John the Baptist, Saint

   Son of Zacharias, a priest of the Temple of Jerusalem, and Elizabeth, the Virgin's cousin, who conceived him in old age. St. John lived as a hermit in the desert of Judea until the age of 30 when he chose to preach in the banks of the Jordan River against the evils of the world and to persuade his listeners to engage in penance and submit to baptism. There, he recognized Christ as the Messiah and baptized him, a scene depicted by Piero della Francesca in the 1450s (London, National Gallery), Andrea del Verrocchio in 1472-1475 (Florence, Uffizi), and El Greco in 1608-1614 (Toledo, Hospital de San Juan Bautista de Afuera). As St. John had attracted large crowds, Herod, fearful of his power, had him arrested. Also contributing to his arrest was the fact that John denounced Herod's marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias, who retaliated by effecting the saint's execution. Herod held a banquet and asked Salome, Herodias' daughter, if she would dance for him. Persuaded by her mother, Salome retorted that she would do so if he gave her the head of the Baptist, to which Herod agreed. The story is the subject of Fra Filippo Lippi's frescoes in the choir of the Prato Cathedral (1452-1466) and Benozzo Gozzoli's painting in the Washington National Gallery (c. 1461-1462). Caravaggio depicted the Baptist's decollation in 1608 (Malta, Church of St. John in Valetta) and Titian painted Salome holding his severed head on a platter in c. 1515 (Rome, Galleria Doria-Pamphili).

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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