This remarkable composition is known elsewhere, both in full and half-length iterations. Another full-length version is today in a private collection,1 and two half-lengths in varying formats can be found in the Bonello Collection2 and in a private Roman collection.3 While the authorship and the primacy of the works within this group remain largely under debate among scholars, what seems more certain is that they all relate to a painting by Caravaggio, likely one of his last, that was left in Naples.
In May 1606, after Caravaggio killed one of his opponents following a tennis match, he fled Rome, where he had worked for most of his career. In the years to follow, he travelled to Naples, Malta, and Sicily, arriving back in Naples in the fall of 1609 and awaited a papal pardon that would allow his return to Rome. In July 1610, he set sail to Rome with group of paintings for his patrons, two of which depicted St. John. His mistaken arrest in the Port of Palo, just twenty miles from his final destination, thwarted his travels, however. By the time he was released from jail, his boat had sailed back to Naples along with all of the paintings on board, and Caravaggio died just a few days later.
Some scholars believe the painting that inspired the present composition was one of the works intended for his Roman patrons but sent back on the boat to Naples without Caravaggio, while others believe that it was left in Naples before Caravaggio set sail to Rome. Regardless, the as yet unidentified prime version, seems to have been known to artists in Naples, as it proved very successful and inspired a number of examples among Caravaggio’s Neapolitan followers.
1. Oil on canvas, 127 by 95 cm., last sold at auction, London, Sotheby’s, 29 October 1998, lot 137. See S. Schütze, Caravaggio: The Complete Works, Cologne 2009, p. 295-296, cat. no. 83b, reproduced
2. Oil on canvas, 100 by 73 cm., on permanent loan to the National Gallery of Malta. ibid., p. 295, cat. no. 83, reproduced.
3. Oil on canvas, 45.5 by 65.5 cm., ibid., p. 295, cat. no. 83a, reproduced.
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