Life of Saint John


This exhibit shows the details of St. John's journey. The Sienese style paintings created by Giovanni Di Paolo, illuminates the story of St. John to interpret and teach people about the church. These paintings tell the story of St. John being a disciple of Christ up until his is death being martyred at the request of Salome. St. John is a very important biblical character. He was a messenger, a baptist and a preparer of Christ coming. St. John foretold when Christ would come and is best known for baptizing Christ and helping him be born again. Giovanni Di Paolo is known for his various creations and monumental altarpieces. Provided are a few facts about each painting to explain the St John’s story and understand the style of Sienese art.  Here you will see six scenes by Giovanni di Paolo to narrate St. John’s life and break down the characteristics of Sienese art.

Giovanni di Paolo carries brilliant colorful vision of Sienese 15th-century paintings on into the Renaissance. The Sienese art was deeply influenced by spiritual sense of the city. In Siena they focused on their main saints and sticking to their history. Sienese art styles consist of gothic designs, gold background and decorative details. If compared to Florence one would know Siena was big on traditional and restoring old historical art. In Florence people would tear down old art to keep up with new trends but that was not done here in Siena. "Sculptures opened a new world to Sienese painters, but it didn't destroy their highly individual character. A preference for lavish materials, brilliant colors, and tooled gold remained enduring features of Sienese painting and were repeatedly stipulated in surviving contracts. This was, evidently, the product of a peculiarly Sienese love for pageantry and elegance for which there is amble testimony." (Christiansen) This painting, “Saint John the Baptist,” has the gold background detail pushing Saint John forward to the viewers. Giovanni di Paolo created this lushest long and fluid motion within the cloth and with his stance shows the importance of St John’s life. He also elongates the form of Saint John creating him as this tall and slender man.
Here St. John is created with detailed brush strokes and the lighting and shadows used adds depth the form of his skin and creates contours in his body. St. John is shown holding his hand in the blessed position and his iconic cross symbol. In looking at his clothing he is wearing his hairy camel cloth and red drapery. The curly motion in his hair is then repeated in his camel clothing. The red cloth he wears is shown almost draping over is elongated body causing him to have more weight in his mid section. Sienese art as seen in this painting stuck with sold, naturalistic, three dimensional forms in a one perspective view. Humanism came later to be added in their art because Siena embraced Florence innovations late.
Siena was a Republic and was governed by bankers and merchants located in Tuscany. In the 15th century they regained their city from the Visconti and reasserted their historical roots. Siena was the main bankers of the papacy in Rome. Now as Saint John is entering his journey, Giovanni di Paolo uses his detail to show time passing. He uses bright color and pattern to show dramatic vision and inspiration. His colors choices help the details of rough land have character. The colors are unique and show a spiritual and imaginative nature. The land he places St. John is not depicted as the real world. This painting is a predella of the altarpiece of St. John’s life. Giovanni di Paolo creates his figures almost weightless as Saint John walks through the wilderness. “The young saint is depicted twice: leaving the home of his parents and walking into the wilderness. The narrative is framed by depictions of roses seen from below. New Testament (Luke 1:80).” (National Gallery UK)
Giovanni di Paolo’s picturesque narrative scenes add character to his figures. He invents ways to take the Siena gothic style to a higher level. He gradually starts to add his own flare to his art. Doing this he was able to create illustrations that were used to teach the illiterate about biblical characters. His figures are highly detailed and reflect the airy figures of Fra Angelico. He set goals of not focusing on just naturalistic depictions but eluded to the imagination of space and time.
The life of Saint John the Baptist, the kinsman and prophet of Christ are standing here in discussion. The mood set is almost in reverence. The bright colors and rich gold halos add to the textured decorations Giovanni di Paolo enjoyed using. The colors have a jewel like appearance that relate to the Sienese style for ornament and luxury. The statement, “Ecce Agnus Dei,” means Behold the Lamb God. Here St. John is introduction Christ. St. John was a disciple of Christ, however he is best known for the baptistery of Christ help him transition into his next stage of service. In the book Painting in Renaissance Sieana,” Keith Christiansen states that Giovanni was one of the illustrious painters Siana. This was said because of the high quality craftsmanship of Giovani’s work. His figures have their own details and quality that hold their own weight outside of the detailed background. Doing this creates this pull to between figures in the conversation that they are having.
When St John was captured for being a disciple was a main turning point in his life. The pain and anguish upon his face is depicted and almost forces the viewer to feel his turmoil. The lighting used create an atmosphere a wealth and power yet where St. John is located he is shown as weak and powerless. Some disciples are visiting him. Though his clothes are torn his faith is strong. The style of Sienese art is shown with the highly decorative details and motifs on the building. Giovanni di Paolo’s details are not about creating a naturalist version of our world but to experience with perspective and create a contemporary view.
“In common with that of his contemporaries, Giovanni di Paolo’s work was concerned with reconciling the residual influence of the previous generation of painters… he is interested in using the principles of linear perspective to convey different kinds of pictorial space and depths.” (Dunkerton) Salome is begging for the head of John the Baptist. Giovanni di Paolo here depicts the pain it causes just as her request is made. The rich colors and decorative fabrics show the kings place in royalty and before his table he gives her what she wants. "Giovanni di Paolo seems to have opted for a more direct narrative sequences, he may have been influenced by the narrative methods of cassone paintings, in which architectural and landscape elements separate episodes." (Christiansen)
See the detailed brush strokes used to on the fabric of the table and within her dress. Giovanni di Paolo was big on detail even when you look at her hair and face he has placed little characteristic details to give Salome her flare.
See the details put into each persons clothing to show their place and wealthy status. Each person is given characteristic qualities to cause each person to stand out. He also gives them each their own reaction to Salome.
The scene of beheading Saint John is even shown with elegance as the blood comes down the wall. Giovanni di Paolo didn't depict this scene in a gory manor but yet as if Saint John himself leaned over in acceptance to offer his head. Its almost interesting how the to bars hang down in ease as if Saint John could have freed himself if he wanted.
Here the characters are shown with remorse toward the martyr of St. John. The executioner has his face downcast for what he had to do. Giovanni di Paolo chose to show the effect of the martyr instead of showing the blade upon Saint John's neck. Doing this creates a movement of pain and peace focusing on these two characters and not on the pain of Saint John.
In the final scene the person carrying St. John's head is shown several times. Giovanni di Paolo did this repetition to show the stages of peoples reactions and the time passing for his head to be brought to the king. The lighting used is located in one area. Everyone has the same amount of light applied to their face as if all viewing the head at the same time. "Giovanni di Paolo reduced the narrative to its essential elements, ignoring details that might confuse the dramatic impact of the picture." (Christiansen) Here at this final scene of Saint John's life we can see his importance as everyone grieves him. In the foreground the people of the table grievebut in the background the sky seems to shift. In shifting the color in the sky maybe Giovanni was leaning to give the feeling that Saint John had moved on into a different world. The placement of the group and decorative architectural design in the back shows the play with perspective and recession into space.
"Giovanni became aware of compositions in which the foreground and background are drawn from different viewing points."(Christiansen) In illuminating the story of Saint John, Giovanni di Paolo also showed the history of Sienese art.
Life of Saint John Bibliography Christiansen, K., & Kanter, L. (1988). Painting in Renaissance Siena, 1420-1500 (p. 20,200, 207,209). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dunkerton, J. (1991). Giovanni di Paolo. In Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance painting in the National Gallery (p. 280). New Haven: Yale University Press. Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert. (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2015, from
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