This scene depicts an intimate moment between Christ and Saint John the Baptist, here identified by his camel-skin garment and reed cross.
The pair are more frequently portrayed meeting as young children, in an episode drawn from biblical apocrypha, or during Christ’s baptism, which was performed by Saint John. Guido Reni has instead chosen to paint the youths embracing in a nondescript location. John clasps his hands reverently as he turns towards Christ, who looks back with a serene expression.
The loose brushwork and pale, limited colour palette indicate that this work was painted late in the artist’s career. The figures are rendered in fluid, sweeping brushstrokes, and lack the finish and detail evident in earlier works. Reni’s late works typically represent devotional subjects in simplified, half-length compositions, as here.
This scene depicts an intimate moment between Christ and Saint John the Baptist, here identified by a camel-skin garment and reed cross – his customary attributes. Guido Reni has emphasised Christ’s divinity by encircling his head with a golden halo and giving his skin an other-worldly glow.
Paintings of Christ and John the Baptist more commonly show the pair as young children, an apocryphal subject popular among artists in the seventeenth century, or as adults, standing in the river Jordan during Christ’s baptism, performed by Saint John. Reni has instead chosen to portray the youths embracing in a focused, tightly cropped composition, against a nondescript brown background. The two figures lock eyes; John clasps his hands in reverence as he turns towards Christ, who looks back with an expression of serenity. The composition, with figures placed close to the picture plane, allows us to share in the intensity of this quiet moment of affection and devotion.
Reni had painted this subject previously, in about 1621, in a larger full-length picture for the church of the Gerolamini in Naples (now in the Museo dei Gerolamini, Naples). We don‘t know who commissioned or first owned the National Gallery painting, but it was not unusual for the artist’s studio to receive requests from clients for reduced-size copies or variants of his more successful compositions. This painting is likely an example of such a request from a collector who had seen the earlier painting in the Gerolamini.
X-ray images reveal that this canvas was initially used for a different subject. National Gallery conservators have identified traces of a face in the upper right of the canvas, unrelated to the present composition. This work was painted around 1640, in the final years of Reni’s life. The abandoned composition, along with the economic reuse of the canvas, is perhaps linked to the artist’s mounting debts at this time. According to Reni’s biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, the artist began painting more rapidly in an effort to keep up with persistent creditors, and worked on numerous paintings at once. The practice ’wearied and confused' him, and perhaps led to dramatic changes of mind, as is evident here.
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