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Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', about 1869

Key facts
Full title The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Artist Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes
Artist dates 1824 - 1898
Date made about 1869
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 243.5 × 318.4 cm
Acquisition credit Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917, The National Gallery, London. In partnership with Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin.
Inventory number NG3266
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes

Herod, ruler of Galilee, promised his stepdaughter Salome anything she desired if she danced for him; prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. The story of the beheading, with its mixture of religion, violence and eroticism, had been depicted many times in art, not least by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

Puvis de Chavannes painted two versions of it. This is the second, which he worked on over many years but left unfinished at his death. The haunting and enigmatic scene is posed as if on a stage. The artist paints realistic figures but places them in a carefully composed but artificial composition; each is isolated in their own private world. The Baptist contemplates the cross in his final seconds, his thoughts on Christ and the salvation to come; the executioner starts his sword-sweep with balletic precision and concentration; Salome and Herod look on, their expressions reserved and curious. It is a scene of high drama but painted as a moment of the utmost stillness.

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