The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

León, c. 1500

Originally from the church of San Juan Bautista in Valencia de Don Juan (León)

Oil on panel

132 x 95 cm.

Provenance: Barcelona, art market (1968); Miami, Marlene Nasreddine collection.

Literature: Gómez Moreno 1925-1926, pp. 455-456; Post 1933, p. 170; García 1948, p. 159; José Camón Aznar, Pintura medieval española (Summa Artis, vol. XXII), Madrid, 1966, p. 589; Ballesté 2017, vol. I, p. 98 y vol. II, p. 120 y 124, figs. 221 y 227; Ballesté 2019, p. 253.

This panel depicts one of the most well-known scenes from the hagiographic legend of St. John the Baptist, his beheading. The middle of the composition is occupied by Salome, accompanied by servants and elegantly dressed in gilt and estofado clothing featuring the carxofa motif. An executioner is handing her John’s head, which has just been chopped off. The body of the saint is lying on the ground, his arms tied behind his back, semi-naked, wearing nothing more than a camel skin. Herod and his entourage are pictured on the left of the composition, while on the right we see an armoured soldier in silver leaf, and various figures in front of a narrow and oddly-arranged building. To the rear there is a walled city and a roughly sketched-out landscape, above which we observe a gold background with floral motifs in punch-marked gold leaf.

This is one of the compartments from the main altarpiece, dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, in the church of Valencia de Don Juan (León), demolished in 1970. Gómez Moreno was the first to mention the 12 panels included in this ensemble in situ in around 1908[1], when he saw them spread between two altars that were built in the modern era, and which we know of thanks to photos preserved in the archives of the Hispanic Society of America (New York)[2]. Post was also able to see them shortly afterwards, when the church had already been abandoned, attributing the works to a follower of the Master of Palanquinos[3]. Four of them depicted narrative episodes from the lives of the two saints (Feast of Herod, Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Sermon of St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Evangelist and the Miracle of the Poisoned Cup), while the rest portrayed saints and prophets (St. John the Evangelist and St. Andrew, St. James the Great and St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St.  Matthew, St. Paul and St. Bartholomew, Malachi, Zechariah and two unidentified prophets).

Thanks to Teófilo García we know that the panels remained in the church until 1924, when they were removed due to the building’s imminent collapse. It was restored and opened for worship once more in 1931, but the panels did not return, remaining disassembled and put to one side in the neighbouring church of San Pedro[4]. It is recorded that between 1929 and 1930 there was an attempt to buy the compartments, but this was unsuccessful due to the intervention of the Provincial Monuments Committee[5]. One must therefore suppose that they were subsequently sold, and the group broken up.

Of the 12 panels, some have come up for sale recently, such as the Feast of Herod, which was auctioned in 2013 by Ansorena Subastas (Madrid), and purchased by the Regional Government of Castile and León. Today it is on display at the Museo de León, erroneously attributed to the Master of Palanqui­nos[6]. The compartment with St. Peter and St. Matthew (91 x 69 cm) was auctioned by Alcalá Subastas (Madrid) in 2016, being purchased by a private collector[7]. Curiously, both panels present the same extremely narrow Neo-Gothic frame as our Beheading, which attests to their having passed through the same hands once they came onto the art market.

A photographic detail of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is preserved in the aforementioned Hispanic Society of America archive[8]. The compartment had not reappeared when Ballesté recently dealt with this group of panels, so our study serves to update its pedigree. We also ought to point out that up until recently it was part of the Marlene Nasreddine collection in Miami. Prior to that, it had appeared on the Barcelona art market, judging by a 1968 photo kindly provided to us recently by Enric Ribé[9]. Finally, we ought to mention that the location of the rest of the altarpiece compartments is unknown, but that it is hoped some more of them will appear on the art market in the future.




[1] Gómez Moreno 1925-1926, pp. 455-456.

[2] Reproduced in Ballesté 2017, vol. II, p. 120, figs. 221-222; Ballesté 2019, p. 253, figs. 6-7.

[3] Post 1933, pp. 168-171, fig. 44.

[4] García 1948, p. 159.

[5] Revilla 2013.

[6] Ansorena, auction of 17 July 2013. Cfr. Ballesté 2017, vol. I, p. 98; Ballesté 2019, p. 253.

[7] Alcalá Subastas, auction of 9 and 10 March 2016, lot 756. Cfr. Revilla 2016; Ballesté 2017, vol. I, p. 98; Ballesté 2019, p. 253.

[8] “HSA GRF 83371. Winocio (?) Palanquinos, Master (School of). Panel from the retablo: The Decapitation of Saint John the Baptist. In the Iglesia de San Juan. Valencia de Don Juan (León)”. Quoted by Ballesté 2017, vol. I, p. 98 and reproduced in vol. II, p. 124, fig. 227.

[9] According to Ribé, the photo came into his possession through the antiques dealer from Barcelona, Jaume Clavell, to whom the work had been offered, but which he did not purchase due to its high price.