St John the Baptist, 1603-04 Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome
In around 1605 Caravaggio dealt with St John the Baptist in two splendid compositions, one in the Kansas City Gallery, the other in the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica in Rome. The former is laid out vertically, the latter horizontally. Both lend themselves to a modernistic reading aimed at pointing out a certain air between contempt and arrogance. In effect what we are dealing with here are splendid exercises in modeling the body through the play of light and shadow.
In the version now in Kansas City, the figure is set before a dense curtain of plants; in that in Rome, there is only the trunk of a cypress tree, on the left. Both are admirable feats of painting, and it is understandable that collectors competed with each other for the artist’s works. Caravaggio in turn knew how to make apparently uninteresting religious themes into paintings desirable even for his aristocratic patrons.
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