Leonardo da Vinci’s “Bacchus, or St. John the Baptist”

From the Workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, “Bacchus (formerly known as St. John the Baptist)“, oil on canvas,
Italy, 1510-1515. At The Louvre https://www.louvre.fr/en


This work was originally an image of John the Baptist, but the overt sensuality of the piece was taken up (presumably by Da Vinci’s students) and the image was transformed to a depiction of the deity Bacchus, known in Greece as Dionysus. Bacchus is the Roman name for the god of wine, festivity, divine ecstasy, fertility and the harvest. Bacchus/Dionysus is the central figure of the cult of Orphism, along with his mother Persephone. The cult honors the concept of spiritual freedom unbound from the constraints of the flesh, particularly after death. This mythology is mirrored in the story of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of the Christian afterlife, as well as older Egyptian stories of Osiris.

The image below is da Vinci’s final version of “Saint John the Baptist”, 1513 – 1516, oil on walnut. Many of the same elements are present – the particular gesture of the right hand, finger pointing to an implied discovery, the androgyny, the animalistic elements of the fur and the overal sensual beauty of the figure and his environs. It is thought that this was the last painting created by da Vinci before his death in 1519.

Leonardo da Vinci, “Saint John the Baptist”, Italy, 1513 – 1516, oil on walnut