This image, while certainly the largest of Caravaggio’s works, is also in many ways the most disturbing. There is a great power in it, but it is also very dark without any apparent redemption. Like some of Caravaggio’s other works, it is a motif on violence, without any positive resolution, much the same as with violence in the real world. Judgment is for the next life, in this world, evil often seems to be unpunished. This is completely different from the same painter’s martyrdom of St. Matthew (Contarelli Chapel, St. Luigi dei Francesci, Rome), where as the center figure, a pagan who has masqueraded as a catechumen, is about to finish off St. Matthew, an angel, invisible to all but the saint, through a cloud lowers the palm branch, the victory of the martyr. Not so here.
This painting hangs in St. John’s co-cathedral in La Valetta, Malta, which in Caravaggio’s time was under control of the old crusading order, the Knights Hospitalers of St. John, and was their chapter house. The knights ruled Malta (whose inhabitants were mostly knights, a handful of European traders, and the local Maltese population) by a strict military code, and the grand master was the final authority of the island, against which there was no appeal. In this time, around 1607, the Knights enjoyed a new renown, for their victory over the Turks in 1565, which prevented an Ottoman invasion of western Europe. They christened the western part of the island La Valetta, after the name of the French Grand Master La Valette, who had engineered the defense against the Turks. It was considered very prestigious to be a knight, and many noble families placed children in the order (who were often ill-suited to it).
In 1607, the Grandmaster, Alof de Wignacourt had a major problem. La Valetta was a bit of a backwater. Malta was not considered a place of culture at the time, and people did not tend to frequent it that often, being a barren military outpost. What does an artist normally want when he paints a masterpiece? In an age where there is no tv, the way to reach people is to have them walk inside a church and see it. Not many people will do this in Malta. Thus Wignacourt had been unable to get artists to come to Malta, let alone become knights. Enter Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.
There are some artists whom we know quite a bit about because they wrote their lives (such as Michaelangelo Buonarotti), or because others wrote a good deal about them (Such as Versari in his Le Vite degli artisti), or because they were dodgy characters who were always in court, such as the goldsmith Cellini or Rembrandt. Of the third class is Caravaggio. His violent temper and difficulties with other artists frequently got him into legal trouble. In 1606, he killed another ruffian in a duel, Ranuccio Tomassoni, by the Tennis Courts on the via della Scroffa (today, a mechanic’s shop) which, ironically, was on the same street as St. Luigi of the French, where his St. Matthew series had made him famous. Now he was to become infamous, as dueling was illegal in the Papal States, and Caravaggio, having fled, was given the sentence in absentia of abunde capitale, authorizing anyone to kill him on behalf of the state (The Pope) and then claim their reward by bringing in his head. Caravaggio had fled first to Naples, where patrons kept him afloat, then to Sicily, and at last to Malta. At first he had attempted to buy his reconciliation from Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V and administrator of Papal Justice, by painting for him. He had done this in the past to get out of trouble, and tried again with his famous David and Goliath depicting his self-portrait as the decapitated monstrous Goliath, with the obvious implication that Borghese could have his head in paint if he could but keep it in life. This particular painting is incorrectly dated to the end of Caravaggio’s life (as in Simon Schama’s otherwise powerful documentary, The Power of Art, where he overlooks the fact that the David and Goliath enters the Borghese collection in 1606, the same year as the duel, not 1611 when he died. It made for great drama, but it simply wasn’t historically accurate).
Tomassoni’s family, however, was too strong for him to grant a pardon. With that having failed, it was now presented to him that he could gain a pardon by becoming a knight of Malta. This was a tricky business because a convicted murderer did not normally get considered for entrance into the Knights, and approval would have to come from the Pope.
As soon as Wignacourt heard about Caravaggio’s arrival and intentions, he was delighted. He saw immediately the solution to his problems. He would at last have a painter, and one who was considered the greatest at that, and he would be able to keep him. That was the trick really, he understood well that Caravaggio wanted a pardon so he could return to Rome, as well as the prestige that being a Knight of Malta would give him, and Wignacourt knew that once Caravaggio became a knight, he could not leave without his permission. Problem solved. At least it appeared that way. Events would prove otherwise, as we shall note later.
