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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Giovanni Baronzio/The Birth, Naming, and Circumcision of Saint John the Baptist/c. 1335,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 21, 2024).

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This panel, along with The Baptism of Christ and Madonna and Child with Five Angels were once part of the same altarpiece devoted to Saint John the Baptist (see Reconstruction). Several more components have found their way to other collections. The altarpiece’s original location is not known, though it was probably featured in a church dedicated to the saint in what is today the northern Italian region Emilia-Romagna, close to Baronzio’s home in Rimini. No documents pertaining to the altarpiece have ever been found. It must have been dismantled by the mid-19th century, when pieces of it began to appear on the art market. The dispersed parts have been linked to each other through various clues: similar dimensions, related subject matter, the artist’s style, and particular details of technique and execution. One of those is the brocade pattern that has been incised into the gold background, which appears in all the panels. Another clue is the small punch used to impress a pattern in the gold of the halos.

Giovanni Baronzio (Italian, active c. 1320 - 1350) seems to have delighted in filling his works with activity and a wealth of everyday details. Here, he crowds three episodes from the life of John the Baptist into one busy scene. They unfold in an elaborate architectural setting with loggias and a flower box sprouting vegetation. At the left, John’s mother, Elizabeth, rests while two women attend to the newborn baby. As was the custom in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the infant is immobilized in swaddling clothes. Another figure, almost hidden, peers in from the doorway. Below this group, John’s father, Zacharias, writes the baby’s name on a scroll. At that moment he miraculously regained the power of speech, which had been taken from him as punishment for doubting an angel’s announcement that he and Elizabeth, both elderly, would have a child. A witness to the naming looks to the right, leading our eyes to a third scene. There, the recalcitrant infant John stands above the circumciser’s knife, which has drawn blood—a sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.  


This panel, along with its two companions The Baptism of Christ and Madonna and Child with Five Angels, are fragments of a dismantled altarpiece whose original provenance is unknown but which was presumably commissioned for the high altar of a church dedicated to the Baptist in Emilia Romagna or, perhaps, in the Marche.[1] Keith Christiansen (1982)[2] proposed a reconstruction of the altar [fig. 1] (see also Reconstruction) as follows: four stories of the Baptist would have accompanied, on either side, the central Madonna and Child with Five Angels also in the National Gallery of Art; to the upper left, Annunciation of the Birth of the Baptist [fig. 2] formerly in the Street collection in Bath,[3] flanked by Birth, Naming, and Circumcision of the Baptist now in the Gallery. The lower register on the same side would have consisted of Young Baptist Led by an Angel into the Wilderness [fig. 3], now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana,[4] and The Baptist Interrogated by the Pharisees [fig. 4], of which only a fragment survives, in the Seattle Art Museum.[5] The upper register on the right side would have consisted of The Baptism of Christ in the Gallery and The Baptist Sends His Disciples to Christ [fig. 5], formerly in the Street collection in Bath.[6] Two more panels formed the lower register on the same side: Feast of Herod [fig. 6], now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Robert Lehman Collection) in New York,[7] flanked by The Baptist’s Descent into Limbo [fig. 7], formerly in the collection of Charles Loeser in Florence, its whereabouts now unknown.[8] A possible argument against Christiansen’s reconstruction, as Laurence Kanter has informed me (in correspondence), is the fact that the vertically grained wood of the central Madonna (see Madonna and Child with Five Angels) seems to exclude its common origin with the panels representing the stories of the Baptist, which are painted on panels with horizontal grain. Kanter considers the possibility of two different altarpieces or one double-sided altarpiece. These proposals are interesting, but all the fragments share a common author, their dimensions are comparable, and similarity of pictorial conduct makes the hypothesis of a single-sided panel more likely after all. Complete disappearance (except for the Madonna) of the paintings on the back of a double-sided altarpiece would also seem rather unlikely. And for an altarpiece as large as two meters or more, instead of a single wooden support, the use of three panels was preferred. On the whole, Christiansen’s hypothesis is likely to be correct.

