Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)
Oil on canvas, c. 1608
100 cm × 73 cm (39 in × 29 in)
Private collection (Collezione Bonelli, Valletta, Malta)
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 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
St John the Baptist at the Fountain, in a private collection in Malta, is difficult to gain access to and consequently few scholars have been able to study it. John Gash treats it as by Caravaggio, pointing out the similarity in the treatment of the flesh to the Sleeping Cupid
, recognised as by the artist and dating his Malta period. The painting has been badly damaged, especially in the landscape. The work is known in two other variants, each slightly different.
The theme of the young John drinking a spring reflects the Gospel tradition that the Baptist drank only water during his period in the wilderness. The painting displays typically Caravaggist extreme chiaroscuro (use of light and shadow), and is also typical in taking a young John the Baptist as its subject, this time set in a dark landscape against an ominous patch of lighter sky. "The mechanics of drinking and the psychology of thirst are beautifully conveyed through the artful manipulation of limbs and the carefully constructed head." (John Gash).
If it is in fact by the artist, it would have been painted during his approximately 15 months in Malta in 1607-1608. His recognised works this period include such masterpieces as the Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page
and The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
. The latter, in the oratory of the Co-Cathedral of Saint John, is the only work that the artist signed.
In Malta Caravaggio was accepted into the Order of Saint John (the Knights of Malta) and became in effect their official artist, but his stay ended with a mysterious offense and his expulsion the Order "as a foul and rotten limb". The crime on Malta has been the subject of much speculation, but seems to have extremely serious, possibly even involving the death penalty. Most modern writers believe that it was a crime of violence. His earliest biographer, Giovanni Baglione, said that there had been a "disagreement" with a knight of justice (i.e., a knight drawn the European nobility); Giovan Pietro Bellori, who visited Malta to see the Beheading of John the Baptist some fifty years after the event, wrote that Caravaggio "had come into conflict with a very noble knight", as a result of which he had incurred the displeasure of the Grand Master and had to flee. It is possible that the offence involved a duel, which was regarded very seriously - but the penalty for duelling was imprisonment, not death. The death penalty was imposed for murder - and a death in a duel or brawl equated to murder - but the wording used by both Baglione and Bellori implied that the knight Caravaggio offended had survived. Peter Robb, in his popular biography M, (1998), makes the case for a sexual misdemeanour, but his argument is speculative.