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Italian, The Head of Saint John the Baptist

Key facts
Full title The Head of Saint John the Baptist
Artist Italian
Date made 1511
Medium and support Oil on walnut
Dimensions 45.7 × 38.7 cm
Inscription summary Dated
Acquisition credit Bought, 1895
Inventory number NG1438
Location Gallery B
Collection Main Collection
The Head of Saint John the Baptist

Salome’s mother Herodias persuaded her to ask King Herod for the head of John the Baptist as a reward for her dancing (Matthew 14: 1–12). Herodias held a grudge against the Baptist for saying that her marriage to Herod was unlawful. The saint was beheaded and his head was then presented to Salome on a charger. There is some evidence that Leonardo painted a ‘Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Charger’ during his years in Milan, and there are many early sixteenth-century Milanese pictures of the subject which, like this one, may have been closely derived from Leonardo.

The painting is inscribed in gold letters: MDXI / II.K[A]L.FEB. This translates as ‘1511, two days before the Kalends of February’ – meaning 31 January 1511. This was the day of the death of Charles II d'Amboise, governor of Milan, and the painting may have been commissioned to commemorate that event.

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