The references to John the Baptist are all but overwhelmed by the apparent glee of the subject. Indeed, the saint seems to have more in common with the way some satyrs are depicted.
It’s also noteworthy that whereas John the Baptist was traditionally represented with a lamb – to denote Christ’s title of the Lamb of God - this painting shows him with a ram. The bowl and cross also usual in paintings of the saint, are absent here too.
Perhaps for this reason the painting has an alternative, less specifically religious title of Youth with a Ram. The nude boy’s flesh is sensuously rendered, and the ram he is embracing, is often symbolic of lust and animal appetites in paintings of the period.
However, we need to bear in mind that St. John the Baptist was often portrayed unclothed or semi-nude. For example, nearly a hundred years before, Raphael had painted the saint in this way, albeit with more specifically religious symbols near him. Caravaggio’s treatment is far more suggestive. The youth is lounging on what looks like a rumpled bed, and his expression is knowing and self-aware.
The treatment is typical of Caravaggio’s detailed observation of the human form, combined with a dramatic sense of light and dark – the chiaroscuro that he became famous for. Chiaroscuro uses strong contrasts between light and shade to highlight forms to dramatic effect.
Caravaggio’s subjects often seem transfixed by light, while around them all is much more shadowed. Caravaggio’s marked use of the technique has been described as tenebrism – the technique of using shadow and light in violent contrast, to emphasise the dramatic nature of the subject.
In keeping with his virtuosity, he painted his subjects directly, in oils. This was common with Venetian painters of the time but unknown among established Roman artists.
Caravaggio’s reputation was as light and dark as work. He was known to be touchy and liable to take offence. The 1621 chalk portrait of him by Ottavio Leoni shows a strangely modern face but one that might change from being benign to threatening in an instant.
Indeed, his contemporaries questioned his sanity, and he was repeatedly involved in violent incidents. He had established himself as an artist in Rome when he killed a man during a brawl, and had to flee to Naples. In Naples, he proved himself again to be one of the greatest painters of the age.
After travelling to Sicily he came back to Naples in 1609 and was again involved in a violent fight. He was travelling to Rome the following year when he met his death, in circumstances that have never been fully established.