Domenico Ghirlandaio provides a number of visual cues that encourage the viewers of this fresco to read it from left to right. These include the direction of Christ’s movement from upper left to lower right and the Baptist’s right-facing orientation. Indeed many sequential narrative scenes dating from the late medieval through the Renaissance periods encourage a chronological reading from left to right, and Ghirlandaio uses this structure in some of his other frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel where this work is located.
Accordingly, even though John the Baptist (who is Christ’s forerunner), is front and centre in this composition, the figure of Christ, represented at the top left, occupies a site often representing the ‘beginning’ in a sequential narrative. Beholders of this fresco might therefore first identify the figure of Christ whose posture visually guides them down the path to the Baptist in a way that mimics the structure and meaning of John’s words: ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me for he was before me’ (John 1:31).
Indeed, in many ways, the Baptist’s convoluted passage and complicated articulation of time is rendered more clearly in paint than it is in words. This text implies Christ’s divine pre-existence as, even though he was born six months after the Baptist, John declares that Christ was ‘before’ him. This notion of Jesus’s pre-existence in some ways anticipates his subsequent words ‘before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8:58).
Cadogan, Jeanne K. 2000. Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Prinz, Wolfram and Max Seidel (eds). 1996. Domenico Ghirlandaio 1449–1494, Atti di Convegno Internazionale Firenze, 16–18 ottobre 1994 (Florence: Centro Di)
Reddaway, Chloë. 2015. Transformations in Persons and Paint: Visual Theology, Historical Images, and the Modern Viewer (Turnhout: Brepols)
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20He confessed, he did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21And they asked him, “What then? Are you Eliʹjah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22They said to him then, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23He said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Eliʹjah, nor the prophet?” 26John answered them, “I baptize with water; but among you stands one whom you do not know, 27even he who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28This took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.”