St. John the Baptist (Leonardo)

St. John the Baptist
Artist Leonardo da Vinci
Year 1513–1516 (?)
Medium Oil on walnut wood
Dimensions 69 cm × 57 cm (27.16 in × 22.44 in)
Location Louvre, Paris

St. John the Baptist is a High Renaissance oil painting on walnut wood by Leonardo da Vinci. Probably completed from 1513 to 1516, it is believed to be his final painting and is now exhibited at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France.

Subject matter

The piece depicts St. John the Baptist in isolation. Through use of chiaroscuro, the figure appears to emerge from the shadowy background. St. John is dressed in pelts, has long curly hair, and is smiling in an enigmatic manner reminiscent of Leonardo's famous Mona Lisa. He holds a reed cross in his left hand while his right hand points up toward heaven like St Anne in Leonardo's Burlington House Cartoon. According to Zöllner, Leonardo's use of sfumato "conveys the religious content of the picture," and that "the gentle shadows imbue the subject's skin tones with a very soft, delicate appearance, almost androgynous in its effect, which has led to this portrayal being interpreted as an expression of Leonardo's homoerotic leanings."[1]

Kenneth Clark claimed that for Leonardo, St. John represented "the eternal question mark, the enigma of creation", and noted the sense of "uneasiness" that the painting imbues.[2] Barolsky adds that: "Describing Saint John emerging from darkness in almost shockingly immediate relation to the beholder, Leonardo magnifies the very ambiguity between spirit and flesh. The grace of Leonardo's figure, which has a disturbingly erotic charge, nonetheless conveys a spiritual meaning to which Saint John refers when he speaks of the fullness of grace from God."[3]


The dating of St. John the Baptist is disputed.[4] It was seen by Antonio de Beatis in Leonardo's workshop at Clos Lucé;[5] his diary entry giving a terminus ante quem of 17 October 1517.

Traditionally the painting has been considered the artist's last and dated to 1513-16; Leonardo's sfumato technique here being considered to have reached its apogee.[4] Some experts, however, have compared the hand of St. John to a similar work by a pupil in the Codex Atlanticus, dating the commencement of the picture to around 1509.[4]


St. John the Baptist was apparently part of King Francis' collection at Fontainebleu in 1542. In 1625 King Charles I received the painting from Louis XIII in return for a Titian Holy Family and Holbein's Portrait of Erasmus.[4] In 1649 Charles' collection was sold, whereupon the painting entered into the hands of banker Eberhard Jabach.[4] After a spell in the possession of Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661 the piece once again returned to the King of France – Louis XIV. Following the revolution the painting entered the collection at the Louvre where it remains to this day.[4]


Prior to this work, St. John had traditionally been portrayed as a gaunt ascetic. Leonardo's innovative depiction proved influential upon Raphael's workshop; several portraits of St. John painted around 1517-18 attributed to Raphael and Giulio Romano show a similarly youthful saint in isolation, with a strong contrast between the dark background and the illumination of the figure.[6]

Numerous copies and variations of St. John the Baptist made by Leonardeschi exist.


  1. Zöllner, Frank (2000). Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519. ISBN 9783822859797.
  2. Barolsky, Paul (1999). Leonardo Da Vinci, Selected Scholarship: Leonardo's projects, c. 1500-1519. p. 391. ISBN 9780815329350.
  3. Barolsky, Paul. Leonardo Da Vinci, Selected Scholarship: Leonardo's projects, c. 1500-1519. p. 394.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Frank Zöllner. Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings. p. 248.
  5. Farago, Claire J (1999). Biography and Early Art Criticism of Leonardo Da Vinci. p. 66. ISBN 9780815329336.
  6. Zöllner, Frank (2000). Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519. p. 199. ISBN 9783822859797.
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