Rembrandt School, circa 1640
The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Pen and brown ink, brown wash, some black chalk, brown ink framing lines, watermark Strasbourg lily with ‘4WR’ underneath,1 147 x 207 mm (5.8 x 8.1 inch)
This powerful and dramatic sheet depicts the exact moment before the beheading of St John the Baptist. According to the Synoptic Gospels, King Herod had imprisoned John because he had reproved the King for divorcing his wife, and unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother. On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’s daughter, Salome, danced before the King and his guests. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that in his drunkenness he promised to give her anything she desired, up to half of his kingdom. When the daughter asked her mother what she should request, she was told to ask for the head of St John on a platter. Although Herod was appalled by the request, he reluctantly agreed and had John executed in the prison.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669) was deeply moved by the biblical account of St John and drew inspiration from different episodes of the story throughout his career. The present sheet may have been inspired by Rembrandt’s etching of the same subject of 1640 (see image).2 In the etching the executioner is seen at the back, while in our drawing he is seen at the front, alsmost equally dramatic as Rembrandt’s rendering of the scene.
In addition to the similarity to Rembrandt’s etching of 1640, the drawing can also be dated to the 1640s on stylistic grounds. Govert Flinck (1615-1660), Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680), Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674) and Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) were among Rembrandt’s pupils around this period.
There is another drawing from Rembrandt’s circle which takes the executioner and St John as its subject, yet without the ancillary figures (Biblioteca Reale, Turin; see last image).3 The Turin sheet shows the executioner in near-identical position to the figure in our sheet, but has St John facing away from the viewer. The drawing in Turin is generally given to an anonymous pupil of Rembrandt, but is sometimes grouped with sheets associated with Samuel van Hoogstraten.
1. For similar watermarks identified in etchings by Rembrandt, see Nancy Ash and Shelley Fletcher, Watermarks in Rembrandt’s prints, Washington 1998, pp. 181-212.
2. 129 x 103 mm; Hind 171.I.
3. Pen and brown ink, white body colour, 140 x 123 mm; inv. no. 16448a. See W. Sumowski, Drawings of the Rembrandt School, vol. 5, New York 1981, p. 2826, no. 1276a, repr.Request more information »