Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

PUVIS de CHAVANNES, Pierre-Cécile [1824 - 1898]
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist [about 1869]
Oil on canvas 240 x 316.2 cm
The National Gallery, London

Puvis de Chavannes was widely admired in his day for the grandeur and decorative subtlety of his large-scale, multi-figure compositions of allegorical subjects. But it was not always so.

In 1852 and in the two following years Puvis's pictures were rejected by the Salon. The public laughed at his work as loudly as at that of Courbet but the young painter was none the less warmly defended by Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville. For nine years he was excluded from the Salons.

Salome's features are thought to be based on those of the Princess Cantacuzène, who married Puvis de Chavannes in 1897.

The figure of Herod standing on the right may be based on the novelist Anatole France.

The cross which Saint John the Baptist holds as the executioner prepares to strike is the focus of the composition.

The composition emphasises the Baptist's absorption in the spiritual world at the supreme moment of death. Dressed only in the 'raiment of camel hair' (Matthew 3: 4) that he wore in the wilderness of Judaea he is oblivious to executioner and spectators alike, concentrating upon the visionary cross that rises reed-like from his hand.

His spiritual and inner peace balance the violence of the executioner and the turbulent emotions of the watching figures.

Behind him, a bare fig tree recalls the Garden of Eden and Original Sin, one fallen leaf symbolising Salome's desire.

Probably unfinished, this painting remained with the painter until the time of his death. It remained unexhibited until after the painter had died.

It is one of the largest compositions in the possession of the National Gallery in London.

The artist returned to this theme constantly during his career.

Of Puvis de Chavannes, Louis Gilet wrote in the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911:

"He upheld the rights of the ideal in the modern world, making it known and detaching it from dreams, art, and poetry. He always had an unshakable faith in the holiness of the spiritual side of humanity and in the supreme importance of continuous search, aspiration, and unrest which form the moral capital of our race. As an artist he did much to maintain religion among men."