The Head of Saint John the Baptist is an exceptional work for several reasons. Unpublished and entirely unknown to scholars, the painting is in a remarkable state of conservation. It can be attributed with certainty to Albrecht Bouts, which is extremely rare for a painting from the end of the 15th century, a period in which most of the surviving works remain anonymous. The son of Dirk Bouts, Albrecht took over his father’s workshop upon the latter’s death in 1475. Albrecht Bouts and his workshop specialized in the production of private devotional paintings, and these works were recently the focus of a 2016-2017 exhibition in Luxembourg and Aix-la-Chapelle, bringing global attention to the artist. The Head of Saint John the Baptist on a charger was exhibited there for the first time, having only a few months earlier been discovered in a private collection, where it had been at least since the 18th century.
The theme of the Head of John the Baptist on a charger is drawn from the Gospels of Matthew (XIV: 1-12) and Mark (VI: 14-29), which recount the saint’s martyrdom. John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod Antipas, after denouncing the incestuous union between the king and his brother’s former wife, Herodias. Determined to take revenge, the latter sends her daughter, Salome, to dance before Herod at a banquet organized in honor of his birthday. Seduced, the king grants Salome all of her wishes, including the head of John the Baptist. The prisoner is thus decapitated, and the young woman proudly flaunts her trophy on a charger to her mother. This subject rapidly enjoyed great success, in part due to its significance to different religious doctrines, such as the cult of relics and the symbolism of the Eucharist, and also because of its apotropaic function. In 1204, after the fourth crusade, relics of the head of Saint John the Baptist were brought back from Constantinople to the West. Several churches claimed to possess the saint’s relics, but the skull fragment kept at Amiens, was, without any doubt, the most popular, thus making the city a major pilgrimage center in Northern Europe. Following a series of miracles, curative and protective powers were attributed to the relic and its representations. In particular, they guarded against depression, epilepsy, sore throat, menstrual cramps, ensuring their strong popular veneration. Representations of the saint’s severed head begin to appear as autonomous works of art in the 13th century, most frequently in sculpted form. This “mobile” version is also the most widespread in the fifteenth century. The veneration of these representations becomes all the more important because in this period emphasis was placed on the Baptist’s role as the Precursor to Christ. Indeed, Saint John’s decapitation prefigures the Crucifixion and Herod’s Feast foreshadows the Last Supper and the Eucharist. The scar on the John’s forehead, mentioned in a later legend according to which Herodias would have stabbed the Baptist’s face, refers to the piercing caused by the Lance of Longinus. Finally, the charger on which the head rests is also associated from a formal point of view to the paten. In Early Netherlandish art, the Bouts workshop is the only one known to have translated the saint’s head into two-dimensional form. Such works retained all of the immediate realism inherent to the earlier sculptural representations. Moreover, by representing the decapitated head on a tondo, that is, on a circular panel, they created a veritable trompe-l’ œil illusion, in which the support itself is conflated with the charger. The rich gilding underscores the divine character of the subject, while simultaneously evoking the preciosity of goldsmiths’ dishes.
The present work is identical to the Head of Saint John the Baptist in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, both in terms of the saint’s physiognomy and the very meticulous pictorial technique, although it should be noted that the skin pigmentation is greyer in the present version. The two paintings can be attributed with certainty to Albrecht Bouts and dated to the same years, that is around 1495-1500. It is, however, difficult to determine which of the two panels served as the prime version. Examination of the infrared reflectogram (fig. 1) favors the painting from the private collection since it reveals the presence of a freely executed preparatory underdrawing, especially in the placement of the saint’s mouth, which was originally drawn in lower and then raised at the stage of pictorial execution. In the New York version, by contrast, no underdrawing is visible under infrared reflectography. The only major difference between the two paintings is the color of the boarder at the extreme edge of the charger. Whereas the New York version has a black boarder, here, the boarder is painted red, as in another autograph version of the Head of Saint John the Baptist on a charger by Albrecht Bouts in the Landesmuseum, Oldenburg. The presence of the original paint layer up to the extreme edges of the support suggests that, originally, the panel was intended to be displayed unframed. These circular panels were, therefore, probably simply displayed horizontally on a table or another piece of furniture, like their carved counterparts.