The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

Image credit: The National Gallery, London

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Herod, ruler of Galilee, promised his stepdaughter Salome anything she desired if she danced for him; prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. The story of the beheading, with its mixture of religion, violence and eroticism, had been depicted many times in art, not least by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. Puvis de Chavannes painted two versions of it. This is the second, which he worked on over many years but left unfinished at his death. The haunting and enigmatic scene is posed as if on a stage. The artist paints realistic figures but places them in a carefully composed but artificial composition; each is isolated in their own private world. The Baptist contemplates the cross in his final seconds, his thoughts on Christ and the salvation to come; the executioner starts his sword-sweep with balletic precision and concentration; Salome and Herod look on, their expressions reserved and curious.

The National Gallery, London



The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist


about 1869


Oil on canvas


H 243.5 x W 318.4 cm

Accession number


Acquisition method

Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917

Work type



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