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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571  1610)  John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)  Oil on canvas, 	c.1604  173 cm × 133 cm (68 in × 52 in)  Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, United States
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Title: John the Baptist
Description:

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 1610)
John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)
Oil on canvas, c.1604
173 cm × 133 cm (68 in × 52 in)
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, United States

John the Baptist (sometimes called John in the Wilderness) was the subject of at least eight paintings by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (15711610).

The story of John the Baptist is told in the Gospels. John was the cousin of Jesus, and his calling was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. He lived in the wilderness of Judea between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, "his raiment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey." He baptised Jesus in the Jordan, and was eventually killed by Herod Antipas when he called upon the king to reform his evil ways. John was frequently shown in Christian art, identifiable by his bowl, reed cross, camel's skin and lamb. The most popular scene prior to the Counter-Reformation was of John's baptism of Jesus, or else the infant Baptist together with the infant Jesus and Mary his mother, frequently supplemented by the Baptist's own mother St Elizabeth. John alone in the desert was less popular, but not unknown. For the young Caravaggio, John was invariably a boy or youth alone in the wilderness. This image was based on the statement in the Gospel of Luke that "the child grew and was strengthened in spirit, and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel." These works allowed a religious treatment of the partly-clothed youths he liked to paint at this period - not all the models have a very saintly look.

Apart from these works showing John alone, mostly dated to his early years, Caravaggio painted three great narrative scenes of John's death - the great ution in Malta, and two sombre Salomes with his head, one in Madrid, and one in London.

Bellini's Baptist is depicted within a conventional framework that his audience would know and share; Caravaggio's is almost impenetrably private. In 1604 Caravaggio was commissioned to paint a John the Baptist for the papal banker and art patron Ottavio Costa, who already owned the artist's Judith Beheading Holofernes and Martha and Mary Magdalene. Costa intended it for an altarpiece for a small oratory in the Costa fiefdom of Conscente (a village near Albenga, on the Italian Riviera), but liked it so much that he sent a copy to the oratory and kept the original in his own collection. It is now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

Stark contrasts of light and dark accentuate the perception that the figure leans forward, out of the deep shadows of the background and into the lighter realm of the viewer's own space...The brooding melancholy of the Nelson-Atkins Baptist has attracted the attention of almost every commentator. It seems, indeed, as if Caravaggio instilled in this image an element of the essential pessimism of the Baptist's preaching, of the senseless tragedy of his early martyrdom, and perhaps even some measure of the artist's own troubled psyche. The saint's gravity is at least partly explained, too, by the painting's function as the focal point of the meeting place of a confraternity whose mission was to care for the sick and dying and to bury the corpses of plague victims.

Caravaggio biographer Peter Robb has pointed out that the fourth Baptist seems like a psychic mirror-image of the first, with all the signs reversed: the brilliant morning light which bathed the earlier painting has become harsh and almost lunar in its contrasts, and the vivid green foliage has turned to dry dead brown. There is almost nothing in the way of symbols to identify that this is indeed a religious image, no halo, no sheep, no leather girdle, nothing but the thin reed cross (a reference to Christ's description of John as "a reed shaken by the wind"). The painting demonstrates what Robb calls Caravaggio's "feeling for the drama of the human presence." This adolescent, almost adult, John seems locked in some private world known only to his creator. Caravaggio's conception of the saint as a seated, solitary figure, lacking almost any narrative identity (how do we know this is the Baptist? What is happening here?) was truly revolutionary. Artists from Giotto to Bellini and beyond had shown the Baptist as an approachable story, a symbol understandable to all; the very idea that a work should express a private world, rather than a common religious and social experience, was radically new.
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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571  1610)  The Calling of St Matthew  Oil on canvas, 1599-1600  322 cm × 340 cm (127 in × 134 in)  San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome, ItalyMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571  1610)  John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)  Oil on canvas, 	c.1604  173 cm × 133 cm (68 in × 52 in)  Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, United StatesMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571  1610)  Madonna and Child with St. Anne (Madonna dei Palafrenieri)  Oil on canvas, 	c. 1610  292 cm × 211 cm (115 in × 83 in)  Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy
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