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St John the Baptist in the Wilderness
(Hermanos Garcia)

Description

JERÓNIMO FRANCISCO GARCÍA
AND MIGUEL JERÓNIMO GARCÍA,
CALLED THE ‘HERMANOS’ GARCÍA
(Granada c. 1580 – 1634?)
3. Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1625)
Terracotta, polychromed
34.5 x 26.5 x 11 cm (approx. 13 ½ x 10 ½ x 4 ¼ in.)
Dated on a small plaque on the lower left, incised into the clay: 1625
4. Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1628)
Terracotta, polychromed (figure), tinted wax (rocks), wood (vitrine)
42 x 37 x 14 cm (approx. 16 ½ x 14 ½ x 5 ½ in.)
Dated on the verso, incised into the clay: Abril/ 1628/ 20 mayo
Saint John, known as the Baptist or El Precursor, the preparer of Christ’s path to becoming the
Redeemer, was in fact his cousin. He is traditionally represented as a youthful hermit, either
living in the Judean desert and testifying to the faithful of the imminent arrival of their Saviour,
or in the act of baptizing the faithful, or even Christ himself, in the River Jordan. He is also often
represented as the Infant Baptist, a rustic child, dressed in skins, holding a cruciform staff, and
accompanied by a lamb, the Agnus Dei. Because John was martyred by beheading, Baroque sculptors
often entertained the more macabre tastes of some of their patrons by depicting the saint as a
disembodied head presented on a charger, but this iconography is somewhat rarer.
While the tenets of the Council of Trent and its subsequent synods decreed that religious narratives and
dogma should be clear, vivid, and, above all, immediately recognizable,1 painters and sculptors often
looked to religious apocrypha for inspiration. Although the Church did not encourage this practice –
these ‘false’ gospels had, after all been rejected to keep the faithful focused on the pure dogma of the
canon gospels – certain saints, especially the very popular John the Baptist, were reassessed and found
fresh interpretation. Sculpted images of the Baptist enjoyed pride of place within the main altarpieces
of Baroque churches, monasteries and the side chapels of convent churches, largely due to the saint’s
increasing identity as El Precursor. John was also seen as the protector of eremite orders, such as the
Carthusians and the Jeromites. Additionally, paired with Saint John the Evangelist, his image also
became associated with the growing cult of the Virgin Mary.
The New Testament does not include a specific account of the Baptist’s martyrdom, but several passages
emphasize his role as Christ’s forebear, and his life in the Judean desert. According to Saint Matthew
and Saint Mark, John dressed primitively in rough camel’s hair cinched at the waist with a leather
thong, and subsisted on locusts and wild honey.2 The Gospel according to Mark begins with an account
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of John’s mission,3 but the longest single account of his life is recorded in the Gospel according to Luke
which starts with the announcement of the angel to Zachariah that his Elizabeth would bear a child
who would be the precursor of the Saviour. Luke then goes on to describe John’s mission, his trials in
the desert, and his baptism of Jesus Christ.4
It is in the writings of Saint John the Evangelist, however, that the words of the Baptist are finally given
voice. After his well-known dedication to theos, logos and luxos, John begins his Gospel with an
account of the Baptist’s testimonies, in which he records the phrase proclaimed by the Baptist upon
meeting his cousin: ‘Ecce Agnus dei’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’).5
It is in this role as Christ’s young herald that the brothers chose to represent the Baptist in the present
sculptures, which are similar, yet distinct, and are dated 1625 and 1628.
These two works allow us to appreciate how the brothers employed various approaches to combining
an almost three-dimensional sculptural foreground with the largely flat landscape background. Both
works depict John as a beardless youth. He is far younger than the age at which he baptized Jesus and
dressed in camel skins, which leave the right shoulder and the upper torso bare. Both include a red
mantle, arranged in angular folds, which is partially looped over the saint’s left arm and falls to frame
the seated figure. These red mantles are similar to that in the Ecce Homo in the Church of Santos Justo
y Pastor (Fig. 2), particularly in the modelling of the folds and the overall sense of plasticity. In both
works, the saints hold a cruciform staff in the left hand and, with the right, point to a lamb, the Agnus
Dei. In both sculptures the figure of the saint, the lamb and the rocks are modelled in a single piece,
and then placed against a background painted with a sylvan river landscape, a reference to John’s future
role as the Baptist.
The two versions differ primarily in the pose and orientation of the saint’s figure, the facial expression,
the pose of the lamb, the overall level of detail, which is more refined in the earlier 1625 version, and
the use of a rocky surround in the 1628 version, which was fashioned from tinted wax. In the earlier
work, the saint is seated in contrapposto, the direction of the torso in opposition to the slight turn of
the head, the legs frontal, the feet resting on different levels, a pose doubtless inspired by one of
Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, specifically the ignudo by the shield depicting the Death of
Joab. The brothers altered this pose to direct the saint’s gaze upwards, exchanging terribilitá with an
almost mystical expression, and changed the position of the right hand to more clearly indicate the
lamb.6 This use of a Michelangelesque pose to impart a sense of dynamism in an otherwise static
composition was also employed by Jusepe de Ribera in his Saint Jerome and the Angel, a work that was
widely known through an engraving published around 1621.7 The brothers also employed this seated
contrapposto pose in another version of the Penitent Saint Jerome conserved in the Monastery of San
Jerónimo in Granada, which has been attributed to Alonso Cano, but should instead be considered as
an autograph work by the brothers (Fig. 5).
Traditionally, Mannerist and Baroque artists depicted the Baptist alone in the wilderness, with only a
lamb for company, and adhering to this tradition, the brothers set their modelled figures of the saint
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and the lamb against a landscape background painted
in atmospheric tones of blue and green. In the river
landscape of the 1628 version, they also included a tiny
scene of baptism, not unlike that incorporated by
Sánchez Cotán in his canvas of the subject.8
That this particular genre of sculpture incorporating
pictorial compositions originated in Granada is proven
by the existence of three other sculptures of the same
subject: two in Granada, one of which is in the Orozco
Díaz Collection (Fig. 10),9 and a third conserved in the
church attached to the Convent of the Agustinas
recoletas in Cabra,10 outside Cordoba. This last work
is similar to the 1628 Baptist in that the figure of the
saint, though larger than the present examples, is
placed within a wooden vitrine, or a deep frame
decorated with inlay. Traces of a painted landscape
also survive on one side, though the original painted
background is now lost.11 In all of these versions, the
Baptist is depicted with an oval face modelled with
smooth full cheeks, an arched, or slightly knitted,
brow, slightly parted lips, and an upward gaze
imparting a faint sense of the mystic. Equally, the hair
is uniformly modelled into a thick helmet that further
emphasizes the round shape of the head. However, the
curls, which cover most of the forehead, are treated
with great attention to detail, and draw attention to
the line of the profile. This type of round sensually featured face framed by thick lush curls is
particularly associated with the ideal of youthful male beauty embodied in the work of Caravaggio,
most obviously his well-known depictions of the young Bacchus and the artist’s many sensual
allegories/genre scenes involving dark-eyed youths. It should also be noted that none of these painted
terracotta sculptures of the Baptist can be related formally or stylistically with the aforementioned
Baptist in polychromed wood in Granada Cathedral (Fig. 3), which has been alternately attributed to
Alonso Cano and to the brothers. In this latter work, the saint is depicted nude, seated in a strongly
Mannerist contrapposto pose, which closely follows the Caravaggesque model illustrated in the artist’s
many paintings of the subject, all of which depict the saint nude, and often explore various aspects of
naturalism, that is, facial expression, intensity of colour, texture and even (arguably) the saint’s
psyche.12 Caravaggio’s interest in the subject obviously differed from the more devotional focus the
brothers sought in their versions, but it is a comparison worth making, if only because the brothers
clearly pursued a similar ideal of youthful beauty, albeit to very different effect.

