In this fresco, part of a cycle depicting the life of John the Baptist, Domenico Ghirlandaio places the prophet at the centre of a circle of men, women, and children to whom he is preaching. The rock he stands on, like a natural dais, raises him above the crowd whose attention he directs towards the cross in his right hand.
Preaching the repentance of sins and the coming of the Messiah, the Baptist gave testimony about Jesus and identified him as the Lamb of God. Indeed the Baptist’s typical pointing gesture in works of art may be interpreted as a visual translation of the Baptist’s proclamation to ‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ (John 1:29). While here the Baptist’s pointing gesture is directed towards the Cross rather than a lamb, the message—a prophecy of Christ’s coming—is the same. Ghirlandaio locates the figure of Christ at the upper left of the composition, placing him both behind and above John as he approaches along a sloped, descending path towards the crowd below. This neat road, hewn into the rocky hillside, calls to mind John’s appeal to the people to prepare and ‘make straight’ (or ‘clear’ in some translations) the way of the Lord (v.23). These reported words also refer to Isaiah: ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God … every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain…’ (Isaiah 40:3–5).
Further, in this cleverly arranged composition, Ghirlandaio is also able to visually express that the Baptist, already preaching to the multitudes, is the forerunner of Christ who comes after him (and is about to arrive). By representing Christ with a physiognomy and pose similar to that of John, Ghirlandaio underscores their affinity and kinship. Further, by placing Christ not only behind or ‘after’ John but also above him at the top of the composition, Ghirlandaio effectively establishes a visual hierarchy among the figures in which Jesus at the far left is nevertheless ‘ranked before’ the central figure of the Baptist in prominence.
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.”