The altarpiece of Saint John the Baptist had evidently been dismantled by the first half of the nineteenth century, for by the 1840s fragments of it had begun to emerge on the art market.[9] Adolfo Venturi (1906) was the first to attempt to classify more precisely the Baptism of Christ and the other two fragments then in the Sterbini collection in Rome.[10] Venturi recognized Bolognese influences deriving from the activity of Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337) in that city. He suggested that the artist might have been someone like Jacopo di Paolo, active in Bologna from the close of the thirteenth century. A few years later Osvald Sirén (1916), unfamiliar, it seems, with Venturi’s publication, asserted the common origin of the Birth, Naming, and Circumcision of the Baptist; Annunciation of the Baptist’s Birth; The Baptist Sends His Disciples to Christ; and Feast of Herod.[11] He correctly attributed them to Giovanni Baronzio, the master who had signed and dated (1345) the altarpiece now in the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino. The great Swedish art historian erred, however, in thinking that the panel of Saint John the Baptist Enthroned in Christ Church Gallery in Oxford stood in the center of the altarpiece. This painting is clearly Florentine, even if its proposed attribution to Lippo di Benivieni remains under discussion.[12] Sirén’s proposal, indeed, convinced few scholars.[13] Later contributions to the problem accepted instead the proposal of Richard Offner (1924), who recognized in Madonna and Child with Five Angels the work of an anonymous painter from the Romagna, to whom he attributed the stories of the Baptist.[14] Raimond van Marle (1924) also placed the attribution to Giovanni Baronzio in doubt. He preferred to classify The Baptism of Christ and its companion panel now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana as works of the “Cavallinesque Riminese school.”[15] Lehman (1928), on the other hand, retained the attribution to Giovanni Baronzio and, in his analysis of Feast of Herod, linked it with the fragment depicting the Baptism.[16] Both Lionello Venturi (1931, 1933) and Bernard Berenson (1932, 1936) also assigned to Giovanni Baronzio the panels they recognized as forming part of the same series.[17] Other art historians and catalogers followed suit.[18] Doubts then grew about Giovanni’s authorship: the fragments were assigned instead to an ad hoc Master of the Life of Saint John the Baptist. This opinion prevailed in the literature of the following decades; it was also expressed in the catalogs of the Gallery and repeated in more recent publications.[19] Since 1987, however, the attribution to Giovanni Baronzio has been reinstated, and reinforced with fresh arguments, both for the group of panels that concerns us here and for other paintings that had in the past been attributed to the artist; scholars have increasingly supported this suggestion.[20]

Altarpieces in the elongated horizontal form of thirteenth-century dossals, approximately one meter (or a little more) in height and two and a half meters in width, such as the dismantled altarpiece of the Baptist being discussed here, are rare in Tuscany in the fourteenth century, but must have been fairly common in a region like Emilia Romagna.[21] They usually showed the Madonna and Child Enthroned (or, more rarely, a story of Christ) at the center flanked by saints or biblical or legendary narrative scenes. An extended cycle of stories of the Baptist comparable to that of our altarpiece has only survived in Emilia Romagna in the field of mural paintings, more particularly in those of the dome of the baptistery of Parma.[22] Our altarpiece dedicated to Saint John the Baptist is unusual in its iconographic program: it lacks scenes usually included in cycles of the Baptist, such as the Visitation, the Ecce Agnus Dei, the Dance of Salome, or the Burial of the Baptist, while it includes such rare episodes as Saint John the Baptist Praying in the Wilderness or the Baptist’s Descent into Limbo.[23] Nor did the artist hesitate to introduce into the individual episodes motifs that diverge from the usual iconography.[24] As regards the panels in the Gallery (as seen in this panel), it is unusual for the episode of the Washing of the Infant Saint John, often placed in the foreground with an intentional allusion to the theme of baptism, to be dispensed with, as it is here; it is replaced instead by the scene in the background, more homely than symbolic in tone, of two handmaids wrapping the newborn child in swaddling cloths. The Naming of the Baptist, which often represents a self-sufficient scene, is here inserted in the scene of the Birth, and indeed placed in the foreground and combined to the far right with the episode of the Circumcision of the recalcitrant child.[25] On the other hand, in The Baptism of Christ, the painter remains faithful to the tradition of representing Christ submerged up to his hips in the water of the Jordan, the Baptist placed to the left, standing on the rocky banks of the river, and two angels holding Christ’s clothes to the right. In the upper part of the panel the heavens open, and we catch a glimpse of the half-length figure of God the Father blessing.[26] A motif of archaizing character that gradually disappeared in the fourteenth century is that of John imposing his hand on Christ instead of pouring water over his head.[27]

With regard to the Madonna and Child, a motif for which the painters of Rimini had a special predilection was the cloth of honor supported by angels behind the Virgin’s throne [fig. 8]. On the other hand, the motif of the child grasping his mother’s veil—an allusion to the Passion [28]—is more widespread in fourteenth-century painting in Tuscany than in Emilia Romagna. The miniature lions on the throne armrests allude to the throne of Solomon, while the enormous locust in the hand of the child reminds us of the diet—locusts and wild honey—on which the Baptist lived during his years in the wilderness.[29]

