Caravaggio (1571-1610, aka, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio), John the Baptist in the Wilderness (painted 1604-1605, age 33 to 34 years), housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
About the Artist
Caravaggio had a wildness in him that got him into trouble often in his life; something rough and untamed and fierce burned in him past his ability to bring order to it. By the age of twenty-one, both of his parents had died and he became a homeless man in the streets of Rome. After some three to five years of homelessness, his artistic talent got noticed by the cultured and prominent Cardinal del Monte, who took in Caravaggio in 1595-1596, giving him a home and encouraging him to develop his skill as a painter. Finally, in 1600 (age 29), Caravaggio won a commission to paint two massive paintings in the side chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesci, the most famous of the two is The Calling of St. Matthew). “In these works Caravaggio first made expressive use of extreme chiaroscuro and (especially in The Calling of S. Matthew) he depicted the story as a contemporary scene. Their realism and dramatic power created a sensation, making Caravaggio overnight the most celebrated painter in Rome.”
6 *A man named John was sent from God.e 7 He came for testimony,* to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.f 8 He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.g 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.h 
First, notice the magnificent drapery (the man can paint!) and the skillfully prepared camel hide – the softness and perfection of the skin side of it; the multi-colored lushness of the hair side of it. These are not the fabrics of a poor man, of an austere desert-dweller living “on locusts and wild honey” only, but of the wealthy. This young man has been well-fed, is well-muscled because of that good nutrition and by his regular physical training. He is endowed with excellent natural gifts. There is a vague suggestion of a boy who has been pampered. But then what are we to make of that stormy face?! May we consider that Caravaggio is here painting the beginning of the conversion of John? John had begun to recognize (perhaps only one who is still young enough can do this) how the wealth and power of the people around him – like those clothes are around him – can possess and trap them, including him? John is still in those clothes, but he has begun to come out of them, breaking their constraining power over him. He is emerging from the chrysalis!
Second, notice the intensity of the expression on John’s face, his eyes cloaked in shadow, but their fierceness and – what else is it there? – their profound sadness evident. His face suggests a man who is experiencing shame, and who finds it intensely painful to be seen – “Why does the artist have to see me like this?” Some titanic struggle is happening in John’s soul. Perhaps it has begun to dawn on him that for him to be a credible messenger of repentance – “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) – he himself must repent, learning to let go of everything except that which he, at this point, carelessly holds in his right hand – the mission God has given him – “one mightier than I is coming after me” (Mark 1:7).
Third, notice the toes on his right foot. They are dirty, with grime caked up under the toenails. (Remember that Caravaggio deliberately chose to paint them that way.) Everything else in the painting is spotlessly clean, fresh, and unspoiled – and all of it painted with breathtaking power. The painting is beautiful. Yet, there are those toes, those untidy toes. Their eloquence within the “story” of this painting lies in their ability to evoke the “something is wrong” that we see worrying the face of the young John. Something is dirty, unkempt at the base of his life … and he knows it. Notice the proximity of those toes to the standard of the Cross that he is holding.
Lines taken from Psalm 85:5-8, designated for use on the Second Sunday of Advent – “Restore us, God of our salvation; let go of your displeasure with us. / Will you be angry with us forever, prolong your anger for all generations? / Certainly you will again restore our life, that your people may rejoice in you. / Show us, Lord, your mercy; grant us your salvation.”
 The Oxford English Dictionary at the noun “chiaroscuro” – “The style of pictorial art in which only the light and shade, and not the various colours, are represented; black-and-white, or dark brown and white.”
 Langdon, Anthony. “Caravaggio.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t118/e464. This quotation, as well as the biographical sketch, is taken from this source book.
* John was sent just as Jesus was “sent” (Jn 4:34) in divine mission. Other references to John the Baptist in this gospel emphasize the differences between them and John’s subordinate role.
e Mt 3:1; Mk 1:4; Lk 3:2–3.
* Testimony: the testimony theme of John is introduced, which portrays Jesus as if on trial throughout his ministry. All testify to Jesus: John the Baptist, the Samaritan woman, scripture, his works, the crowds, the Spirit, and his disciples.
f 1:19–34; 5:33.
h 3:19; 8:12; 9:39; 12:46.
 The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun “chrysalis” – “The state into which the larva of most insects passes before becoming an imago, or perfect insect. In this state the insect is inactive and takes no food, and is wrapped in a hard sheath or case.”