The narrative sequence of "Life of Saint John the Baptist"" originally comprised twelve panels. In addition to the six at the Art Institute, an "Annunciation to Zacharias" is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), a "Baptism of Christ" in the Norton Simon Museum (Pasadena), a "Birth of Saint John the Baptist" and a "Saint John the Baptist Accusing Herod" at the Westfälisccches Landesmuseum (Münster, Germany), and a fragment of "Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees" in the Louvre (Paris); the twelfth panel, still missing, probably represented the "Baptism of the multitude".
The series is based on New Testament sources. "Saint John the Baptist Entering the Wilderness" depicts the conclusion of Luke's account of the Baptist's childhood. In this panel, Saint John is shown twice: once as he leaves a walled city, and again as he climbs past cultivated fields into the mountains. "Ecce Agnus Dei" quotes the Baptist's words, "Behold the lamb of God which take away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), as the saint gestures toward Jesus, who stands on the opposite bank of the river Jordan. The third panel shows the Baptist in captivity, following his denunciation of King Herod's illicit marriage; Saint John is conferring with two disciples whom he is about to send to Jesus (Matthew 11/2-3).
The last three scenes follow Matthew's account (14:5-11) of three Baptist's execution; Salome, having been "instructed by her mother", commands her stepfather, Herod, to give her "John Baptist's head in a charger"(14:8). The next panel represents John's decapitation and the placement of severed head on a golden platter; in the last, which, like the first panel, uses sequential narrative, we witness the charger being carried into the banqueting room where Salome dances while Herod recoins in horror.
The original setting of these paintings is still undetermined, but it is possible that they adorned a cupboard containing an important relic of the Baptist that was presented to Siena Cathedral by its former Archbishop; Pope Pius II, in 1464. As this donation had been commissioned in advance to prepare for its reception. Inspiration for much of the series was provided by celebrated bronze reliefs by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Giovanni Turini around the font in the Baptistery of Saint John, beneath the apse of the Siena Cathedral.
Throughout his long career, Giovanni di Paolo remained faithful to the International Gothic, a style of sinuous, attenuated forms and sumptuous textures that was prevalent throughout Western Europe in the early fourteenth century and remained popular in artistically conservative Siena through the fifteenth. The artist's exquisite sense of color, his eccentric imagination, and the disparities of scale between his figures and architecture lend his works irresistible charm. The "Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist" are among Giovanni's most outstanding works, unsurpassed as a represent Giovanni's mature style which acutely observed realism.
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