The precision in representing the insect [30] attests to the artist’s acute interest in various aspects and curiosities of daily life. Here as elsewhere in his paintings, he consciously participated in the more naturalistic and descriptive tendencies of Gothic art. The pursuit of naturalistic detail—in costume, in attributes, in setting—distinguished an innovative current in Italian painting in the second quarter of the fourteenth century that sought to disassociate itself from the solemn and classicizing manner of previous decades. Additional proof of this interest are the elaborate architectural settings of many of the episodes of the Baptist’s legend (as in the temple porch in Birth of the Baptist, with its cantilevered upper floor and Gothic double-lancet windows), the attention devoted to characterizing the protagonists’ states of mind, and, not least, the costumes worn, in particular in Feast of Herod. Peculiarities of fashion in turn provide useful clues for pinpointing the date of the altarpiece.[31] Other features of the Madonna and Child, such as the use of chrysography and the sharp proportional difference between the figures of Mary and the angels, might at first sight appear retrograde. More careful observation shows that the artist used gilded highlights not in the Byzantine manner but to accentuate the volumetric relief of the forms below the precious garments and to enliven the sweeping folds of the drapery. The motif of angels peering out from behind the cloth of honor as if playing hide-and-seek is itself an indication of the merry, make-believe spirit that animates the gothicizing artistic current of the time. 

Several clues confirm the attribution of our panels to Giovanni Baronzio. First, there are clear analogies between the fragments of the altarpiece of Saint John and other works generally attributed to the artist, such as the solemn mantle-clad men to the right of our Birth of the Baptist and those of Christ before Pilate now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, or the peculiar, splayed-leg pose of the Baptist in the baptism scene that recurs in the figure of Adam in Descent of Christ into Limbo, also in the Gemäldegalerie.[32] The facial features also coincide: characterized by drooping heads, squared forms, high foreheads, eyes reduced to narrow slits, flattened noses, powerful chins, rounded jaws, they are found in all the works of the artist. The incised decoration of the gold ground is also an important clue for associating our panels with Giovanni Baronzio.[33]

As for the date of our dismantled altarpiece, it may be placed in or shortly before the mid-fourth decade of the fourteenth century, on the basis of comparisons with the artist’s only signed and dated work.[34] A motif like the swirling and zigzagging folds of the mantle as it falls to the ground is rendered in a very similar way both in the Madonna in Washington and in the altarpiece in Urbino. The latter, however, is likely to be the later of the two, as a number of features make clear. Evidence of its modernity includes the wider décolleté of Mary’s dress than that of the Virgin in Washington, and the fact that her head is covered with a transparent veil, enabling us to glimpse her elaborate and modish hairstyle with two braids raised and knotted together over the crown of her head. Abandoning the usual position of Christ in the Virgin’s lap, Giovanni Baronzio represents him instead standing on the ground and gesturing insistently to be restored to his mother’s arms. No such liberties are found in the Gallery Madonna, which is characterized by softer modeling and by an absence of the delicate and incisive contours that delineate the forms of the faces and hands in the Urbino Madonna and Child. In observing the stories of the Baptist, moreover, we cannot fail to notice the absence of the stiff and formal reserve of the conduct that distinguishes the narrative scenes of the altarpiece dated 1345: the protagonists of the Nativity and of the Baptism in the Gallery are squatter in proportions but more natural and spontaneous in the way they express themselves with gestures. The attitude of the man who observes Zacharias writing the name of John on a sheet of paper reveals all too clearly the disapproval of those present in the choice of this name, underlined by the narrative in Luke’s Gospel.[35] The energetic pose of the Baptist, bending forward as far as he can to place his hand on the head of Jesus, immersed in the waters of Jordan, is a powerful expression of his zeal and the profound consciousness he has of his role. 

The period that elapsed between the execution of the dismantled altarpiece of the Baptist and the panel now in Urbino cannot have been brief, but its duration is difficult to gauge given the lack of other securely datable works by Baronzio. A probable terminus post quem could be offered by the dossal now divided between the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Pa­lazzo Barberini in Rome and the collection of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio in Rimini; according to a plausible recent proposal, the dossal must have been commissioned for the high altar of the Franciscan church of Villa Verucchio and must date to c. 1330.[36] The essential immobility of the individual compositions contained in this altarpiece, the rudimentary architectural backdrops, and the strongly simplified drawing that still recalls models of Pietro da Rimini suggest that this is an early work of Giovanni Baronzio. The putative Villa Verucchio dossal, which Cesare Brandi compared with the stories of the Baptist,[37] resembles the fragments being discussed here, especially in its delicate modeling, sharp chiaroscuro, and facial characteristics, but it can be assumed to belong to an earlier creative phase in the career of Giovanni Baronzio. The most probable date for the panels in the Gallery therefore would seem to be c. 1335.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


on the sheet on which Zacharias is writing: NOMEN / E[S]T IO / HA[NN]ES (The name is John)


