Saint John the Baptist is shown within a rugged landscape and wearing a camel-hair tunic, alluding to the simple life he led in the wilderness, as described in the Gospel of Matthew. He holds a reed cross with a scroll coiled around the top. It bears a Latin inscription: Ecce Agnus Dei (‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – the words John spoke on meeting Christ, and a title that refers to Christ’s self-sacrifice in atoning for humanity’s sins).
John is transfixed, looking up towards heaven. He places one hand gently on his chest as he recalls his encounter with Christ. The crop of the composition – just below John’s knees – is unusual, but it is unlikely that the painting has been cut down.
The painting arrived in England, from Spain, in the early 1780s and was particularly admired by the painter Thomas Gainsborough. He bought it in 1787, the year before his death.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Saint John the Baptist lived in the wilderness as a young man, surviving only on locusts and wild honey, and wearing a camel-hair tunic. He spent his time baptising the people of Judea in the River Jordan and preaching the coming of Christ. Murillo rarely painted Saint John as a young man, as we see here, more often depicting him as a child accompanied by a lamb.
Saint John holds a reed cross, one of his attributes, with a scroll coiled around the top. It bears the Latin inscription ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God’) – words apparently spoken by John just before he baptised Christ, recognising him as the son of God (John 1: 29–34). The connection between Christ and the lamb is made again in descriptions of Christ’s crucifixion, which happened during the Jewish festival of Passover. According to the Gospels, Christ was led to his death – laying down his life to atone for humanity’s sins – at the same time as lambs were being sacrificed for Passover.
The saint is visibly perturbed: he is transfixed, his eyes wide and directed towards heaven. One hand is drawn gently to his chest as he recalls his encounter with Christ. His slightly foreshortened face and upper body are bathed in divine light. The subdued colouring of the saint’s skin tones and the landscape contrast with the golden light emanating from a break in the clouds and John’s bright red drapery. The crop of the composition – just below John’s knees – is unusual, but there is no physical evidence to suggest that the painting was originally larger and cut down at some point.
The painting arrived in England, from Spain, in the early 1780s and achieved considerable fame. It was particularly admired by Thomas Gainsborough, who bought it in 1787, a year before he died. In 1924, the National Gallery acquired it as a work by Murillo, but doubts concerning the attribution were later raised. Conservation and cleaning in 1980–1 revealed the painting’s high quality, particularly noticeable in the saint’s face and hands. It is now widely accepted that Murillo painted it.
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