Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)
Oil on canvas, c. 1598
169 cm × 112 cm (67 in × 44 in)
Museo Tesoro Catedralicio, Toledo, Spain
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 (1571–1610).
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
The ascription of this painting to Caravaggio is disputed - the alternative candidate is Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, an early follower. It is in the collection of the Museo Tesoro Catedralicio, Toledo (Spain), and John Gash (see references below) speculates that it may have been one of the paintings done by Caravaggio for the prior of the Hospital of the Consolation, as Caravaggio's early biographer Mancini tells us. According to Mancini the prior "afterwards took them with him to his homeland"; unfortunately, one version of Mancini's manuscript says the prior's homeland was Seville, while another says Sicily. There was a Spanish prior of the hospital in 1593, and he may not have left until June 1595. Gash cites scholar A.E. Perez Sanchez's view that while the figure of the saint has certain affinities with Cavarozzi's style, the rest of the picture does not, "and the extremely high quality of certain passages, especially the beautifully depicted vine leaves...is much more characteristic of Caravaggio." Gash also points to the gentle chiaroscuro and the delicate treatment of contours and features, and similar stylistic features in early works by Caravaggio such as The Musicians and Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy. If this and other paintings by Caravaggio were indeed in Seville at an early date they may have influenced Velázquez in his early works. However, the arguments in favour of Cavarozzi are strong, and he is known to have travelled to Spain about 1617-1619.
Peter Robb, taking the painting to be by Caravaggio, dates it to about 1598, when the artist was a member of the household of his first patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte. Robb points out that the Baptist is evidently the same boy who modelled for Isaac in the Sacrifice of Isaac, which would date both paintings to around the same period. Unfortunately this Sacrifice of Isaac is also disputed, and so the problem of authorship is not solved. John is shown against a background of green grape vines and thorny vine stems, seated on a red cloak, holding a thin reed cross and looking down at a sheep lying at his feet. The red cloak would become a staple of Caravaggio's works, one with many precedents in previous art.
John the Baptist carries over many of the concerns which animated Caravaggio's other work from this period. The leaves behind the figure, and the plants and soil around his feet, are depicted with that careful, almost photographic sense of detail which is seen in the contemporary still life Basket of Fruit, while the melancholy self-absorption of the Baptist creates an atmosphere of introspection. The grape leaves stand for the grapes from which the wine of the Last Supper was pressed, while the thorns call to mind the Crown of Thorns, and the sheep is a reminder of the Sacrifice of Christ.
Caravaggio's decision to paint John the Baptist as a youth was somewhat unusual for the age - the saint was traditionally shown as either an infant, together with the infant Jesus and possibly his own and Jesus's mother, or as an adult, frequently in the act of baptising Jesus. Nevertheless it was not totally without precedent. Leonardo had painted a youthful and enigmatically smiling Baptist with one finger pointing upwards (to Heaven?) and the other hand seeming to indicate his own breast, while Andrea del Sarto left a Baptist which almost totally prefigures Caravaggio. Both Leonardo and del Sarto had created from the figure of John something which seems to hint at an entirely personal meaning, one not accessible to the viewer, and Caravaggio was to turn this into something like a personal icon in the course of his many variations on the theme.