This rare and superbly carved ivory figure of the Infant St John the Baptist shares affinities with the work of the celebrated Spanish sculptor Juan Martínez Montañés known as 'el dios de la madera' (the god of wood). It is likely to have been carved by an ivory carver in his circle, possibly close to Montañés himself. Montañés did in fact work in ivory though, since there exists a contract published by Celestino López Martínez on 12 November 1590 documenting the commissioning of an ivory corpus from Montañés by a Doctor Nicolás Monardes (see Estella Marcos, op. cit., pp. 19-21). The present whereabouts of this corpus is unknown. However, there exists an ivory corpus in the Museo de Artes Decorativas in Madrid which has been associated by Margarita Estella Marcos with Martínez Montañés (inv. no. CE01170; Estella Marcos, op. cit., pp. 19-21).
Montañés established the canonical depiction of the Sevillian Infant Christ with his Christ Child in the Cofradía del Santísimo Sacramento, Seville, of 1606 (see Proske, op. cit., fig. 31). The present figure is fundamentally indebted to Montañés' archetype. Note the similarly expressive gesture with parted fingers, svelte physiognomy, and the distinct contrapposto. The present figure departs from the 1606 Christ Child in the facial features however. It lacks the characteristic trapezoid shaped face and has eyebrows with deeper arches; the hair is more tightly cropped to the scalp. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the present figure represents St John and so does not strictly follow any Christ model (and Montañés was responsible for varying depictions of the Infant Christ, see, for example, his Saint Christopher Bearing the Christ Child in the Colegiata de El Salvador, 1597, with oblong face and trailing ringlets). The present figure shares the diminutive nose and small mouth with Montañés' infant models.
The Infant St John's drapery compares with the broad, fluid, folds of drapes, also tied with a strap at the proper right shoulder, worn by an elder Saint John the Baptist from the Retablo of the Immaculate Conception in Seville Cathedral (see Proske, op. cit., fig. 182). The polychromy on the present St John finds a comparison in Montañés' statue of the Saint from a retable in the Convent of Santa Clara, Seville (see Proske, op. cit., fig. 159). Note the eyelashes and eyebrows with individually delineated hairs. The quality of the present figure is such that it must have been carved by a sculptor with considerable talent and experience at the time Montañés was working or shortly thereafter.
B.G. Proske, Juan Martínez Montañés: Sevillian Sculptor, New York, 1967, p. 51-52, figs. 31-32, 159, 182; M. Estella Marcos, La escultura barroca de marfil en España, Madrid, 1984, pp. 19-21; J. Hernando Díaz, Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), Seville, 1987; S. L. Stratton-Pruitt and JL. Romero Torres, The Mystery of Faith: An Eye on Spanish Sculpture 1550-1750, exh. cat. Matthiesen Gallery and Coll & Cortes, London and Madrid, 2009