Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Matthew 11:11
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri began with a bequest of $300,000 from Mary McAfee Atkins (1836 – 1911), a retired schoolteacher. Well, she had been a teacher, but she was also the widow of a real-estate magnate.
William Rockhill Nelson (1841–1915) had attended the University of Notre Dame for two years, after which the Holy Cross fathers – politely, I’m sure – asked him to skedaddle. Mr. Nelson was relieved. A non-Catholic, he described Notre Dame as “Botany Bay for bad boys” – a reference to the place in Australia where English prisoners once were exiled. Nelson went on to co-found the Kansas City Star.
Mrs. Atkins’ $300,000 was the equivalent of more than $9 million today. And Mr. Nelson also made a gift, pretty much his entire estate, dedicated to the purchase of art “for public enjoyment” in the city that had rewarded him with success. That amount was $11,000,000, which today would be $353,958,000. In the 1920s, the only other American artistic institution with financial resources like that was New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum.
So, with those several hundred million dollars to spend, the future Nelson-Atkins began to take shape, although ground-breaking did not begin until 1930.
Our older son, his wonderful wife, and their two remarkable kids live in the Kansas City area, and we try to get to the museum whenever my wife and I visit.
Initially, my insistence on visiting the museum was because it has works by my favorite American painter, Thomas Hart Benton, a Missouri native who lived and died in K.C. His Persephone has haunted me since I first opened and looked through the only coffee-table book in the Ohio house I grew up in: Peyton Boswell, Jr.’s 1939 Modern American Painting. (I will neither display nor link to Persephone here, because Benton depicts the goddess of spring naked – with himself as her uncle/husband/kidnapper, Hades.)
Readers may recall that I haunt the aforementioned MET Museum, and I could rattle off scores of wonderful works there, ones my wife and I revisit often, but I couldn’t say which is the greatest – and not just because such judgments are subjective, which in part they are (although not wholly so), but because there are so many great works in the MET’s massive 1.5-million-objects collection.
The Nelson-Atkins has a (countable) number of great works among its 42,000, but I do not hesitate to say the greatest is Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by, in my view, the greatest painter who ever lived, Michelangelo Merisi, whom we know now not by his given name, as we do the Michelangelo whose family name was Buonarroti Simoni, but by the town in Lombardy where he was born: Caravaggio.
Michele Angelo Merisi (or Amerighi) da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was sui generis: nobody like him before or since. That’s not to say his work is wholly original. Great art can’t be, and Caravaggio learned his craft by observing and imitating other artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and that other Michelangelo. But he came early to his masterful technique (tenebrism, the dramatic counterpoint of color and shadow) and managed in his tumultuous 38 years on God’s earth to have influenced many other painters, from the period he defined, the Baroque, right up to the present day.
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness is one of those works likely to be requested by other museums around the globe for Caravaggio retrospectives, and when it travels does so with what’s known as immunity from seizure. Thus, when it was sent to London’s National Gallery for that museum’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition (2016-17), it went with what amounts to a diplomatic passport – essential in this case, since the painting had originally come to Kansas City from a London art dealer in 1952.
In another column, I mentioned that a newly discovered Caravaggio, which its owners had thought was by an unknown Spanish painter, had been for sale by the owners – hoping to get a few thousand dollars for it – when experts from Madrid’s great Prado Museum saw it, proclaimed it likely by the great Italian master, and the government promptly declared that – whatever price might be settled upon – the painting cannot leave Spain. Its worth is estimated to be more than $50 million. The owners will surely be well-compensated, although not necessarily at the level of an international auction, such as happened when Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi recently sold for $450.3 million.
Caravaggio painted John the Baptist as many as a dozen times: eight versions are known for certain to be by him; another four are disputed. Not all have the aura of majestic, contemplative readiness of the Nelson-Atkins painting. Caravaggio was known to favor violent subjects and the theme of several other of his Baptist paintings is the last prophet’s beheading.
In the painting above, John’s time has come. His posture says: I’m ready – or even, ready or not, here I come. He is the messenger and knows, as did all the prophets before him, that the world will not welcome the words of repentance he will bring. His cousin will say (Matthew 5:12), “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you,” but young John already knows this – knows his likely fate.
In the next instant, I imagine John pounding his staff, which is topped with a cross, three times sharply on the earth. The missionary words are formed in his mind, the spirit is upon him, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2)
If you visit Kansas City, visit the Nelson-Atkins. And I haven’t mentioned that Caravaggio’s canvas (68 × 52 inches) makes the Baptist nearly life-size – certainly imposing. Stand close. Not too close though, as I did once, and a guard sharply told me to stand back.