MASTER of the Life of Saint John the Baptist
(active 1325-1350 in Rimini)

Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist

Tempera on panel, 49 x 41 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

This panel, the Gallery's Baptism of Christ, and several in other museums were part of an altarpiece illustrating the life of John the Baptist. It may have been commissioned for use in a baptistery.The various panels can be linked because the halos were decorated with the same metal punches and the backgrounds carved in the same brocade pattern. Such clues can often help identify paintings from a single workshop and to reconstruct works that have been dismantled and dispersed over time.

Here we see a sequence of three separate events from the Baptist's infancy. First, two women admire the new infant, while a child peers in from the doorway. Next, John's father, Zacharias, writes "his name is John" on a scroll. While writing he regains the power of speech, which had been taken from him because he was skeptical of God's announcement that his elderly wife would conceive. One witness looks right, leading our eye to the third scene, where the infant John struggles while being circumcised.

The panel's strong narrative sense and broad, simple figures reflect Giotto's influence. But its strongly contrasting colors and rich detail -- the patterned background, the heavy curtains, and architectural decoration -- express the younger artist's own preferences.