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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)  Oil on canvas, 	c. 1604  94 cm × 131 cm (37 in × 52 in)  Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome, Italy
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Title: John the Baptist

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)
Oil on canvas, c. 1604
94 cm × 131 cm (37 in × 52 in)
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, 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

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.

This is one of two John the Baptists painted by Caravaggio in or around 1604 (possibly 1605). It is held in the Palazzo Corsini collection of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica. Like the John done for Ottavio Costa, the figure has been stripped of identifying symbols - no belt, not even the "raiment of camel's hair", and the reed cross is only suggested. The background and surrounds have darkened even further, and again there is the sense of a story from which the viewer is excluded.

Caravaggio was not the first artist to have treated the Baptist as a cryptic male nude - there were prior examples from Leonardo, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto and others - but he introduced a new note of realism and drama. His John has the roughened, sunburnt hands and neck of a labourer, his pale torso emerging with a contrast that reminds the viewer that this is a real boy who has gotten undressed for his modelling session - unlike Raphael's Baptist, who is as idealised and un-individualised as one of his winged cherubs.

Ask who this model actually is, (or was), and the realism of the individual spills over as a record of Rome itself in the age of Caravaggio. Biographer Peter Robb cites Montaigne on Rome as a city of universal idleness, "...the envied idleness of the higher clerics, and the frightening idleness of the destitute...a city almost without trades or professions, in which the churchmen were playboys or bureaucrats, the laymen were condemned to be courtiers, all the pretty girls and boys seemed to be prostitutes, and all wealth was inherited old money or extorted new." It was not an age which welcomed an art that emphasised the real.
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