Possibly commissioned as part of the high altarpiece of a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist in Emilia Romagna or in the Marche, Italy. George Edmund Street [1824-1881], London, by 1880;[1] probably by inheritance to his son, Arthur Edmund Street [1855-1938], Bath. Harold Irving Pratt [1877-1939], New York, by 1917.[2] (Wildenstein & Co., Inc., London, New York and Paris); sold 1947 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation;[3] gift 1952 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, 1880, no. 228, as Birth of St. John the Baptist by an unknown artist.
A Loan Exhibition of Italian Paintings, Kleinberger Galleries, New York, 1917, no. 70, repro., as by Giovanni Baronzio.
Italian Paintings, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York, 1947, no. 37, repro., as by Giovanni Baronzio.
Il Trecento Riminese: Maestri e botteghe tra Romagna e Marche, Museo della Città, Rimini, Italy, 1995-1996, no. 51, repro.

Technical Summary

The support is a single piece of horizontally grained wood that has been thinned to approximately 2 cm and cradled. The x-radiographs show that pieces of fabric were applied to the panel before it was covered with gesso. The areas to be gilded were prepared with red bole. Lines marking major contours in the figures and architecture were inscribed and then reinforced with dark paint in the early stages of painting. Gold and silver leaf were identified in several decorative details on the architecture and in the brocade cloth behind the bed, but only gold leaf was found in the background.[1]

The panel was cut from an altarpiece along the ornamental gold leaf border separating it from the other scenes; at the left edge, the ornamental border is truncated. The panel has suffered some worm damage in the past. The painted surface is fairly well preserved, but inpainting along several old scratches has discolored, and there is a fair amount of inpainting in the body and in the blanket covering Saint Elizabeth’s bed, in the group of women behind it, and in the lower part of the robes of the figures in the foreground. Much of the gold of the ornamental border along the lower edge is modern, and a 1 cm-wide strip above it is heavily inpainted. The painting was “cradled, restored, and varnished” by Stephen Pichetto in 1947 and “cleaned, restored, and varnished” by Mario Modestini in 1950.[2] Archival x-radiographs show an earlier cradle, indicating that the painting had been cradled before Stephen Pichetto worked on it. The surface film is now dull and discolored.


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Offner, Richard. "A Remarkable Exhibition of Italian Paintings." The Arts 5 (1924): 245.
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Venturi, Lionello. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931: no. 94, repro.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places. Oxford, 1932: 44.
Venturi, Lionello. Italian Paintings in America. Translated by Countess Vanden Heuvel and Charles Marriott. 3 vols. New York and Milan, 1933: 1:no. 116, repro.
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Klesse, Brigitte. Seidenstoffe in der italienischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts. Bern, 1967: 64, 186-187, 281.
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National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 75, repro.
Seymour, Charles. Early Italian Paintings in the Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven and London, 1970: 108.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 130, 416, 647.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 222, repro.
Szabó, George. The Robert Lehman Collection: A Guide. New York, 1975: 25.
Kaftal, George, and Fabio Bisogni. Saints in Italian Art. Vol. 3 (of 4), Iconography of the Saints in the Painting of North East Italy. Florence, 1978: 512, 514.
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Altarpiece Reconstruction

Click on any panel in the altarpiece reconstruction below to see an enlarged version of the image. Color reproductions in the reconstruction indicate panels in the National Gallery of Art collection.

Reconstruction of a dispersed altarpiece by Giovanni Baronzio as proposed by Keith Christiansen (1982)

a. Annunciation of the Birth of the Baptist (Entry fig. 2)
b. The Birth, Naming, and Circumcision of Saint John the Baptist
c. Young Baptist Led by an Angel into the Wilderness (Entry fig. 3)
d. The Baptist Interrogated by the Pharisees (Entry fig. 4)
e. Madonna and Child with Five Angels
f. The Baptism of Christ
g. The Baptist Sends His Disciples to Christ (Entry fig. 5)
h. Feast of Herod (Entry fig. 6)
i. The Baptist’s Descent into Limbo (Entry fig. 7)

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