Caravaggio painted two versions of this painting of St John the Baptist and many others of the saint during the course of his lifetime, but particularly during this period around 1600 . They share some common features: the red robe, the camel fur, and the mullein plants at his feet gathered to ward off evil on his feast day.. and St John is always represented as a young man. Since the Counter Reformation, St John the Baptist in the desert was held as a model of penitence and renewal and was frequently portrayed by artists. However, in this particular painting, a private devotional image, Caravaggio dispenses with the cross, one of the normal attributes and the lamb has been exchanged for a ram so that some have disputed the subject. However, even in the 17th century the painting was copied as a St John with the additional missing parts, and it is clear it shares so much with other paintings by Caravaggio of St John such as the one in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas and another in the Galleria Nazionale, Rome that the subject of the painting is widely accepted.
It seems a profane image. Caravaggio has drawn on Michelangelo’s ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and then introduced a further stark naturalism into the nakedness of the body and intensified the light. It is also very close to his profane painting Victorious Cupid of 1602-3 in the Berlin Gemaldegalerie in the way the figure engages and draws the viewer in . Here however, it is a point of departure, St John invites the viewer to look beyond, to the ram and like him, to embrace the ram- a reference to the one provided by the angel as a substitute in the story of Abraham and Isaac, a type of Christ and an image of God’s salvific grace which is at the heart of the Advent message.