Francesco Albani
Italian, 1578-1660

SN 115, oil on copper, c. 1600 - 1606

From "The Pages".

Francesco Albani was born in Bologna. While still a teen-ager 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 mythologic 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 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, 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. There 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 for denouncing King Herod’s incestuous union with Herodias. (See Preti’s Herodias With the Head of John the Baptist, also in this gallery.)

Research has affirmed that Albani drew his inspiration for this piece from a work by 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 and calm; the frontality is that of a Greek statue. One foot almost juts out of the picture plane. His eyes are turned upward toward four music-making angels resting on clouds over his head. The clouds horizontally divide the work into two separate sections – perhaps sacrificing visual unity.

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 cross on top) points heavenward. A small bowl rests at his feet. It might symbolize the chalice…or may simply be the utensil he used in the wilderness. In any case, John appears well-fed and content.

Below, a river wends its way from fore- 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 proposed by the Carracci. Overall the painting exudes an aura of calm piety. Its small size and the popularity of the subject suggest it was a cabinet painting displayed in a wealthy patron’s home.

Museum Label:
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
c. 1600/1606

Artist: Francesco Albani
Italian, 1578-1660, active in Bologna, Mantua, and Rome

Oil on copper, 19 3/8 x 14 5/8 in. (49.2 x 37.1 cm)

Bequest of John Ringling, 1936, SN115