Peter Robb, taking the painting to be by Caravaggio, dates it to about 1598, when the artist was a member of the household of his first patron, Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte.Robb points out that the Baptist is evidently the same boy who modelled for Isaac in the Sacrifice of Isaac, which would date both paintings to around the same period.Unfortunately this Sacrifice of Isaac is also disputed, and so the problem of authorship is not solved.
This image was based on the statement in the Gospel of Luke that "the child grew and was strengthened in spirit, and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel." These works allowed a religious treatment of the partly clothed youths he liked to paint at this period. Private collection, Princeton, New Jersey - the resemblance between the two heads suggests that the disputed John the Baptist in Toledo is by the same artist.
Apart from these works showing John alone, mostly dated to his early years, Caravaggio painted three great narrative scenes of John's death: the great Execution in Malta, and two sombre Salomes with his head, one in Madrid, and one in London. The ascription of this painting to Caravaggio is disputed - the alternative candidate is Bartolomeo Cavarozzi, an early follower.
Some biographers have tried to depict Caravaggio as an essentially orthodox Catholic of the Counter-Reformation, but Cecco the Baptist seems as irredeemably pagan as his previous incarnation as Cupid. (The gallery also houses his Penitent Magdalene and Rest on the Flight into Egypt).
The collectors ordering the copies would have been aware of a further level of irony: the pose adopted by the model is a clear imitation of that adopted by one of Michelangelo's famous ignudi on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (painted 1508-1512).
The leaves behind the figure, and the plants and soil around his feet, are depicted with that careful, almost photographic sense of detail which is seen in the contemporary still life Basket of Fruit, while the melancholy self-absorption of the Baptist creates an atmosphere of introspection.
The grape leaves stand for the grapes from which the wine of the Last Supper was pressed, while the thorns call to mind the Crown of Thorns, and the sheep is a reminder of the Sacrifice of Christ.
John the Baptist (sometimes called John in the Wilderness) was the subject of at least eight paintings by the Italian Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610).
The story of John the Baptist is told in the Gospels.
The most striking feature of Amor was the young model's evident glee in posing for the painting, so that it became rather more a portrait of Cecco than a depiction of a Roman demi-god.
The same sense of the real-life model overwhelming the supposed subject was transferred to Mattei's John the Baptist.
The role of these gigantic male nudes in Michelango's depiction of the world before the Laws of Moses has always been unclear - some have supposed them to be angels, others that they represent the Neo-Platonic ideal of human beauty - but for Caravaggio to pose his adolescent assistant as one of the Master's dignified witnesses to the Creation was clearly a kind of in-joke for the cognoscenti.