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Saint John the Baptist
Probably by Bartolomeo Caporali
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A barefoot saint, dressed in a camel-hair shirt and holding a cross, stands on a marble base. His hair and beard are arranged in extravagant ringlets, and a long banner curls around the cross; we can see part of a Latin inscription on it.

This striking figure is Saint John the Baptist, the biblical hermit saint. He once stood on the left side of a triptych (a painting in three parts) probably made in around 1475–80 by Bartolomeo Caporali.

The inscription quotes some of the words with which John recognised Christ as the Messiah, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ or, in Latin, ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’. Caporali perhaps had trouble with his Latin vocabulary: he has written ‘Eccie’ in place of ‘Ecce’.

Key facts
Artist Probably by Bartolomeo Caporali
Artist dates active 1467 - 1491
Full title Saint John the Baptist
Series Altarpiece: The Virgin and Child with Saints
Date made probably 1475-80
Medium and support Tempera and oil on wood
Dimensions 122.9 x 48.9 cm
Inscription summary Dated
Acquisition credit Bought, 1881
Inventory number NG1103.2
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Altarpiece: The Virgin and Child with Saints

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Two of the most popular late medieval saints – Francis, who died in 1226, and Bernardino of Siena, who died in 1444 – present a young man to the Virgin and Child and a choir of angels; he’s the altarpiece’s patron. In the outer panels stand Saints John the Baptist and Bartholomew.

We don't know where this altarpiece came from, although Caporali seems to have worked mainly in Umbria. Neither do we know who the patron was, though clearly he was a man with a special devotion to the Franciscans, the religious order Francis founded.

This is one of the rare paintings of saints that actually resemble the person they depict. Bernardino was a famous travelling preacher who drew large crowds to his outdoor sermons. Many paintings of him were made immediately after his death – possibly from his death mask, which still survives – and show him as here: an old man with a toothless mouth and sunken cheeks.

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