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 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.