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.
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 Execution 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.
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