St John the Baptist in the Prison | Art for A Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-3 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

St John the Baptist in the Prison
NAVARRETE, Juan Fernández de Spanish painter
(b. ca. 1538, Logroño, d. 1579, Toledo)
St John the Baptist in the Prison 1565-70
Oil on canvas, 80 x 72 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

St. John the Baptist in the Prison, oil on canvas, c. 1565-70, Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, 1526-1579

In the mid-sixteenth century when Juan Fernandez de Navarrete was a youth, a period of study in Italy was a prerequisite for a career in art. Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese were still living and Italy attracted artists from throughout Europe. Navarrete, a young Spaniard, visited the major art centers in Italy and stayed in Venice to study Titian’s use of color. Then, as now, there were cultural differences between Italy and Spain and Navarrete’s interest was in gaining knowledge of techniques, not subject matter. During the Renaissance, the depiction of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses entered into Italian art but were not of interest in Spain where very few nude Venuses or classical themes were depicted. Instead, subject matter in Spain tended to depict religious themes of devotion and piety.

Spain was a world power in the sixteenth century and King Philip II, who assumed the throne of Spain in 1556, ruled an empire that included Naples, Milan, and The Netherlands; even the far off Philippine islands were named for him. He was determined to rule as a strong Catholic King and was intent on keeping Martin Luther’s teachings and the reformation out of Spain. When he was building his extensive royal monastery-palace (called El Escorial) he wanted the best artist available to paint its walls. Titian, however, was too old and his other choices, Tintoretto and Veronese, refused to live in Spain. Navarrete accepted the position and became known as the “King’s Painter.”

Navarrete’s “St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is not filled with superfluous details. John is alone in a cell with a shaft of dramatic light coming through a window fitted with iron bars. In art, John the Baptist is identified by his camel-skin clothes; he is depicted usually as being wiry, not soft as depicted here. He sometimes carries a crudely assembled cross made with a simple piece of wood split at the top with a crosspiece inserted and held together with twine. In this scene, John’s shawl has been laid aside and he is hunched bare-shouldered over a table looking at the cross. His expression suggests this is a time of prayer, contemplation, introspection, and sadness.


At the age of three, Navarrete was struck with an illness that affected his hearing. This made learning to speak difficult and he became known as El Mudo (The Mute). He compensated by communicating through drawings.

“St. John the Baptist in the Prison” is now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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