John the Baptist moves from Louvre to Louvre

The Musée du Louvre is to loan Leonardo da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist to Louvre Abu Dhabi. The painting will be on show in the permanent galleries of the UAE museum from 8 November, and it will be with us for two years.

The “exceptional” loan is to mark Louvre Abu Dhabi’s fifth anniversary. For Laurence des Cars, President and Director of Musée du Louvre, the anniversary is “a great opportunity for the Louvre to reiterate its pride in working alongside our partners and thus projecting ourselves into the next decade”.

This is certainly a very special painting, widely regarded as representing the peak of Leonardo’s genius and certainly a masterpiece of chiaroscuro and his characteristic sfumato (the technique that Leonardo introduced – possibly invented – to soften the boundaries between colours, a technique he described as “in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”).

Saint John the Baptist is possibly his last ever painting, ten years in the making and left among his possessions when he died in 1519. It passed to his patron Francis I, was swapped with Charles I of England in return for a Titian and a Holbein, was sold to a banker after Charles’ execution, was briefly owned by Cardinal Mazarin and ended up with Louis XIV in 1662. The work remained in the French royal collection until the French Revolution, when it went to the Louvre.

It’s a wonderful painting, but as with other Leonardos there are many questions to be answered. What’s the significance of the pointy finger? And why is Saint John so darn sexy?

Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist. Courtesy Musée du Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci, Saint John the Baptist. Courtesy Musée du Louvre. (The colours, and especially the chiaroscuro, won’t reproduce well on small screens; go and see the painting IRL!)

The upward gesture symbolises the Christian ideas of Heaven, of course, and the pointing finger reminds us of our innate need to escape from down here to up there; baptism is one way of accelerating the transition, after all.

You could read the heavy contrast of light and dark as similar metaphors – good and evil, the righteous and the wicked. In more ways than one, Saint John is a beacon of light in a landscape of darkness.

But this is a Saint John that takes the contrast further: there’s a distinct sensuality to the saint’s pose, his knowing smile, his heavy lidded eyes, his smooth, womanly skin, that coy left hand holding his covering to his chest, the way he’s coming out of the darkness to us like a lover …

Or that’s one way of seeing it. Certainly Leonardo’s John the Baptist isn’t the desert-dwelling preacher dressed in “clothing of camel’s hair” whose food was locusts and wild honey. This one appears to be wearing a loose-fitting furry throw, doesn’t seem to have stinted himself at the dinner table, and could easily audition for makeup adverts.

So what’s going on here? Could be that Leonardo just wanted an acceptable title for an erotically-charged painting that he kept for himself (there’s no evidence that anyone commissioned the work). Certainly the model is Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, nicknamed Salaì by Leonardo, who entered the artists’s household at the age of 10 and stayed as his pupil and model for the next 28 years. He appears in several Leonardos (including the uncompromisingly explicit Angelo Incarnato, a drawing of around 1515). He’d have been in his late teens and early 20s when Leonardo was working on Saint John the Baptist. Vasari described him as a “graceful, handsome youth with fine curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted” (some translations say “who Leonardo loved”). There’s an implication that master and model were lovers, though there’s no evidence of this – indeed, the only hint of Leonardo’s sexuality that we know of comes much earlier in a disputed accusation of sodomy which doesn’t seem to have resulted in any kind of conviction.

Mind you, that drawing does show an erection … But there’s ongoing debate about whether Leonardo had relationships with men, or women, or indeed whether he was celibate.

Maybe it would reasonable to say that Salaì was an attractive lad, and beauty (even with a carnal overlay) looks good whatever your sexual persuasion. The painting represents an ideal type of youthful, androgynous beauty; it could as easily be a woman.

And even if Leonardo’s Saint John has any kind of erotic resonance, that doesn’t necessarily detract from a religious intention. After all, in the scriptures John the Baptist invokes the metaphor of Christ as bridegroom and the faithful as bride, harking back to the love poetry of the Song of Solomon. So arguably the image belongs to a Christian tradition in which sexual love can be a metaphor for divine love.

Whatever your interpretation, go and see the painting when it is unveiled in wing 3 at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Saint John the Baptist was restored in 2016 by the Louvre, an object lesson in this kind of exercise; nearly half of the painting’s original 15 layers of varnish coating applied after the artist’s death were removed in the process, restoring colours but more important allowing some of the details to once again pop out – including the saint’s curly hair and the fur pelt he wears in the portrait. The structural relief has been improved, highlighting the sinuous movement and giving a more subtle expression to the face. While any attempt at cleaning a painting as old as this carries an amount of risk, it appears that this one was a success. This is one of those paintings that undoubtedly warrants the title of masterpiece, and it looks as good as when Leonardo last saw it …

Louvre Abu Dhabi is open 10am to 6.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are a bargain AED 63 and can be reserved via the museum’s website.

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