(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
St John the Baptist (Youth with Ram)c. 1602
Oil on canvas, 132 x 97 cm
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
In this picture the totally naked boy sits leaning far back, like one of the 'ignudi' who adorn Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here, he is propping his left elbow on some white drapery, has straightened out his left leg behind him, and is supporting his bent right leg by gripping the toes. A magnificent piece of red fabric provides pictorial ornament, at the bottom on the left. The Baptist's body is so firmly embedded in the yielding hide of his coarse garment that the energetically black contours from his upper thigh to his back stand out in a clear flow of lines. With his right arm, the boy is reaching for a ram which has suddenly materialized from the depth of the picture. Its nose and mouth are nearly touching the smiling boy's cheek.
Caravaggio clearly based the figure on Michelangelo's example, though he painted it according to his own principles of working direct from a living model. The figure does not reveal the great Florentine's feeling for musculature, but the vigorous contouring of his back shows his influence. Caravaggio is likely to have used a study here. With great skill and his instinct for dynamic action, Caravaggio has placed the carefully built-up body in such a way that the figure's left elbow almost bumps against the edge of the picture. Otherwise, however, the figure is completely free. This enables the apparition in the light to develop dynamically from top left towards the right.