Byzantine School – St. John The Baptist

A false impression of medieval art, as being monotonously symmetrical, rigid and inexpressive, is held by many persons who have seen only the large formal altar-pieces and apse-mosaics. Such designs were often most narrowly restricted by convention, and by the requirements of a symmetrical architectural setting. It is rather in the works intended for less conspicuous positions—in the small scenes attached to a large Crucifixion or Madonna, in manuscript illuminations, and in other comparatively informal pictures—that one discovers the freedom and variety of which medieval art was capable. One need not study out their recondite symbolism to appreciate them pictorially; too much scholar-ship has a way of confusing aesthetic vision. Some of them are surprisingly animated, expressive, free, sketchy and individual in drawing. Some are elaborately ornamented, others austerely plain. They represent not only dolefulness, but a wide variety of feelings and actions. They use all manner of color-schemes, linear rhythms and unsymmetrical patterns. The ignoring of natural laws and appearances allows them a free rein for imaginative design, for combining fanciful elements that cannot actually be seen together.

In this St. John we have an unsymmetrical design, done in broad, decisive strokes that dart across the picture in a bold staccato of swerving diagonals. As in the setting of an Elizabethan drama, just enough realistic details are given to direct the imagination: rocky crags and trees to suggest the desert; the shaggy, unkempt hair and garment of the Saint; his dead face in the platter, prophetic of the story’s end. Facial expressions are tersely indicated, and features and rocks are slightly modelled with colored shadows. That amount of realism is compatible with brusque distortion of line and mass (note the small head) to heighten the formal rhythm, and with an unnaturally brilliant pattern of gold and bright colors. The latter, now much darkened, were swept on in contrasting streaks and dots, layer upon layer, to make an iridescent rainbow display.