Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Saint John the Baptist Preaching

Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese) (Italian, Taverna 1613–1699 Valletta)
ca. 1650
Oil on canvas
68 x 47 3/4 in. (172.7 x 121.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Melissa O. Aronson, in memory of Thomas P. Miller, 2005
Accession Number:
Not on view
Saint John the Baptist is shown seated in the wilderness exhorting the viewer to repentance, his right hand pointing heavenwards, his skin tanned through years in the desert. The lamb stands for Christ, the "lamb of God."
One of the protagonists of Baroque painting, Preti worked in Rome, Modena, and Naples before moving to Malta, where he was elevated to knighthood and spent the rest of his career. The expressive intensity and boldly sculptural conception of the Saint John link it with Preti's frescoes in the church of S. Biagio in Modena, carried out in 1651–52; there are echoes of the most vigorous manner of Domenichino and Guercino.
The Artist: Mattia Preti was one of the most accomplished painters and spirited draftsmen of the Italian Baroque, best known for his naturalistic and emotionally-charged paintings that reveal his close study of a wide range of painters, including Caravaggio, Guercino, Poussin, and even Veronese. Known as Il Cavalier Calabrese for his two knighthoods from the Knights of Malta, Preti worked for over sixty-five years, with notable periods in Rome (ca. 1632–53), Modena (1651–52), and Naples (1653–60), before settling on the island of Malta in 1661. His most important public commissions include the apse wall frescoes in Sant’Andrea della Valle, Rome (1650–51) and the ceiling decorations and altarpieces in Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta (1661–66). These compositionally vigorous and dynamic paintings were critical in the development of what is now known as Late Baroque painting.

The Painting: Seated on a rocky outcrop, the full-length, life-sized figure of Saint John the Baptist points off to the distance behind him with his right arm upraised. His left arm cradles his staff that is affixed with a fluttering banderole with the Latin inscription E[cce] A[gnus] D[ei], or Behold the Lamb of God. A lamb, another of John the Baptist’s attributes and a reference to Christ, is curled up to his left.

The iconography of Saint John the Baptist preaching has a long tradition in Italian painting and in the seventeenth century was treated by, among others, Annibale Carracci and his schools, including Francesco Albani (1600/1606, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Fla.) and Guido Reni (1637, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London), and Guercino, as well as by such Caravaggisti as Ribera, Nicolas Regnier, and Valentin de Boulogne. While Preti’s painting is traditional in its iconography of showing the saint as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” (the vox clamantis of the gospel of Saint Mark 1:3), he has given the Baptist a strikingly vigorous presence. The saint’s muscular torso imparts a great sense of physicality, his gaze boldly engages the viewer, and his gesture emphatically heralds Christ’s imminent presence. This contrasts with the introspective nature of Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1604, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.), which Preti may have known through its early copies, and aligns him with Reni’s famous paintings of the theme.

Like many of his paintings from his time in Rome, for which there are few documents, this painting is difficult to date with any precision. Preti also varied his style considerably while working for the open market during these years, which complicates this issue. Based on a comparative stylistic analysis with his three monumental frescoes of the martyrdom of Saint Andrew in the apse of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome (1650–51) and especially the handling of anatomy, The Met’s painting can be dated to about 1650. Spike (1999) uses the drapery style as evidence, while Christiansen (2007) points to the figure’s “expressive intensity and bold sculptural conception” to arrive at this suggested date.

[Melissa Yuen 2016]
[Julius Weitzner, London]; Paul Ganz, New York; Thomas Pelham Miller, Birmingham, Ala. (by 1976–d. 1993); his daughter, Melissa Aronson, Closter, N.J. (1993–2005; sale, Sotheby's, New York, May 19, 1994, no. 59, as "Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness," by Mattia Preti, bought in; sale, Sotheby's, New York, May 19, 1995, no. 39, bought in)
John T. Spike. Mattia Preti: catalogo ragionato dei dipinti/Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings. Taverna, Italy, 1999, p. 229, no. 143, ill. p. 229 and colorpl. XVIII, attributes it to Mattia Preti and dates it about 1650 on the basis of the drapery style.

James Gardner. "A Saint in Shadows Sees the Light." New York Sun (July 5, 2007), p. 19.

Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2006–2007." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Fall 2007), p. 23, ill. (color), links it with the frescoes painted by Preti in 1651–52 in the church of San Biagio, Modena, and also sees similarities to "the most vigorous manner of Domenichino and Guercino".

John T. Spike. A Brush with Passion: Mattia Preti (1613–1699). Exh. cat., Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William & Mary. Williamsburg, Va., 2013, p. 81, no. 23, ill. (color), includes it among "Additional Paintings by Mattia Preti in North American Collections".

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