A young man wearing only an animal skin is illuminated against a dark rock, leaning forward to drink water trickling from a spring. With one hand he props himself up on the rock and with the other he holds a reed cross – an attribute which identifies him as Saint John the Baptist, the desert hermit who foretold the coming of Christ.
This painting was once attributed to Caravaggio, or to one of his followers, but it was probably painted in the mid-seventeenth century in Rome. Caravaggio painted a number of pictures of the Baptist as an adolescent, including a scene of him leaning on a rock and drinking directly from a spring, of which numerous copies and variants exist, attesting to its popularity in the seventeenth century. Although not directly related to that composition, our painting’s tight crop, dramatic lighting and naturalistic rendering of the Baptist’s body are all ultimately inspired by Caravaggio’s example.
A young man wearing only an animal skin is illuminated against a dark rock, leaning forward to drink water trickling from a spring. With one hand he props himself up on the rock and with the other he holds a reed cross – an attribute which identifies him as Saint John the Baptist. According to the Gospel of Luke (3: 1–17), John spent some years living as a hermit in the wilderness of Judea, foretelling the coming of Christ. He was traditionally shown as a bearded and unkempt adult – he was supposed to have dressed in camel’s skin and lived on locusts and honey in the desert – and was often accompanied by a lamb (he identified Christ as the Lamb of God). The water springing from the rock is appropriate to John’s baptismal role: he preached repentance of sins and baptised people in the river Jordan, Christ among them. Here he drinks directly from a spring rather than using a drinking bowl as other artists – such as Raphael – had previously shown him.
An attribution to Giuseppe Vermiglio (about 1587–after 1635), a Lombard painter who spent considerable time in Rome in the early part of the seventeenth century, has also been suggested.
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