Preaching of John the Baptist by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Preaching of John the Baptist, c.1486–90, Fresco, 4.5 m wide, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Scala / Art Resource, NY

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Visual Hierarchies

Commentary by

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.