Where? Gallery 5 of the Legion of Honor Museum
When? Around 1600
Commissioned by? The Convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Malagón, Spain.
What do you see? The elongated figure of Saint John the Baptist. He looks unusually tall and thin, typical of the style of El Greco. Saint John the Baptist wears a robe of camel skin, and a long cross stands to his side. On the right, a lamb lies down on a rock. Next to the rock is a stick with a banner reading “AGNUS DEI” (Lamb of God), which is how Saint John the Baptist refers to Jesus in John 1. The Lamb of God refers to Jesus’ role in taking away the sins of the world through his crucifixion (to which the cross explicitly refers). El Greco uses a low horizon and dedicates more than half of the painting to a luminous sky. The bright light from the sky reflects on the hills in the background. El Greco places Saint John the Baptist in the middle of a landscape. The building next to his left knee is the Monasterio del Escorial, a historical residence of the King of Spain located 30 miles outside of Madrid.
Backstory: El Greco painted this work while living in Toledo, Spain. The Legion of Honor Museum acquired this painting in 1946. It is displayed next to two other paintings by El Greco in the museum.
Other versions: El Greco painted some variations on this painting. A very similar version of Saint John the Baptist is in the Museu de Belles Arts de València. The main difference between both versions is that El Greco worked out some more details in the background of the Legion of Honor version, and he changed the placement of the lamb next to Saint John the Baptist. Another similar version of Saint John the Baptist is owned by the Prado Museum and on display in Toledo. This version shows Saint John the Baptist together with Saint John the Evangelist. For this painting, El Greco used the help of his workshop.
Who is Saint John the Baptist? A preacher who foretold the coming of Jesus. During his life, he baptized many people to wash away their sins. His most important deed was the baptism of Jesus. He is the patron saint of Jordan and Puerto Rico, as well as cities like Florence and Porto.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco (the Greek). During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Titian. He eventually moved to Toledo, near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso. He painted both religious and mythological works. An example of the latter is his Laocoön in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: The extremely elongated figures are a recurring theme in the works of El Greco. It is not certain why El Greco used this style, but there are two main explanations. First, he got his education in Byzantine Art and decided to combine some elements of this Byzantine Art with the Mannerist style he encountered in Italy. Second, he suffered from a medical issue that did not allow him to observe the world as normal people do. Doctors have suggested that he may have suffered severe astigmatism, which is an eye disease causing people to see the world in a distorted way. This would explain why his elongated figured became more prominent later in his career.
Written by Eelco Kappe