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John the Baptist

Houdon Jean-Antoine

(Versailles 1741 - Paris 1828)

Dressed solely in an animal hide knotted at the hips, the Baptist is depicted in the act of blessing with his right hand raised. He has wavy hair parted in the middle, a short beard and an intense gaze. The work, found in fragments in 1921 in a small room in the Museo Nazionale Romano, has been recognised as the preparatory model for the St John the Baptist commissioned in 1766, together with another statue depicting St Bruno, to be made by Jean-Antoine Houdon for the Roman church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It is the only evidence of what the final sculpture, also made of plaster and destroyed in 1894, must have looked like.

Houdon achieved the anatomical correctness of the statue by a lengthy preparation during which he also made a “flayed” model, the result of his fervent study, and a model for the many copies made primarily for use by sculpture students.

The position, face and expression show some inspiration taken from Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Christ for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, which was already pointed out by contemporaries.

Object details

c. 1767-1768
height 174 cm

Carthusian monks of  Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rome, post 1766; Museo Nazionale Romano alle Terme di Diocleziano deposit, 1925.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1922 C. De Carolis
  • 1959 C. De Carolis
  • 1997 Consorzio Capitolino


Saint John the Baptist is depicted according to the usual hermetic iconography, naked and wearing an animal skin knotted at the hips and supported by a string running diagonally across his torso. His right arm is stretched out in front of him in an act of blessing and his left arm is at his side. The right leg, set back from the left on which the figure’s weight rests, is bent in the act of stepping forward. The support behind the left leg immediately shows that the plaster sculpture was a preparatory model for a work in marble, in which the prominence of the right arm would have required a counterweight.

The sculpture was found in fragments in 1921, in a small room in the Museo Nazionale Romano formerly occupied by Carthusian monks, and was recognised by Bertini Calosso (1922, p. 289-307) as a preparatory model for the St John the Baptist commissioned in 1766 by André Le Masson, Procurator General of the Carthusian monks, to be made by Jean-Antoine Houdon for one of the two niches in the Vanvitellian vestibule in the Roman church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. For the other niche, the same Houdon sculpted St Bruno in 1766.

For reasons still unknown, the statue in marble was never made and in 1768, when Houdon left for Paris, a 3.15 metre-high plaster version was placed in the niche, which fell and shattered in 1894. The discovery of this model therefore offered the only source for reconstructing the image of the work and adding it to the body of early works by the French master.

In order to be better prepared to execute the statue, Houdon - who was attending anatomy courses held by a surgeon at the infirmary of San Luigi dei Francesi (Réau 1964, I, p. 39) - made a life-size anatomical model in 1766: it is the famous echorché, the “flayed’” version, a male figure depicted without skin in order to offer a detailed definition of the underlying musculature. Charles-Joseph Natoire, director of the French Academy in Rome, asked for a copy for the training of scholarship holders, which is still preserved in the Villa Medici (350 anni, 2016, p. 119, cat. 22). Other copies are known from various museums (among others, Washington, National Gallery of Art), on which generations of sculptors were trained.

In 1772, Houdon sent a number of his works to Ernest II, Duke of Saxony-Gotha-Altenburg, in Gotha, including a plaster head of St John the Baptist (now in Schloss Friedenstein). In the accompanying letter he recounted how he had been inspired for it by a monk he had met in St. Peter’s Basilica and who shared his idea of the saint (Poulet 2003, p. 74). The creation of the anatomical model and the copying of a real existing face show some of the French sculptor’s working method, in which the execution phase was preceded by careful study. In the St John the Baptist, Houdon felt this need strongly, as he was still a student at the academy and intimidated by the important commission he had received, as his friend Christian Von Manlich recounts in his diary (Arnason 1975, p. 13).

Two drawings by Augustin Saint-Aubin remain as evidence of the exhibition of two models of the statue, one in the same position as the present work, the other with the arm bent above the head, at the Paris Salon of 1769 (Poulet 2003, p. 75, figs. 2-3).

The artist’s inspiration from Michelangelo’s Christ in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, already pointed out by his contemporaries, is clear (Poulet 2003, p. 75): apart from the position, the faces show similarities in the wavy hair parted in the middle, the short beard, and the slightly incised eyes with an intense expression.

Sonja Felici

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  • P. Vitry, Le “Saint Jean-Baptiste” de Houdon, in “Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de l’Art Français”, 1910, p. 207.
  • G. Giacometti, Le statuaire Jean-Antoine Houdon et son époque, vol. I, Paris 1918, p. 34, vol. III, Paris 1919, pp. 220-221.
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  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1974, pp. 7-8.
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  • E. Bénezit, Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs, Paris 1976, vol. V. p. 629.
  • Histoire de ma vie, mémoires de Johann Christian Von Mannlich (1741-1822), a cura di K.-H. Bender, H. Kleber, Trier 1989-2003, p. 260. 
  • Guida alla Galleria Borghese, a cura di K. Herrmann Fiore, Roma 1997, p. 38
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 125, fig. 7.
  • Jean-Antoine Houdon: sculptor of the enlightenment, catalogo della mostra (Washington National Gallery of Art, 2003; Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003-2004; Versailles, Musée et domaine national du château, 2004), a cura di A.L. Poulet, Washington 2003, pp. 73-76.
  • M. Bückling, Jean-Antoine Houdon: ein Künstler der Auflärung, in Jean-Antoine Houdon die sinnliche skulptur, catalogo della mostra (Francoforte, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, 2009-2010; Montpellier, Musée Fabre, 2010) a cura di M. Bückling, G. Scherf, München 2009, pp. 15-21, fig. 5.
  • C. Di Matteo, La collection de plâtres de la Villa Médicis. Problèmes de conservation, in “Studiolo”, 8, 2010, pp. 310-319, in part. p. 314.
  • 350 anni di creatività: gli artisti dell’Accademia di Francia a Roma da Luigi XIV ai nostri giorni, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Villa Medici, 2016-2017), a cura di J. Delaplanche, Milano 2016, p. 119, cat. 22.
  • Scheda di catalogo 12/01008603; Pellizzari S., 1983, aggiornamento. Felici S., 2020.