John the Baptist, also called John in the Wilderness, was the subject of at least eight artworks by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The story of John the Baptist is told in the Gospels.
John the Baptist ived in the wilderness of Judea between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan and was eventually killed by Herod Antipas when he called on the king to correct his evil ways. John was often depicted in Christian art; he can be recognized by his bowl, reed cross, camel skin and lamb. The most popular scene before the Counter-Reformation was the baptism of John by Jesus, or the baptism of infants with the infant Jesus and Mary, his mother. For the young Caravaggio, John was invariably a boy or a young man alone in the desert.
In addition to these works representing John alone, mostly dated to his early years, the artist executed three narrative scenes of John’s death: the great Execution in Malta, and two sombre Salomes with his head, one in Madrid, and another one in London. Moreover, the most famous versions of the artist’s works are in the Capitoline Museums (Museo Capitolino) and a copy of this is in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj in Rome.
St John the Baptist was one of Caravaggio’s favorite subjects. John the Baptist is depicted in this painting younger than in other artworks. It is one of Caravaggio’s late works datable to 1610. The subject has a simple pose and thoughtful gaze and it would appear to be the portrait of a shepherd boy at rest with the striking red drapery on the side.
In the painting, John the Baptist is shown as a boy slumped against a dark background and a sheep nibbles at a dull brown vine. Since the Renaissance, he has often been portrayed not as a mature man, but as a young boy. In the painting he is sitting lost in thought. His appearance is filled with sadness, and this feeling is not dispelled by the warm light that floods the figure, nor the red drape. Caravaggio began with light and happy moods, then he created works full of passions and drama, and finally came to a painting filled with a tragic sense of being, which he created at the end of his short life. The artist’s work reflected his own life path.
The canvas was created together with one of Caravaggio’s last works, St John and a Magdalen. It was part of the baggage that the artist brought with him to Rome as a gift for Scipione Borghese, in exchange for papal pardon. In 1613, the artwork was already in the collection as mentioned in the poem by Scipione Francucci d’Imola, the canvas first appeared in the inventory of 1693 with an attribution to Caravaggio. From the inventory of 1790 to the fidei-commissum of 1833 the painting, however, assigned to the French painter Valentin de Boulogne.