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Medieval Wall Painting
in the
English Parish Church

Cerne Abbas, Dorset (†Salisbury [Sarum]) C14

The Life of John the Baptist
Baptism of Christ

John the Baptist before Herod and Herodias, Cerne Abbas

This rare painting (left) of John the Baptist before Herod and Herodias is part of a series of the life and death of the saint. There were once several more scenes, but only those on this page are really identifiable now.

John, in his short but voluminous robe is at the left. He has a halo and his left hand is raised as if in rebuke; this may in fact be the moment when he told Herod and Herodias that their marriage was not lawful. Herod, who has a large crown and a heavily furred robe, is further right, and his wife Herodias, also crowned, is at the far right.

Decollation of John the Baptist, Cerne Abbas

Another scene, which is probably Herod’s Feast, follows, but it is very obscure now. Finally, in a further clear scene, John is beheaded. The executioner, his prominent sword raised above his head, stands at the left. John himself is a confused and obscure figure at the lower right, where his body seems to be held in the crook of the executioner’s left arm. Quite where his head is is difficult to say – Tristram thought it was dangled by the executioner over a platter carried by two women, one of them perhaps Salome. This, although entirely consistent with the story, is impossible to confirm now, but there are certainly other figures at the far left of the scene, so Tristram’s interpretation of it is probably essentially correct.

Baptism of Christ, Cerne Abbas

The other clear scene is the Baptism of Christ (below, left), obviously harking back to an earlier point in John’s life. Christ stands centrally, with a halo and a loincloth, his hands clasped before him in prayer. At the left is John, reaching upwards towards Christ’s head. Part of his head, robe and his legs and feet are reasonably clear, but he is rather a vague figure otherwise. Another figure may stand behind him, and at the right is an angel holding garments.

The perspective detail in the angel’s wings, held behind and partly over its head, is impressive for (Tristram’s) date of about 1360. In fact, all the paintings show this understanding of perspectival space to some extent, and the heads and faces in the scene of John before Herod and Herodias are painted with considerable naturalistic flair. These were made by an accomplished painter. They have been retouched, but this is unlikely to have altered the general articulation and layout.

The only other paintings in the church are of Biblical texts from the Geneva Bible of 1560 in painted shields on the nave walls. We know that three of these were made in 1679 by a painter called Robert Ford, and that he was paid three guineas for them.

Paintings of the Baptism of Christ are not common, but there is one other on the site, at Black Bourton in Oxfordshire. Links to paintings of saints are in the table below.

Website for St Mary’s, Cerne Abbas