Monday, March 17, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness (Caravaggio)

This painting is one of Kansas City's most prized possessions.  It is one of a few paintings I'll be covering in the 40 days that I have actually had the pleasure of standing before in person several times, and it is always a joy to do so.  Caravaggio painted "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness" around 1604, and this is one of two different compositions of the subject.  The other version is a horizontal arrangement, and is located in Rome at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica.  So it is pretty serendipitous and somewhat random that Kansas City, Missouri is home to the other, and that's alright with me.  This is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's masterpiece of European art.  Unfortunately, this is the museum's only Caravaggio, but we can't complain because it is definitely one of Caravaggio's best. 
The Nelson was really my introduction to Caravaggio, and if you see this painting in person, you will understand why it's such a magnificent work of art.  It hangs in a small gallery room in the European Baroque section of the museum, and is surrounded by other works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Zurburan, and Ribera.  And yet, with all those other masters, Caravaggio's stands out from all of them with its striking chiaroscuro.  This really illustrates the genius of Caravaggio with his ability to make his work really be seen among the rest.  He does this with the chiaroscuro and by using such a limited palette of suble greens, browns, black, and the striking Italian Baroque red.
Caravaggio was among the first painters of the Baroque period, and the dramatic use of lighting in this painting gets to that.  He used this type of lighting several times in his paintings.  It is usually the first thing we notice about his work above the subject matter.  At first glance, you aren't necessarily aware that this is a religious theme because you're taken by the stark contrast of light and shadow, and the way it creates this interplay of shapes.  And there's really nothing interesting about this subject anyway.  It's just a rather ambiguous depiction of John the Baptist just sitting there.  Other than his staff, who would really know that this was supposed to be John the Baptist at all?  And for that matter, what's wrong with him?  He looks more like a depressed, angsty teenager than the man paving the way for Christ's ministry. 
Well, in spite of all that, I think the thing that Caravaggio has done here is to paint a religious subject that, because of its ambiguity, appeals to anyone because of the way that it is painted rather than the subject that has been painted.  I think it loses strength in that sense because it's the title of the painting that gives the narrative rather than the painting itself.  But there is no doubt that this is a painting with an "in-your-face" appeal, and once you see it, you can't forget it.

St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness
oil on canvas

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