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Giovanni di Paolo, Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert

Key facts
Full title Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert (Predella Panel from an Altarpiece)
Artist Giovanni di Paolo
Artist dates active by 1417; died 1482
Series Baptist Predella
Date made 1454
Medium and support Egg tempera on wood
Dimensions 30.5 × 49 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with a contribution from the Art Fund, 1944
Inventory number NG5454
Location Gallery F
Collection Main Collection
Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert
Giovanni di Paolo

The artist shows John the Baptist leaving the city for the wilderness, where he lived a simple life preaching about Jesus Christ. We see his dainty figure twice in this scene, which is unusual in Italian art. He appears first leaving the city gates with a small bundle of possessions, and then climbing a steep path into the craggy mountains beyond. By including the fertile valley of patchwork fields below, the artist has highlighted the civilised place John leaves behind.

The delicately painted roses on either side of this panel are in different stages of bloom. Giovanni di Paolo used this type of floral decoration throughout his career. He might have picked it up from the Florentine painter Gentile da Fabriano, who included decorative flowers in the frame of his magnificent altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi (now in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence) which Giovanni di Paolo probably saw when he visited Florence in the late 1430s.

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Baptist Predella


These four panels once formed part of a predella, the lowest part of an altarpiece. Together they tell the story of the life of John the Baptist, the prophet who preached the coming of Christ as the Messiah.

Events run from left to right like a comic strip. At the far left edge was a scene showing John’s birth, followed by his departure into the wilderness and then the baptism of Christ – the main event in John’s life. Another panel, which may have shown John preaching in the wilderness, would have followed, but this did not enter the National Gallery’s collection with the other panels and we don't know where it is now. The final scene shows the saint after his execution.

The predella was probably part of an polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) made by Giovanni di Paolo for the Augustinian church in Cortona.