No other artist has quite captured the emotional intensity of the Baptist.
In the Gospel of Mark, St. John the Baptist is heralded as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'”
Many emotionally intense paintings have been inspired by John’s role in salvation history, from the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River to his murder by King Herod. But no artist has rivaled Caravaggio’s interest in the figure of Saint John the Baptist. In the artist’s relatively short life– he died at only 38 years old — Caravaggio completed at least eight paintings of the saint. Here is a gallery of the most moving depictions of St. John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio:
1. John the Baptist (John in the Wilderness), Museo Tesoro Catedralicio, Toledo (1598)
This painting was likely completed by Caravaggio, although some art historians attribute it to Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, an early follower of the Baroque master. However, the level of detail shown in the plants at the feet of the subject and the intense emotional character of his face suggest that this work was most likely Caravaggio’s own. The details of the leaves at the feet of the Baptist are almost identical to those painted in the famous still-life work titled “Basket of Fruit.” The introspective pose of St. John the Baptist conveys a sense of melancholy typical of Caravaggio’s dramatic style. Caravaggio’s choice of representing the Baptist as a youth is a departure from more canonical representations that usually see him as either a child or an adult. It is aligned with the painter’s interest in depicting the fragile beauty of adolescents, something he has masterfully done in other works such as “Bacchus.”
2. John the Baptist (Youth with a Ram), Musei Capitolini, Rome (1602)
Another depiction of St. John the Baptist as an adolescent, the “Youth With A Ram” brings out some of the most distinctive aspects of Caravaggio’s painting. Here, John is shown half-reclining, holding a ram, in a very dynamic pose that displays the knowledge of anatomy held by the Baroque master. A scrap of camel’s skin hidden in the red cloak reveals that the youthful subject is indeed St. John the Baptist, whose camel’s hair clothing is mentioned in the scriptures. The amazing chiaroscuro (contrast of light and shadow) that brings to life John’s grin is also another sign of Caravaggio’ style.