Bacchus 1513-16

The attribution of this work to Leonardo is controversial. In its present state, with St. John the Baptist transformed into Bacchus, the picture seems to show little that could be by Leonardo. Yet the pose and draughtsmanship of the saint’s figure are beyond anything that pupils or followers accomplished.

In this painting St. John seated before a landscape, with a view to the left of a river valley and a vast, distant mountain range, confronts the viewer with a pointing gesture, as if alluding to an unseen world beyond the confines of the painting. As a precursor for Christ, the saint may be indicating Christ’s coming.

Other Christian symbols are included in the painting, such as the deer in the background, which was regarded as a symbol of Christ and the Baptism, and the columbine in the foreground that expresses Christian hope of redemption to be achieved through Christ and the sacrament of Baptism.

The diffused light and sfumato, or “smoky” effect, of the hazy atmosphere, together with the strong tonal contrasts of light and shade increase the sense of mystery that pervades in this painting.

The attributes of Bacchus, (an ivy wreath and a staff or thyrus) were added during the 17th century by an unknown artist. This transformation of the saint into a wanton pagan god highlights the ambiguity of Leonardo’s portrayal of the saint as perceived by the early 17th century, which was described by one observer in 1625 as “extremely delicate, but not especially pleasing because it does not induce our respect, it is lacking in decorum and likeness”.

  • Medium Tempera and oil on panel (transferred to canvas)
  • Size 177 x 115 cm
  • Location Musée du Louvre

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