San Giovanni Battista (1609-1610)

Caravaggio (1571-1610)

San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist)
Oil on canvas, 152 x 125 cm
Galleria BorgheseRoma

The painting was one of the group of paintings that the artist took with him on the return journey by sea from Naples to Rome. The painter took the trip in 1610, hoping to be pardoned from the death sentence passed on him in 1606 by Paul V. His intention was to obtain the intercession of the pope, making a gift of the works to his nephew, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had previously owned the Madonna dei Palafrenieri (inv. 110), The Boy with a Basket of Fruit (inv. 136) and the Self-portrait as Bacchus (inv. 534). But, as some missives claim, near Palo, on the coast north of Rome, Caravaggio was unjustly imprisoned, failing to board the ship that carried his precious baggage.

The work depicts John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth and cousin of Jesus. He is captured here deep in thought in a shadowy setting next to a ram, symbol of man’s redemption through the sacrifice of Christ. The saint is shown seated on a long cloth in red, a colour that alludes to the blood shed during his martyrdom. His left hand holds a slender reed, a reference to the life of penance and prayer that the man lived in the desert. (GB)