St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness
by Francesco Albani, Italian, 1578 - 1660
SN 115, oil on copper, 19 3/8x 20 5/8
Purchased by John Ringling from the Holford Collection.
By Goody Hirshfeld
Francesco Albani was born in Bologna. While still a teenager, he 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. He painted numerous cabinet pictures on religious and mythological
subjects, in addition to both large - scale altarpieces and easel painting. His clients
consisted of a growing number of wealthy patrons, including King Louis XIV of France. 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. It is
rumored that he often used his own 12 children as models for cherubs and cupids,
supposedly suspending them from the ceiling with ropes in the process.
St. John the Baptist was born in Jerusalem, the second cousin of Jesus. His mother, St.
Elizabeth, was a barren older woman at the time the Archangel Gabriel told her that she
would conceive. When King Herod decreed death to all newborns, Elizabeth fled with her son
into the wilderness where John remained eating locusts and honeysuckle and growing into a
Holy Man. When the Holy Cousins finally met, John baptized Jesus. St. John was beheaded by
Salome for denouncing King Herod's incestuous union.
Research has affirmed that Albani drew his inspiration for this piece from a work by his
mentor, Annabale Carracci, whose own "St. John in the Wilderness" shows the
prophet in a similar pose. The painting shows a young, muscular John kneeling with
classical grace and calm and the frontality of a Greek statue. One foot almost juts out of
the picture plane. His eyes are turned upwards towards four music-making angels resting on
a billowing cloud places ¾ of the way up.. This cloud horizontally divides the work into
two separate sections, sacrificing, perhaps, visual unity in the process. The assemblage
of angels and the figure of John fill up the foreground reducing the importance of the
landscape beyond. Have the angels come to reveal to him his mission to preach baptism as a
remission of sin? John has climbed to the pinnacle of the mountain, his hermit's staff
with a cross on top points heavenward. A small bowl rests at his feet. It might symbolize
the chalice, or, more simply, be a utensil used by John in the wilderness. Below a river
wends its way from foreground to middle ground which may allude to the River Jordan,
future site of John's many baptisms. His halo is clearly delineated, which is not entirely
in keeping with the ideals of naturalism as proposed by the Carracci. In all, the painting
exudes a feeling of calm piety. Indeed, both the angels and St. John seem quite contented
and well-fed. The small size and popularity of the subject suggests it was a cabinet
painting displayed in a wealthy patron's home.