Andrea Solario Head of John the Baptist
Andrea Solario's Head of John the Baptist, painted in 1507, is a chilling vision of the infamous beheading of John the Baptist by the forces of King Herod by request of the dancing girl Salome who asked for the head of the proto-Christian figure on a platter. Revered as a forerunner of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist is one of the most important early Christian figures, and a seminal individual who bridged the gap between Judaism and early Christianity. Also an important figure in Islamic doctrine, John the Baptist has fascinated artists for millennia, many of which chose to focus on the ghostly and morbid presence of the disembodied head. In the violent times of the medieval and Renaissance period, many individuals would have seen a beheading or a disembodied head. Solario's Head of John the Baptist, therefore must be seen as an act reflective of a political and social reality, rather than as an act of shocking brutality. Yet the power of the painting lies in the artists' humility and reverence for the head of this most majestic figure, whose life was cut short at the whim of a courtesan.
Solario's Head of John the Baptist was painted on commission for Cardinal Georges d'Amboise during his stay in Milan in 1507. As a former pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, Solario perhaps also used a drawing by his teacher as the basis of his study. Yet the powerful effect of the work is purely the artist's own. The vivid juxtaposition between the subject and the background, reinforced by the existence of the original frame, shows a remarkable sense of minimalism and economy. The utter lack of light seems to point to the dim and cursed end of this heavenly individual. As with Caravaggio's painting almost a century later, the face of John the Baptist is said to be that of Solario himself.
Head of John the Baptist is one of the first works to depict the disembodied head resting on the platter requested by Salome. Having existed in Christian iconography since at least the fourteenth century, Solario's work, which now hangs prominently in the Louvre, is a remarkable work of restraint and reserve, which achieves the most vivid effect through its humility and austerity. Many would go on to paint their own take on the delivery of John the Baptist's head to the dancing girl Salome, but few would manage to do so with such power.
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