Goya’s Young St John the Baptist in the Desert (1810-12)

Goya, like all masters, had certain predecessors he admired above all others. As a Spanish artist he was, like Picasso later, deeply involved in Velazquez's work from a century and a half earlier. Indeed he etched a series of strange variations on his muse's masterpieces which we will return to. His unusual composition of St John the Baptist (left) hangs in Madrid's Museo del Prado where its source should be easy to recognize in Velazquez's Triumph of Bacchus in a nearby room. As far as I know, though, that hasn't happened.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Goya, Young St John the Baptist in the Desert (1810-12) Oil on canvas. Prado, Madrid.

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What stands out when you see it in the gallery is the similarity between Velazquez's figure of Bacchus (top right), god of wine and legendary first king of Spain, and Goya's of the saint.1 Their seated posture is similar, with sloping thighs and right arms crossing their naked torsos. Even their faces are pudgily alike, with notably fulsome lips. (As always, you can click on the image to enlarge it.)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Goya's Young St. John (1810-12)
Top R: Detail of Velazquez's Triumph of Bacchus 
Bottom: Velazquez, Triumph of Bacchus (1628) Oil on canvas. Prado, Madric.

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Goya probably knew that Velazquez was representing himself as Bacchus because when he etched a loose version of the composition he made Bacchus' face (top left) resemble his own, with large black pupils and arching eyebrows (top right). It is a further example of how one great artist suggests identification with another, as if to say that, despite art's apparent variety, artists act in unison; or perhaps, more philosophically, that despite our sense of self, we are all one.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Goya's Triumph of Bacchus after Velazquez
Top R: Detail of Goya's self-portrait in The Sermon of San Bernardino of Siena (1784)
Bottom: Goya, Triumph of Baccus after Velazquez Etching.

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Thus, by simple comparison with a self-portrait, Goya's Baptist is Goya too. As saint and, through Bacchus, as king of Spain and god of wine, his figure conveys the purity of Goya's soul while painting, his sovreign mastery of Spanish art and the intoxicating power of imagination.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Goya's Young St. John (1810-12)
R: Goya, Self-portrait

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It is a small step from there to recognize Goya's Baptist as a painter at work. The give-away is his right hand resting on a mahlstick-like cross: its shading is inconsistent with the thigh below. Most significantly, while the cross casts a shadow there, his hand does not. These "errors", as often shown on EPPH, are an artist's way to imply that we are looking at two different realities fused. The hand on the "mahlstick" is "painting" the canvas we see. Not part of the picture, it casts no shadow. Thus the artist and model become one, resolved into the unity of a purified soul. We, too, must "paint" or imagine our soul as something finer in order to live happily and help others. 

So when you walk round a country's major museum, try to find links between masterpieces by national artists hanging in nearby rooms. Seeing the link can make your visit a thrill.

Captions for image(s) above:

Goya, Young St John the Baptist in the Desert (1810-12)

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Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 26 May 2016. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.