Leonardo's 'Saint John the Baptist'

Leonardo's 'Saint John the Baptist'
Photo: Dianelos

Leonardo's painting St. John the Baptist, which may have been his last, is now in the Louvre. It is a small painting that has divided art critics. Martin Kemp chose it as the cover image of his biography and he calls it "androgynously seductive," which I think is supposed to be a compliment. Others however have been openly hostile, arguing that its sexual come-on is blasphemous and does not inspire devotion. Indeed it does not. It inspires something else.


As Leonardo's biographer Charles Nicholl says, "the subtext of this is the troublesome adjacency of homosexuality and spirituality in his depiction of angels and young Christs: the models he used were sexually desirable young men." OK, but is there a problem with that?

The only writer that I am aware of who has come clean on this subject is Germaine Greer, whose book The Beautiful Boy (2003) claims that "society is not accustomed to seeing beauty in young males" and she unveils 200 photos like the cover image below. She claims she would "like to reclaim for women the right to appreciate the short-lived beauty of boys, real boys, not simpering 30-year-olds with shaved chests."


Coming back to Leonardo's John the Baptist, it also may be that the objections have to do with the fact that Leonardo's John is looking back directly at the viewer. Curiously art critics find that unsettling. Something similar can be found in Leonardo's black and white drawing from the same period known as Pointing Lady:

The Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.