1 These themes included, but were by no means limited to,
the exaltation of the Eucharist; the Passion and Resurrection
of Christ; the role of Mary as Christ’s Mother; the nature of
Mary’s Immaculate Conception; the cult of the saints, and
the gathering and veneration of their relics; and the various
examples of Christian prayer, penitence, faith and sacrifice.
2 Matthew 3:1–16, the vestments in verse 4; and Mark 1:6.
3 Mark 1:1–11.
4 Luke 1:5–80; 3:1–22.
5 John 1:19–36; 3:22–36.
6 This pose also recalls a painting of the same subject by
Caravaggio in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, albeit without
this artist’s customary direct engagement. In Toledo
Cathedral another canvas of this subject (which, based on its
naturalism, has been attributed to Caravaggio) also shows
the same contrapposto seated pose, semi-draped torso and
red mantle, though here the saint gazes down upon the lamb
at his feet. See A. E. PÉREZ SÁNCHEZ, Caravaggio y el
naturalismo español, exhibition catalogue, Reales Alcázares
de Sevilla, Seville, Ministry of Education and Science,
Madrid 1973, cat. no. 3.
7 Jusepe di Ribera, Saint Jerome and the Angel of Judgment,
1621, oil on canvas, Naples, Galleria Nazionale di
Capodimonte, engraved by the artist (1621). See A.
BARTSCH, The Illustrated Bartsch, New York 1980, vol. LIII,
512, p. 5.
8 OROZCO DÍAZ, El pintor Fray Juan Sánchez Cotán,
Universidad-Diputación, Granada 1993, pp. 304–305, 307,
319–320.
9 E. OROZCO DÍAZ, ‘La escultura en barro, en Granada’, in
Cuadernos de Arte, vol. IV (1939), pp. 10–11. The work in
a private collection here illustrated belongs to Professor
Orozco Díaz and is in a poor state of conservation, lacking
the background, the arms and the saint’s attributes. Other
elements of the sculpture – the absence of the camel skin and
the mantle surrounding its hips, as well as the remains of a
hand, which appears claw-like – suggest to the author that,
without direct examination, this sculpture could just as
easily have been identified as a Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
However, the head and the disposition of the legs are similar
to those in the present 1625 version, albeit with some
variants.
10 The convent was founded at the end of the seventeenth
century by Granadine nuns.
11 The sisters of the convent and their benefactor have,
however, informed the writer that they believe the original
background of the piece was actually black, but had altered
due to deterioration produced by humidity. This sculpture,
which is currently undergoing restoration, will be included
in the exhibition Andalucía Barroca Itinerante that will
open in Cabra in October 2009. This exhibition is being
organized by the Consejería de Cultura de la Junta de
Andalucía under the guidance of Jose Luis Romero Torres,
Conservador del Patrimonio Histórico.
12 A. OTTINO DELLA CHIESA, Caravaggio, Noguer, Milan–
Barcelona–Madrid 1972 (2nd. ed.), cat. no. 21.
7

Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720 & Mannerism & Cinquecento - 1530-1600
Subject
Religious: New Testament
School
Spanish
Catalogue
Price band
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