Caravaggio buttered up Wignacourt with two excellent portraits, (one above, the other is St. Jerome writing) which the latter was pleased with. He also painted portraits for other Knights and royal patrons of other knights (like the Sleeping Cupid, or the Annunciation for the Duke of Lorraine). The prudent Grandmaster petitioned Pope Paul V (whose name is on the front of St. Peter’s) for a pardon for Caravaggio, but he took care not mention the name of who it was, and this was received in May of 1608. The last test Wignacourt laid before Caravaggio was to paint the altar piece of the St. John for what is today the Co-Cathedral, at that time the Knights’ Chapter house in La Valletta, depicting the Church’s titular saint John the Baptist, which was to be ready before the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, when it would be unveiled.
The figures are life-sized, to give the knights the sense that this is a real life drama happening before them. Oil painting became the supreme art in the late 15th century after painters like Van Eyck in the Netherlands were able to accomplish what oils had not to that point, make the dead come to life. What Caravaggio does, is not merely make the pictures look lifelike, but to act life-like as well, with a strength and intensity that had not been seen before in European art.
The beheading of John the Baptist, as we noted is very dark. It is certainly the masterpiece of Caravaggio’s later period, and it is the only one to be signed by him in name. It depicts, of course, St. John, his executioner, a soldier, Salome with a golden platter to receive the head of St. John the Baptist and an old woman. The interpretation of the old woman differs amongst art historians. Some think it is actually Herodias, the wife that Herod Antipas had forced his brother to divorce so he could marry her. This interpretation is interesting, and we will take it up later. The other is that she is a bystander who sees the horror of the act, and thus represents us, standing inside the painting and yet outside too, demolishing the barrier between the painting’s space, and our space.
There is a lot to look at here. The space creates a paradox, like a sudden silence in a noisy place, which seems louder than the previous noise by its contrast. The space fills the painting, though it is empty, with foreboding, and horror. This is the point of the two prisoners in the corner who are doing their utmost to have a look. The atmosphere is so terrible, that men of that sort are attracted to it, so that they might see the dirty work carried on.
Caravaggio painted a number of beheadings, among which are a Medusa’s head, his own in the famous David and Goliath, which is often incorrectly dated to after this period, when in fact it enters the Borghese collection in 1606, two years before this. The only thing that compares is his beheading of Holofernes by Judith, which explores the pathos between sex and violence. This painting, however, explores the connection, on the one hand, between the state and violence in the person of the soldier, on the other, the fair and innocent who partake in violence in the person of Salome, to which we can add our mixed reaction to it, in the person of the old woman.
Take the Soldier, he is the embodiment of authority, but he is commanding an atrocity, the execution of an innocent man, something authority is supposed to prevent (in a way, in Caravaggio’s own head at least, it is an allusion to his own treatment in life). At least it seems that way, and many modern art historians have liked to find a commentary on the death penalty here, as they are given to reading modern issues into older works. The reality is, it is not state violence as such that Caravaggio presents, but the violence of infidels. The soldier is a Turkish soldier, and since the Fall of Constantinople a century and a half earlier, the word Turk had replaced Saracen in the European lexicon for brutality and barbarity. The executioner goes to his task like to some simple mechanical work. He has made a mess of the job, and so he reaches back to grab a sharp knife, lifting St. John’s hair to finish separating the head, which is half off and bloody. This messy scene is so because this Church, the chapter house, is where new entrants into the Knights of Malta will be initiated into its harsh discipline, and prepared for the fact they could die in such a cruel manner in some distant land for the faith. It also recalls the struggle against the Turks in 1565, a reminder that the enemy was still on the sea, and this could be reality, even here (as the jail scene looks like one of the Knight’s jails in Castel Sant’Angelo.
Next, let’s look at Salome, with her pure white arms carrying a golden plate. Normally, a woman is depicted with fair white skin, because a) the modern craze for wearing less than underwear to the beach or pool hadn’t taken hold yet, b) women of noble birth were protected in the houses of royalty, to be prepared for the soft trappings of noble life. Any woman who was tan was a peasant who worked in the sun. A woman as Salome is depicted, would be expected to be a warm, innocent lady who should have no place in this scene. We know, however, from the biblical account, that she has been complicit in the crime since the first, and she does not bat an eye or even twitch as this gruesome act is carried out.
