This is a rather unusual painting of St John the Baptist in that it is a portrait of him in his childhood, compared to the more popular depictions of him at the baptism of Our Lord, or in the wilderness,. Now hanging in Rome, it was painted by Mattia Preti (I hadn’t heard of him either), a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John. This artist adorned the inside of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valetta, Malta, with a series of paintings on the life and death of the saint, between 1861 and 1866. No prizes for guessing his specialist subject.
Like most Baroque artists, he went to town with Chiaroscuro, or light and dark. This was a trademark of the artist Caravaggio, under whose acolyte, Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, he is thought to have served apprentice. The purpose of this technique was to heighten the sense of drama, through the use of strong lighting, making areas of the subject well lit and throwing the surrounds into deep shadow. This also creates a sense of depth in this painting and, furthermore, of detachment, as the tree and sky seem to be set back, suggesting his indifference to the material things of this world.
The child and the lamb occupy a sizeable two-thirds of the canvas, with the focal point, St John’s head, slightly above and to the right of the centre. It is framed on one side by the cross, also harshly illuminated and, on the other, by the silhouette of the tree. This contrast of light and dark seems to represent the corresponding good and evil apparent throughout his ministry and points towards his subsequent martyrdom. The windblown garments and the torn clouds in the background add to the immediacy and tension of the atmosphere, while the child’s face remains benign, showing a trust in God regardless of the circumstances.
St John is completely absorbed in the lamb, presumably the Lamb of God. His posture is one of protection, his leaning body and spread fingers suggesting that he has sprung forward in that instant to shield the creature gazing up at him. This is a heart-warming scene, if a little strange. It is of the artist’s own imagining, since, nowhere in the Bible is there reference to any relationship they may have enjoyed as children. The period between the moment of “leaping for joy” and the encounter at the River Jordan is a mystery. We are aware from the passage of the Visitation that they lived at a great distance but it is likely that these cousins would have met each other at least once in thirty-three years, most probably on occasions of visits to the Temple, such as the famous one, made when Our Lord was twelve years old.
A few minor details, perhaps all too easy to miss, point to the future. The small white streaks above the folds of the saint’s cloak seem to be some kind of animal hide garment, showing that, even at that tender age, he had a penchant for camel. The bowl of water is small and seemingly insignificant, like the infant saint. But by the time he had grown up, so had the water, becoming the River Jordan, baptising the repentant among the Israelites. And the halo, so requisite among European religious paintings of this era, almost goes unnoticed. But I like to think that it serves to remind us of the ultimate goal of their incredible task, to what is waiting for us, one day, when we meet them face to face.