Times of religious upheaval and need for urbanization following the Renaissance gave rise to the production of lavish artworks during the Baroque era in Italy. Characterized by intense emotion and dynamism, Baroque art reflected the power of Roman antiquity but typified the renewed piety of Roman Catholics. The opulent urbanization projects patronized by the church culminated in the verisimilitude of Baroque paintings. One painting that reflects such change is Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Mattia Preti, also known as Il Calabrese. Preti was born in 1613 in Taverna, Calabria to a modest family with ecclesiastical connections. Preti was well traveled around Italy and was exposed to artworks from the likes of Correggio, Mantegna, and Raphael. As with other artists during the Baroque era, his oil painting of St. John the Baptist Preaching executed in 1665 has a distinct Caravagesque style. It exemplifies Italian Baroque art through his dramatic, lively presentation of his subject, extreme attention to naturalism, and monumental composition.
The painting is of a young St. John the Baptist preaching to his congregation. St. John is an important figure in Catholicism not only for his preaching and baptisms in the River Jordan, but for his role as the last prophet and the forerunner of Jesus Christ. His preaching foretells the coming of Christ as the Messiah, and thereupon Christ’s baptism, the voice from Heaven told St. John that Jesus was God’s son. This piece by Calabrese captures John at the height of his oration. Fixed atop a decrepit tree trunk yet grappling for stability, John is shown here in his ascetic attire composed of camel hair, holding his staff and scroll bearing the words “Ecce Agnus Dei,” which translates into Beho…
…brese’s St John was executed half a century after The Entombment, it is evident that Caravaggio heavily influenced its creation.
The tendencies of Baroque translated differently in parts of Europe. In Italy, it reflected the return of intense piety through dense church ornamentations, complex architecture, and dynamic painting. Calabrese’s work exhibits the combined artistic stimuli of the 17th century and culminates in the acquired Caravagesque style that alters how paintings were composed from then on. Executed at the height of Calabrese’s most creative phase, St. John the Baptist Preaching is indicates the monumentality of change in urbanization as well as the return of Catholic permanence in the 1600’s. Aside from the Baroque power of the artwork, Calabrese’s St. John is a piece worth gravitating to and stands as reminder of the grandiose excesses of Baroque art.