St John the Baptist (Youth with Ram), 1602 Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome
This painting exists in two versions, both of which are probably by Caravaggio (who frequently copied his own paintings). Both versions are in Rome, the other in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj.
The image is a masterpiece of virtuosity whose appeal lies in its soft, caressing light and velvety rendering of cloth, flesh, and plants. The figure is identifiable as St John only virtue of the symbols of Christ displayed in the painting: the ram (sacrificial victim), and the grape-leaves (from whose red juice, akin to the blood of Christ, springs life); otherwise the iconographical subject (the simple, immediately apparent image) appears as a nude youth with an ironic, if not allusive, expression. Its cultivated content and its destination for an aristocratic patron are underscored by the artist’s explicit use of a great figurative source of the past: Michelangelo’s Ignudi from the Sistine Ceiling. But whereas Michelangelo created abstract and ideal figures with cold lights and a merely theoretical plasticism, Caravaggio models his figure on the careful observation of nature, achieving an image of perfect realism.
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