Date: After 1776
Materials: Oil on canvas
Measurements: 132 x 102.2 cm
Inv. no. P48
The Christian Gospels recount how St John the Baptist was sent by God as a messenger before the coming of Christ. According to these texts, John appeared as a voice crying out in the wilderness. He dressed simply and lived off the land.
John preached baptism for the forgiveness of sin. The people of Jerusalem travelled to him to be baptised in the River Jordan, and he proclaimed that though he may baptise them with water, Christ will baptise them with the Holy Spirit. Later, Christ himself was baptised by John.
St John’s significance in the life of Christ and Christian sacrament meant that his image was frequently celebrated in the work of old master painters. Reynolds, who revered these artists, and sought to emulate their style and techniques, adopted the subject of St John but transformed his image into one that suited the 18th-century taste for ‘fancy pictures’, or portraits depicting children.
Reynolds’s decision to portray the saint as a young boy was also not without scriptural basis, as the Gospel of St Luke describes St John as being a ‘child’ while in the wilderness. The pose, setting and light of Reynold’s painting bears striking parallels with a painting of St John in the Wilderness that has traditionally been attributed to Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino, called Raphael (1483–1520), but is now thought to have been produced by his workshop.
Since the 16th century, the painting has been in the collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, which was a popular sight for those on the grand tour in the 18th century. The painting was displayed prominently in the gallery’s tribune, making it an image of the saint many were familiar with, including Reynolds. In his painting, Reynolds attempted to mimic the light effects and appearance of Raphael’s work using experimental materials, which have inadvertently led to deterioration and losses.
Importantly, though, there are several key differences between Reynolds’s portrait and that of Raphael. Most notably, St John is depicted not as a muscular young man, as in the Raphael painting, but as a boy.
Reynolds’s figure has an innocent, juvenile appearance, and he seems unstable as he holds his arm heavenward, rather than towards a cross, as in Raphael’s work, which gives the figure a more emotive effect. Instead, the boy holds a cross in his other hand, and behind him stands a bleating lamb – the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. This symbolises the moment St John first saw Jesus and exclaimed, in the Gospel of St John, ‘Behold, here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’.
Rather than depicting St John as a preacher, Reynolds has instead chosen to emphasise the idea of the saint’s voice, adrift in the wilderness. The child opens his mouth in exclamation, the Lamb of God also seeming to join in chorus. Wrapped around the saint’s crucifix is a scripture, on which the word ‘voice’ is written. This is taken from a quotation from the Gospel of St John: ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.’
One of several versions Reynolds painted of St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, it seems this portrait underwent a degree of alteration in the artist’s studio. X-rays have revealed that the background contained an open landscape, which was later closed off through the addition of dense foliage.
The painting was bought at auction by the 3rd Marquess of Hertford (1777–1842) in 1813.
Text adapted from Davis, L., 'St John the Baptist in the Wilderness', in Davis, L., and M. Hallett, Joshua Reynolds. Experiments in Paint, London, 2015, no. 10.