Francesco Albani, Italian    1578-1660
SN 115    Oil on Copper        1600/06

by Robert Anderson

    Francesco Albani was born in Bologna, and while still a teenager joined the Carracci Academy where life drawing and theoretical discussions formed the core of his education. Taught by Annibale Carracci, he absorbed the ideas of early Baroque classicism and integrated that style into his art. He worked with Annibale (to whom this painting was originally attributed) as chief assistant on several palace commissions, most notably the Palazzo Farnese. His paintings included numerous cabinet pictures on religious and mythological subjects, in addition to both large-scale altarpieces and easel paintings.
    His clients consisted of a growing number of wealthy patrons. King Louis XIV of France had a large collection of cabinet pictures by Albani at the end of the 17th century. In 1618 he opened a studio in Bologna which functioned as both a school for artists and a workshop for his own master designs. He is noted for his paintings of children and it has been rumored that he often used his own twelve (12) children as models for cherubs and cupids - supposedly hanging them from the ceiling with ropes.

    John the Baptist was a second cousin to Jesus. His mother Mary and John's mother Elizabeth being cousins. He appeared in manhood as a herald preaching the coming of the "Kingdom of God", repentence and the need for baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He was a ascetic or hermit who had lived and preached in the wilderness, living on locusts and honey and dressed in the skins of animals. It was John who testified to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah, and who baptised him in the River Jordan.
    When John criticized the "incestuous union of Herod and Herodias he was thrown into jail and subsequently beheaded at Herodias' instigation and Salome's request.

    Albani drew his inspiration for this painting from his mentor, Annibale Carracci, whose own "St. John in the Wilderness" shows the prophet in a similar pose. We see a young, muscular John kneeling with classical grace, calm and frontality of a Greek statue. One foot seems to jut out of the picture plane in Baroque style. His eyes are turned upwards toward four music making angels resting on a billowing cloud 3/4 of the way up. The cloud horizontally divides the work into two separate sections. The assemblage of angels and the figure of John fill the foreground reducing the importance of the landscape in the background.

Have the angels come to him to reveal his mission to preach baptism for the remission of sin ? John has climbed to the top of a mountain - his staff with a cross at its top points heavenward - a bowl sits at his feet. Below a river wends its way from the foreground to the middle ground and may allude to the River Jordan - the future site of John's many baptisms. John's halo is clearly deliniated which is not in keeping with the ideals of naturalism proposed by Carracci. Over all the painting exudes a feeling of calm piety. The paintings small size and subject suggests that it was a cabinet painting to be displayed in a wealthy patron's home.

    This is a painting that is in accordance with the directives to artists which came out of the Council of Trent. In the period of the Counter Reformation artists were directed to paint mystical Biblical occurances in a realistic but emotional manner. They were to emphasize the mystery in the lives of Christian personalities ; the miracles and martyrdoms in emotional terms in order to impress and "educate" people, thereby bringing them back to the Church and reinforcing its doctrines.