of the hair, and the tiny wound above the right eye, limned with minute blue and red paintstrokes.

There is some rubbing in the browns, especially in the Baptist’s left cheek. The loss of attenuating glazes accentuate the angularity of the planes of the face.

The gold background is somewhat damaged, diminishing the trompe l’oeil effect. The golden charger has been modelled using warm brown glazes, which were abraded and restored in the past. Many of the black hatches are also damaged, making it difficult to reconstruct their original appearance. In general they do not contribute to the shading but are placed all over in a decorative manner, consistent with other gold ground Netherlandish paintings.

[Sophie Scully 2015]
Johann Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (until d. 1811); his son, Ludwig Georg Thedel, Feld-Marschall Graf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (1811–19; sold for 15 Rhenish guilders to Schaumberg-Lippe); Fürst Georg Wilhelm zu Schaumburg-Lippe, Schloß Bückeburg (1819–d. 1860; inv. no. 667); Fürst Adolph Georg zu Schaumburg-Lippe, Schloß Bückeburg (1860–d. 1893); Fürst Stephan Albrecht Georg zu Schaumburg-Lippe, Schloß Bückeburg (1893–d. 1911); Fürst Adolf Bernhard Moritz Ernst Waldemar zu Schaumburg-Lippe (1911–29; sold to Rosenbaum); [Rosenbaum, Frankfurt-am-Main, and Böhler, Munich, 1929–at least 1931]; Sir Robert Henry Edward Abdy, 5th Baronet, ?Paris and Newton Ferrers, Callington, Cornwall (until 1936; sale, Sotheby's, London, May 28, 1936, no. 56, for £120 to Joseph); Rupert L. Joseph, New York (1936–d. 1959)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 57.

Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg. "Blut und Tränen: Albrecht Bouts und das Antlitz der Passion," October 7, 2016–February 12, 2017, no. 38.

Aachen. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum. "Blut und Tränen: Albrecht Bouts und das Antlitz der Passion," March 8–June 11, 2017, no. 38.

Verzeichniss der Gräflich-Wallmodenschen Gemälde-Sammlung, welche am 1 Sept. des laufenden Jahres und im den folgenden wochen zu Hannover meistbietend verkauft werden soll. Hanover, 1818, p. 78, no. 396, as by Lucas van Leyden; notes that the painting was damaged by a wanton saber blow during the last wartime; states in the foreword that the collection was put together by the deceased Duke of Wallmoden-Gimborn [i.e., Johann Ludwig, Reichsgraf von Wallmoden-Gimborn (1736–1811)].

Wolfgang Schöne. Dieric Bouts und seine Schule. Berlin, 1938, pp. 140–41, no. 25k, includes among eleven variations after a lost original by Dieric Bouts.

"A Reinstallaiton of the Medieval Renaissance and 18th Century Collections . . ." Joslyn Memorial Art Museum Bulletin no. 1 (October 1947), p. 4, as lent by Mr. Rupert T. Joseph.

Colin Eisler. "Erik Larsen, Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York, 1960." Art Bulletin 46 (March 1964), p. 103.

Jan Bialostocki. Les Musées de Pologne: (Gdansk, Krakow, Warszawa) [Les primitifs flamands, I: Corpus de la peinture des anciens pays-bas méridionaux au quinzième siècle, vol. 9]. Brussels, 1966, p. 24.

Isabel Combs Stuebe. "The 'Johannisschüssel: From Narrative to Reliquary to 'Andachtsbild''." Marsyas 14 (1968–69), p. 9, fig. 6.

Dominique Hollanders-Favart, Roger van Schoute, and Hélène Verougstraete-Marcq. "Les 'Chefs de Saint Jean-Baptiste' attribués à l'entourage de Bouts: Considérations sur la datation à partir de l'étude de l'état matériel." Arca Lovaniensis 4 (1975), pp. 66–81.

Barbara G. Lane. "Rogier's Saint John and Miraflores Altarpieces Reconsidered." Art Bulletin 60 (December 1978), pp. 663–65, ill.

Hélène Verougstraete-Marcq and Roger van Schoute. Cadres et supports dans la peinture flamande aux 15e et 16e siècles. Heure-le-Romain, 1989, p. 13.

Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke in Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, p. 319, no. 121, ill.

Mary Sprinson de Jesús in From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 240–41, no. 57, ill. (color), places it in the first quarter of the sixteenth century; notes that many of these images have neither an unpainted edge nor an engaged frame, suggesting that they were exhibited unframed in a specific context.

Cyriel Stroo et al. The Flemish Primitives II: Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Vol. 2, The Dirk Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes Groups. Brussels, 1999, p. 131, fig. 62, describe our roundel as "a transitional version to the second type" of Boutsian St. John's head; illustrate it as "Albrecht Bouts (attributed to)".

Valentine Henderiks. Albrecht Bouts (1451/55–1549). Brussels, 2011, pp. 295–96, 299, 301, 303, 335 n. 327, p. 336 nn. 338, 343, 349, p. 409, no. 254, ill., and fig. 263 (color), as by the workshop of Dieric or Aelbert Bouts.

Hélène Verougstraete. Frames and Supports in 15th- and 16th-century Southern Netherlandish Painting. 2015, p. 8 [; revision of Verougstraete-Marcq and Schoute 1989].

Valentine Henderiks. Memo to archive files. April 20, 2015, in light of recent restoration, revises her earlier (2011) opinion, now attributing the work to Aelbert Bouts; dates it about 1500.

Valentine Henderiks in Blut und Tränen: Albrecht Bouts und das Antlitz der Passion. Ed. Peter van den Brink et al. Exh. cat., Musée National d'Histoire et d'Art Luxembourg. Regensburg, 2016, pp. 40, 150, 152, 154, 156, no. 38, ill. pp. 10–11, 151 (color, overall and detail).

Malve Anna Falk in Die Gemäldegalerie Oldenburg: eine europäische Altmeistersammlung. Ed. Sebastian Dohe et al. Oldenburg, 2017, p. 407, fig. 270a (color), under no. 270.

Valentine Henderiks in Old Masters. Christie's, New York. October 31, 2017, unpaginated, under no. 8, mentions it in the entry for an identical work from a Belgian private collection, also by Aelbert Bouts and dating from 1495–1500; notes that it is difficult to determine which is the prime version, but examination by infrared reflectography favors the painting from the private collection.

According to a letter from J. W. Goodison, Deputy Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, this picture was lent to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1936 by Rupert Joseph (see Paintings Department Archives). Subsequently, Mr. Joseph loaned the painting to the Joslyn Memorial Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, from 1942 to 1948, and to the Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1948.
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