Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604–5
Oil on canvas, 68 x 52 in. (172.7 x 132.1 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase William Rockhill Nelson Trust
Caravaggio’s practice of painting a live model in his studio brings this young, brooding saint to life—as if his image were inhabited by the model’s being. Ottavio Costa, a Roman banker, commissioned this painting for a chapel on a pilgrimage route in the countryside outside of Genoa, where his family had its origins. We can imagine what a powerful experience it would have been to encounter the image of the scarlet-robed saint there, dramatically emerging from the shadows into a strong light. When Caravaggio delivered the painting, Costa decided to keep it and placed a copy in the chapel. But even the copy proved inspiring. An early guide described how it “moves not only the members of the brotherhood but also visitors to penitence.”
Click on the image to see the full painting.