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Europe 1300 - 1800

Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness

"Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” by Caravaggio, is a Baroque period painting on display at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Painted circa 1604, the painting is characterized by its dramatic chiaroscuro technique that contrasts light and shadows, and innovative depiction of Saint John the Baptist as a brooding adolescent. Learn more about this masterpiece from Julián Zugazagoitia, Director of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Video by Bank of America. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(Music plays) Hello. I am Julián Zugazagoitia, Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art here in Kansas City, Missouri. Welcome to Bank of America's Masterpiece Moment. Today I would like to talk about one of my favorite works in our collection, "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness" by Caravaggio, and tell you why it moves me so deeply and why it is truly a masterpiece. Painted in Rome, at the end of Caravaggio's career, "Saint John the Baptist" represents Caravaggio's mature style. It differs from his early work, where the theatricality of highly dynamic multi-figure scenes establish him as an innovator artist, very different from his classic predecessors, whether of the Renaissance or the more immediate Mannerist. His sense of intense contrast of light, his use of everyday people as models and his realism launch what we call now the Baroque era. This later painting, while retaining all of Caravaggio's attributes, it's indeed more subdued and representative of his later work. It is characterized by its monumental size, the compositional stability, the limited use of colors, the restrained gesture of the figure and his signature dramatic chiaroscuro, the technique depicting contrasting light to place emphasis in certain areas of the scene, giving his characters both a historic and theatrical dimension, like we can see here. This innovation was widely used by many of his followers. Although no one really trained directly under Caravaggio, there were many who followed his technique and this chiaroscuro, and they were known as the Caravaggisti. This particular treatment of Saint John the Baptist would have also been very innovative and surprising at the time he painted it, as it represents the saint as a melancholic, brooding adolescent. The painter's careful attention to realistic details, like the dirt on the toenails, conveys the humanistic side of the saint, especially his doubting, to which viewers could immediately relate, while revealing also Caravaggio's insistence upon using life models he would pick up from the streets of Rome and bring back to his studio. This conception of Saint John the Baptist was remarkable also. The saint had hardly ever been depicted as an isolated figure, without the usual attributes. Normally you would have seen him older, perhaps with a beard, or covered with a lambskin. Here, you see the lambskin, but just very subtly, as an indicator of who he is. The purpose of this painting was private devotion, as it was commissioned by Ottavio Costa, a banker to the Popes, as the altarpiece for their small oratory in the Costa fiefdom of Conscente on the Italian Riviera. It is one of only seven paintings by Caravaggio in the United States, and considered by many among his best. Today, Caravaggio's name resonates widely and is very well known, and is considered a defining artist of the Baroque. But this recognition has had its ups and downs throughout the centuries. And perhaps this has to do with the very intense and complex personal story of him. Born in Milan in 1571, Caravaggio was orphaned by the plague at age 11 and taken by a painter who studied under Titian, where he began his apprenticeship. He was a young, troubled man, violent person. He was involved with gangs and prone to fights and incessant conflict. After wounding a police officer in 1592, a penniless 21-year-old Caravaggio fled to Rome to escape retaliation and justice. In Rome, his youthful, innovative talent was quickly recognized, and his career flourished. The church and patrons sought out his realistic, intimate, biblical scenes that provoke connection and contemplation. I think he impressed his patrons then, and continues to touch us today, because he showed suffering so intimately well. Undoubtedly, he could depict what he had both suffered and inflicted. His criminal behavior continued, but his wealthy patrons, so inspired by his work, continually bailed him out. Such was the case until 1606, when he committed a murder and violent assault, and neither his patrons nor his talent could protect him anymore. At the very peak of his career, at the age of 34, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome. He spent the rest of his life as a fugitive, traveling from Naples to Malta to Sicily, before dying, likely of illness, at age 38 in 1610. Our painting today can be dated actually at around the last years in Rome, around 1604, thanks to scientific research that was conducted in 2017. In preparation for an important retrospective, the Nelson-Atkins staff and scientists carried out technical studies of the painting to gain a better understanding of Caravaggio's working process. Exciting details were uncovered about how the painting was structured and constructed. For example, there's some incised lines that were used to just guide him in placing the figure, an infrared revealed of the paint strokes associated with early stages of the composition. We also found evidence that Caravaggio thought about including a different type of leaf in the background instead of the oak leaves we see today. As a result of these collaborative studies, Caravaggio experts were able to narrow the date of the Nelson-Atkins painting to around 1604, six years prior to his demise. One can only imagine and speculate what his art production would have been like, had he lived for many, many more years. And in a way, the serenity that we witness in this depiction of Saint John the Baptist can really be interpreted today like the calm in the middle of a storm, calm that invites us to reflect and brings hope. I want to thank you for taking time to watch and learn more about "Saint John the Baptist" and invite you to visit the Nelson-Atkins in person or online and to find more fascinating aspects about this painting and our vast encyclopedic collections. I encourage you to join the conversation and discuss the works with your family and friends. And please visit the Masterpiece Moment website to sign up for alerts and ensure that you never miss an inspired moment brought by these magnificent works of art. Thank you. To sign up to receive notifications about new Bank of America Masterpiece Moment videos, please visit: www.bankofamerica.com/ masterpiecemoment.