In this painting from early in Moretto’s career, Christ blesses his cousin Saint John the Baptist, who kneels beside a river, wearing a tunic of camel skin. This episode is not mentioned in the Gospels and is not otherwise known in art. It may be that Christ has just been baptised by the saint in the River Jordan and is now about to go into the wilderness (Mark 1: 9–12).
This scene was presumably once part of a larger painting, which may have featured a half-length or bust-length portrait on the right. It has been suggested that this scene and Moretto’s small canvas of Christ in the Wilderness (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which is also a fragment, were once part of the same composition. However, the size of the figures is different, so the original character of this painting remains a mystery.
Christ blesses his cousin John the Baptist, who kneels beside a river, wearing a tunic of camel skin. This episode is not mentioned in the Gospels and is not otherwise known in art. It may be that Christ has just been baptised by the saint in the River Jordan and is now about to go into the wilderness, an episode related in the Gospel of Saint Mark (1: 9–12). The path on which Christ stands is steep and rocky, leading away into the mountains, and is lined by stunted trees.
There is a seam 17.5 cm from the left of the painting where an extra strip of canvas was added when the picture was made. This is very surprising in such a small painting. It would be more usual to use a single piece of canvas for a painting of this size. The addition of the extra canvas suggests that this scene was once part of a much larger painting, which would have needed the full loom-width of canvas of about 90-100 cm plus the extra strip. The canvas of the National Gallery’s picture appears to have been cut down at the top, bottom and right edges although it is impossible to tell by how much.
The picture may have once featured a half-length or bust-length portrait of a figure in the right foreground with his hands joined in prayer, viewing the scene of John the Baptist and Christ in the landscape. The reason for this suggestion is that there is a similar painting by Moretto’s pupil Moroni now in a private collection in Milan, which shows a half-length man in this pose on the right, looking towards a scene of Saint John baptising Christ in the landscape behind. The man portrayed may well have been called Giovanni, and John the Baptist his name saint. Moroni’s figures of Christ and Saint John are about the same size as in Moretto’s painting, and the landscape is also similar in character. The unusual choice of subject in Moretto’s painting – Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist – is easier to understand if it were chosen for private devotion rather than as a painting intended for a church. The portrait that it may once have included might have been divided from the religious scene so it could be hung with other portraits. However, no other paintings of quite this type seem to have survived before those made by Moroni, so we can't be certain that this theory is correct.
There is a small canvas of Christ in the Wilderness by Moretto (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) which is demonstrably a fragment of a larger painting, and it has been suggested that this and the National Gallery’s Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist were once part of the same composition. The landscape is similar in both paintings, with slanting trees and rocky outcrops, and the subjects seem to be related. However, the size of the figures is different, which would suggest they were not intended to be seen together. So the true nature of the National Gallery’s painting remains something of a mystery.
The picture was certainly painted early in Moretto’s career, in about 1520–3, around the time that he was working with Romanino on a series of canvases for the Chapel of the Sacrament in the church of S. Giovanni Evangelista, Brescia. The soft, slightly hazy outlines of the figures and their features are similar to those in Romanino’s High Altarpiece for S. Alessandro, Brescia, of about 1524.
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