(b. ca. 1440, Seligenstadt, d. 1494, Bruges)
St John Altarpiece (left wing)1474-79
Oil on oak panel, 176 x 78,9 cm
Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges
The left wing features the Beheading of St John the Baptist.
The scenes in the triptych dealing with St John the Baptist are the following (in chronological order).
The first capital above the Baptist's head (central panel) represents the announcement of his birth to Zacharias. The birth itself is shown in the second capital. His life story commences in the far left background of the central panel, before meandering across the left wing and back into the middle. The evangelical episodes comprise a synthesis of all four Gospels, although some derive solely from the Gospel of St John. From rear to front in the central panel, we see St John the Baptist praying in the wilderness (the forest) and the Sermon. In the left wing, from left to right: St John the Baptist answering the questions of the priests and Levites, the Baptism of Christ and the Ecce Agnus Dei enacted before John's first two disciples on the opposite bank of the Jordan. The Arrest of St John the Baptist by Herod is once again portrayed in the central panel. John is led away to the left towards the prison tower in the left wing, opposite which Salome's dance takes place in an open chamber of the palace. Sculpted figures in niches above this scene, represent a naked man between two naked women. We are meant to understand these as pagan images, possibly alluding to Herod's immoral behaviour.
The Beheading of St John the Baptist in the foreground takes place on the high, barren execution yard of the prison, which is reached by a staircase from the courtyard of the palace. The two disciples of John the Baptist, Andrew and St John the Apostle, are seen standing to the right of this courtyard. Behind and to the right of the figure of the Baptist in the central panel, his body is exhumed at the command of Emperor Julian the Apostate in Sebaste, and burned. His semi-decomposed head, which according to legend was hidden by Herodias, or buried separately by the apostles, can be seen in an opening in the wall, behind a stone that has been pushed aside.