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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)  Oil on canvas, 	1602  129 cm x 94 cm (51 in x 37 in)  Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome, Italy
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Title: John the Baptist

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)
Oil on canvas, 1602
129 cm x 94 cm (51 in x 37 in)
Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome, Italy

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).

1 John the Baptist, Toledo
2 John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram), Musei Capitolini, Rome
3 John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram), Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome
4 John the Baptist, Kansas City
5 John the Baptist, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
6 John the Baptist (St John the Baptist at the Fountain), Collezione Bonelli, Valletta
7 John the Baptist, Galleria Borghese, Rome
8 John the Baptist (St John the Baptist Reclining), Munich

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.

Also known as Youth with a Ram, this painting exists in two near-identical versions, both thought to be by the artist. Both versions are in Rome, one at Musei Capitolini and the other in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj.

In 1602 Caravaggio's Cupid (known today as Amor Vincit Omnia), done for the banker and art patron Vincenzo Giustiniani, caused a sensation in the rarefied circle of Rome's wealthy connoisseurs. In the same year Ciriaco Mattei, also a banker, whose brother Asdrubale had befriended Caravaggio even before he had become known, commissioned a painting of his eldest son's name-saint, John the Baptist. Whether or not it was at Mattei's request - the idea is plausible but there is no evidence to support it - Caravaggio used the same model he had painted for Giustiniani's celebrated Amor.

The enduring appeal of this John the Baptist lies in its soft, caressing light and velvety rendering of cloth, flesh, and plants. The figure is identifiable as St. John only by virtue of the symbols of Christ displayed in the painting: the ram (sacrificial victim), and the grape-leaves (from whose red juice, akin to the blood of Christ, springs life); otherwise the iconographical subject (the simple, immediately apparent image) appears as a nude youth with an ironic, if not allusive, expression.

The ambiguity of the painting confused future generations: around 1620 it was being referred to as a Phrygian shepherd; in 1624 it passed into the hands of Caravaggio's early patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, and on his death was inventoried as a Corydon, another mythical shepherd from Classical antiquity; and even today there have been attempts to redefine it as a "laughing Isaac" - Isaac being at least identified with a ram. Also, close examination shows that the boy is sitting on a heap of logs, which could be a further indication that Isaac is depicted here, and not John the Baptist. Its cultivated content and its destination for an aristocratic patron are underscored by the artist's explicit use of a great figurative source of the past: Michelangelo's Ignudi from the Sistine Ceiling. But whereas Michelangelo created abstract and ideal figures with cold lights and a merely theoretical plasticism, Caravaggio models his figure on the careful observation of nature, achieving an image of perfect realism.

The model for Amor Vincit was a boy named Cecco, Caravaggio's servant and possibly his pupil as well. He has been tentatively identified with an artist active in Rome about 1610-1625, otherwise known only as Cecco del Caravaggio - Caravaggio's Cecco - who painted very much in Caravaggio's style. The most striking feature of Amor was the young model's evident glee in posing for the painting, so that it became rather more a portrait of Cecco than a depiction of a Roman demi-god. The same sense of the real-life model overwhelming the supposed subject was transferred to Mattei's John the Baptist. The youthful John is shown half-reclining, one arm around a ram's neck, his face turned to the viewer with an impish grin. There's almost nothing to signify that this indeed the prophet sent to make straight the road in the wilderness - no cross, no leather belt, just a scrap of camel's skin lost in the voluminous folds of the red cloak, and the ram. The ram itself is highly un-canonical - John the Baptist's animal is supposed to be a lamb, marking his greeting of Christ as the 'Lamb of God' come to take away the sins of mankind. The ram is as often a symbol of lust as of sacrifice, and this naked smirking boy conveys no sense of sin whatsoever. Some biographers have tried to depict Caravaggio as an essentially orthodox Catholic of the Counter-Reformation, but Cecco the Baptist seems as irredeemably pagan as his previous incarnation as Cupid.

The Mattei Baptist proved immensely popular - eleven known copies were made, including one recognised by scholars as being from Caravaggio's own hand. It is today held in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery on the Roman Corso. (The gallery also houses his Penitent Magdalene and Rest on the Flight into Egypt). The collectors ordering the copies would have been aware of a further level of irony: the pose adopted by the model is a clear imitation of that adopted by one of Michelangelo's famous ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted 1508-1512). The role of these gigantic male nudes in Michelango's depiction of the world before the Laws of Moses has always been unclear - some have supposed them to be angels, others that they represent the Neo-Platonic ideal of human beauty - but for Caravaggio to pose his adolescent assistant as one of the Master's dignified witnesses to the Creation was clearly a kind of in-joke for the cognoscenti.

In 1601/02 Caravaggio was apparently living and painting in the palazzo of the Mattei family, inundated with commissions from wealthy private clients following the success of the Contarelli chapel where in 1600 he had displayed The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Inspiration of Saint Matthew. It was one of the most productive periods in a productive career. Ciriaco Mattei's notebook records two payments to Caravaggio in July and December of that year, marking the beginning and completion of the original John the Baptist. The payment was a relatively modest 85 scudi, because John was a single figure. The copy may have been made at the same time or very soon after. In January of that year Caravaggio received a hundred and fifty scudi for Supper at Emmaus. For Vincenzo Giustiniani there was The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and in January 1603 Ciriaco paid a hundred and twenty-five scudi for The Taking of Christ. Each of these increased the immense popularity of Caravaggio among collectors - twenty copies survive of the Supper at Emmeus, more of the Taking of Christ.

But for all this success, neither the Church itself, nor any of the religious Orders, had yet commissioned anything. The paintings in the Contarelli Chapel had been commissioned and paid for by private patrons, although the priests of San Luigi dei Francesi (which contains the chapel) had had to approve the result. Caravaggio's problem was that the Counter-Reformation Church was extremely conservative - there had been a move to introduce an Index of Prohibited Images, and high-ranking cardinals had published handbooks guiding artists, and more especially the priests who might commission artists or approve art, on what was and was not acceptable. And the playful crypto-paganism of this private John the Baptist with its cross-references to the out of favour Classicising humanism of Michelangelo and the High Renaissance, most certainly was not acceptable.
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Goback 74 / 85 Forward
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula  Oil on canvas, 1610  154 cm × 178 cm (61 in × 70 in)  Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples, ItalyMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram)  Oil on canvas, 	1602  129 cm x 94 cm (51 in x 37 in)  Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome, ItalyMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  The Musicians  Oil on canvas, 	c. 1595  92 cm × 118.5 cm (36 in × 47 in)  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, United States
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