The large table (cm 216 x 199) bearing the inscription IOANNES BELLINUS. P.[lNXIT] in a leaflet affixed to the rocky podium on which stands St. John the Baptist, it suffered vicissitudes to which its state of conservation was easily attributable considerably compromised before the recent restoration.
The work was commissioned in 1500 and delivered in 1504. The altarpiece – which perhaps was originally completed by a lunette – adorned the high altar of the Priory Church as witnessed both by Carlo Ridolfi in 1648 and by Giustiniano Martinioni in 1663.
Forfeited in the warehouses of the Academy at the time of the suppression of the Grand Priory of Venice, the records of 1822 attest to it present in the “deposit of the Commandery of Malta” in poor condition of conservation.
It was relocated to the Order of Malta’s Church of St. John the Baptist for which it was originally painted and in 1928 it was placed in a monumental neo-Renaissance frame in gilded wood commissioned by the Grand Prior Fra’ Carlo Torrigiani.
In the two-year period 2013-2014, in the context of the extensive restorations of the Grand Prioral Church that brought to light its splendor, Bellini’s masterpiece was restored by Sandra Pesso, after extensive preparatory investigations through digital radiography, infrared reflectography and ultraviolet fluorescence that brought out the preparatory work.
This intervention has thus made it possible to read the trend of the brushstrokes and the signs of the artist’s fingertips and to recover and enhance the high original pictorial quality in which the colors of the landscape of the Jordan Valley stand out.
St. John is depicted in the act of baptizing the Savior in the waters of the Jordan, in the presence of a Knight Giovannita identifiable in the client Fra’ Sebastiano Michiel and two angels.
The compositional scheme and the figures, with the exception of the client, follow the model used by Bellini in the baptism of Christ painted for the altar by Giovan Battista Graziano Garzadori in the church of Santa Corona in Vicenza. It is precisely the compositional analogy with the Garzadori altarpiece that suggests the hypothesis that the panel of St. John the Baptist of Malta was originally completed by an upper panel depicting the Eternal Father.
Recently it has been hypothesized that the lunette is the one that today surmounts the altarpiece of the Madonna and Child Enthroned painted in the mid-fifteenth century by Fra Antonio da Negroponte preserved in the nearby church of San Francesco della Vigna.