Out of the wilderness: a fourteenth-century English drawing of John the Baptist

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Abstract

London, British Library, MS Royal 10 B XIV contains a large drawing of St. John the Baptist that is both exceptional for its quality and iconographically unique. Not previously noticed by art historians, it constitutes an important addition to English art of the early to mid-fourteenth century. This paper explores the physical nature of the drawing, its bibliographical context (in a book of natural philosophy), the nature and meaning of its imagery, and its artistic context and associations, within the broader framework of its ownership and use by Benedictine monks of Saint Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury. The drawing is considered a symptom of a wider interest in the acquisition of manuscript illumination at the abbey during the first half of the fourteenth century. It can be dated to about 1335-40 and is thought to have been executed in southeast England or East Anglia, where the works of art to which it is closest in stylistic and iconographic terms were produced. The iconography includes a number of motifs rare or unparalleled in images of John the Baptist, including a figure of Salome beneath the saint's feet and, most remarkably, a monumental Gothic arch composed of living oak trees, which frames the saint. The detail and semantic richness of this imagery make it practically certain that the drawing was made as a focus of devotion, probably for the manuscript's first recorded owner, the Oxford scholar-monk John of Lingfield.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)137-150
Number of pages14
JournalGesta
Volume49
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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