Wonderfully Weird Proportions of Scale in Early Paintings

When old paintings challenge our modern day expectations

Christopher P Jones
7 min readNov 28, 2023

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Saint John the Baptist Retiring to the desert, Giovanni di Paolo, c.1453. Oil on panel. 31 × 39 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Take a moment to enjoy the intriguing painting shown above.

It was made by the Italian artist Giovanni di Paolo in about 1453. It shows a scene from the life of Saint John the Baptist, who leaves the city to take up a simple and austere life in the desert of Judea.

Notice how John can be seen twice: at first he walks from the city through the crenellated stone gate; next we see him moving up into the mountains to lead a life of material detachment.

To our modern eyes there is clearly something puzzling about this painting, most obviously in the disproportionate size between the figures and the setting, and between the different features of the landscape.

Part of the logic we take for granted about scale and proportion is how, for instance, things that are farther away appear smaller than things close up. Yet few of these expectations are met in this painting.

So you might well wonder: why did the artist choose to paint the scene in this way?

Different Purposes

To get a better idea of the artist’s purpose, take another look at the painting and notice how the colours play a part: St John wears a pink tunic, which clearly stands out against the grey tones of the city walls and mountains. The same pink is used in the details of buildings.

Saint John the Baptist Retiring to the desert, Giovanni di Paolo, c.1453. Oil on panel. 31 × 39 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

A primary concern of the painting is clarity. It is through this pared-down colour scheme that we can see more clearly John’s journey into the wilderness.

All of which points to the primary objective of the painting, which was to impart a story, in this case of a holy man traversing the landscape from a town into the desert.

Another way of thinking about this, is to say that the painting is designed to show a religious role model rather than a realistic portrait. When considered in this way, it is actually hard to see how the painting could be made more vivid.

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