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)