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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)  Oil on canvas, 	c. 1610  159 cm × 124 cm (63 in × 49 in)  Galleria Borghese, 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. 1610
159 cm × 124 cm (63 in × 49 in)
Galleria Borghese, 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

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.

The date of the John the Baptist in the Galleria Borghese is disputed: it was long thought to have been acquired by Cardinal Scipione Borghese some time between his own arrival in Rome in 1605 and Caravaggio's flight from the city in 1606, but Roberto Longhi dated it to the artist's Sicilian period (a date post-1608) on the basis of similarities in handling and colour. Lonhi's view has gained increasing acceptance, with a consensus in favour of 1610 emerging in recent years.

The painting shows a boy slumped against a dark background, where a sheep nibbles at a dull brown vine. The boy is immersed in a reverie: perhaps as Saint John he is lost in private melancholy, contemplating the coming sacrifice of Christ; or perhaps as a real-life street-kid called on to model for hours he is merely bored. As so often with Caravaggio, the sense is of both at once. But the overwhelming feeling is of sorrow. The red cloak envelopes his puny childish body like a flame in the dark, the sole touch of colour apart from the pale flesh of the juvenile saint. "Compared with the earlier Capitolina and Kansas City versions...the Borghese picture is more richly colouristic - an expressive essay in reds, whites, and golden browns. It also represents a less idealised and more sensuous approach to the male nude, as prefigured in the stout-limbed figures of certain of Caravaggio's post-Roman works, such as the Naples Flagellation and the Valletta Beheading of John the Baptist.".

Borghese was a discriminating collector but notorious for extorting and even stealing pieces that caught his eye - he, or rather his uncle Pope Paul V, had recently imprisoned Giuseppe Cesari, one of the best-known and most successful painters in Rome, on trumped-up charges in order to confiscate his collection of a hundred and six paintings, which included three of the Caravaggios today displayed in the Galleria Borghese (
Boy Peeling Fruit, Young Sick Bacchus, and Boy with a basket of Fruit). They joined the Caravaggios that the Cardinal already possessed, including a Saint Jerome and the  Madonna and Child with St. Anne.

By 1610 Caravaggio's life was unravelling. It's always dangerous to interpret an artist's works in terms of his life, but in this case the temptation is overwhelming, and every writer on Caravaggio seems to surrender to it. In 1606 he had fled Rome as an outlaw after killing a man in a street fight; in 1608 he had been thrown into prison in Malta and again escaped; through 1609 he had been pursued across Sicily by his enemies until taking refuge in Naples, where he had been attacked in the street by unknown assailants within days of his arrival. Now he was under the protection of the Colonna family in the city, seeking a pardon that would allow him to return to Rome. The power to grant the pardon lay in the hands of the art-loving Cardinal Borghese, who would expect to be paid in paintings. News that the pardon was imminent arrived in mid-year, and the artist set out by boat with three canvasses. The next news was that he had died "of a fever" in Porto Ercole, a coastal town north of Rome held by Spain.
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Goback 71 / 85 Forward
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  The Fortune Teller  Oil on canvas, c. 1596  115 x 150 cm  Musei Capitolini, Rome, ItalyMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness)  Oil on canvas, 	c. 1610  159 cm × 124 cm (63 in × 49 in)  Galleria Borghese, Rome, ItalyMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)  The Crowning with Thorns (Prato)  Oil on canvas, c. 1604	  178 cm × 125 cm (70 in × 49 in)  Cassa di Risparmio di Prato, Tuscany, Italy
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