Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
Guido Reni felt that the purpose of art was to show us a beauty more perfect than that we could ever hope to see in the real world. This almost naked young man is the embodiment of that ideal beauty. Reni has made a pattern out of his posture - with arms and legs alternately bent and extended. He has shaped his limbs with graceful sweeping lines. He has turned a boy into a Greek god. But a painting must tell a story, as well as being merely beautiful, his requires character. John the Baptist was no male model: he was a hermit, living in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and honey, calling on all who would listen to repent their evil ways. Guido Reni has domesticated this saintly savage, but there is still about the figure a certain 'designer' wildness. His hair is long and shaggy; his chest is gaunt and his navel knotted like a tree-stump. The gaping mouth and hand pointing up to heaven convey the urgency in the 'voice of one crying in the wilderness'. John preached in the Jordan valley, foretelling the coming of Christ and baptising the converted (Matthew III, 1-6; Mark I, 1-8; Luke III, 3-18; John I, 6-28). Reni treated the same subject on at least two occasions in the 1620s (Pepper 1984, nos.90, 92). DPG262 is a late work, dated by Pepper 1636-7. The picture is recorded by the artist's biographer Malvasia (1678) in the collection of G. Francesco Maria Balbi in Genoa.