Now the old woman. Some have suspected it is Herodias, and if so it would be very interesting, as an image of contrition, now that it comes to seeing the blood, she can’t quite bring herself to accept it, wanting to scream, like so many royal killers who normally stand back from their handiwork. But I don’t think this is what Caravaggio is depicting. If we look at, for example, Judith and Holofernes (above), there is an old woman present, almost urging Judith on. This is her maid. Likewise, Salome would have a maid present, since a woman of the status of Salome would have had a maid with her at all times, particularly when going into a dingy prison with dodgy soldiers and executioners. More than likely she is assisting Salome, but she can’t quite aid in such an appalling task. What startles her is the blood gushing from the jugular of a St. John that, in this painting, never really dies, that is in an everlasting agony. Yet there is another detail, she is aghast at the sight, but she covers her ears, not her eyes. This is curious as the medium is to be looked at. It is on the one hand, a way of expressing the gurgling scream that must come forth from such a brutal beheading, by expressing the scream. The other fact is it does what Caravaggio is famous for, demolishing the barrier between us and the painting. As Andrew Graham-Dixon notes, “She stands for Christian pity and prayer.” (Caravaggio: a life sacred and profane, pg. 379).
At last, the figure of St. John himself. He has a read cloak draped over him haphazardly, and beneath him is sheep’s wool. The former symbolizes martyrdom, and the latter the innocent lamb led to the slaughter, which is a type of Christ. Although this is ostensibly depicting the martyrdom of St. John, the saint is not the center-point of the painting, rather the executioner is. This calls to mind, again, Caravaggio’s The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, which he painted for the Contarelli chapel many years before, mentioned above. In that painting, the assassin, not St. Matthew is the center of the paining, because sin dominates this world, yet there is still salvation. Caravaggio shows St. Matthew’s blood flowing into a baptismal pool, which we see in theology, the Res tantum, the very matter of baptism, is death. Mystically we’re being put to death to sin, and brought back to life with Christ, but the actual fulfillment of baptism is death in a state of grace. Caravaggio has masterfully depicted baptism of blood, as it applies to the martyr. He has signed his name, F Michaelangelo, “F” standing for Fra (Brother) in St. John’s blood. In a spiritual sense, the theological merit of the martyr allows for Caravaggio’s forgiveness for a murder, and materially the painting of his martyrdom, of his blood in which Caravaggio has signed his name, has made him reborn, as a man liberated from his death sentence, automatically commuted when he will have entered the ranks of the Knights of Malta, which this painting earns for him.
It would make a fantastic story if that was how it all went, but tragically it did not. At first it turned out well, Caravaggio was made a knight of Malta, and declared the greatest of all painters. He now had prestige as a knight, and the 17th century would witness artists receiving marks of status, such as Valezquez, who was made a knight of Santiago, Boromini would become a knight of the Holy Cross, Rubens would be knighted both by Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England, Bernini who was made a Papal knight. Though it is not recorded, we can safely assume that at this point Caravaggio discovered that he would not be able to return to Rome as soon as he had hoped. This disappointment would fester, and within a month of his being a Knight of St. John, he and some other knights assaulted a high ranking knight, and in the code of manhood of the day defaced his door, as well as kicking in the door of a musician. For a long time this detail was not known, and numerous wild theories about Caravaggio’s crime circulated amongst researches, ranging from acts of sodomy to some form of satanic worship. We now know it was none of this, that it had entirely to do with assaulting a brother knight, thanks to Maltese historian Keith Scribberas, who in 2002 took the step of X-raying some old documents which had been smeared with pitch to hide their contents. (Caravaggio, Dixon, pg. 387) The Knight was Brother Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, an administrator of the Knight’s Justice, and we can be certain that he is the one who assaulted Caravaggio in Naples, which left him badly disfigured, and ultimately led to his death. For unknown reasons Caravaggio and 6 other knights made the assault, which also included a pistol. It could be Caravaggio figured out he would not be allowed to leave Malta, and his irritation had concord with the grievances of these other knights who had issue with this particular Justice.
Nevertheless, the assault proved embarrassing for Wignacourt, as on 29 August he unveiled the painting for the feast of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. Caravaggio, who had painted it, was thrown in prison, the guva, a deep underground prison which was thought to have been filled in by the British, but was discovered to still be there in all its terror in the 1970s. High ranking as well as low ranking knights were in jail, one of the assailants was even a deacon and had to be laicized. At the same time, the broken door of the Maltese choirmaster was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the musicians went on strike over pay, and other matters. Thus neither was there a solemn Mass or a Solemn Vespers, on the patronal feast of the Knights of St. John. The whole event was a disaster for Wignacourt, guaranteeing he would not be merciful. No one had ever escaped from the guva, but that was no obstacle for Caravaggio. It would have been all but impossible without the aid of someone else, involving as it did scaling high walls, lowering himself into the harbor and finding a boat. His escape, no matter how it happened, made him a fugitive from the Knight’s justice, and they formally expelled him from the order. He fled to Sicily where he painted a number of paintings, and was an instant celebrity wherever he went, and then back to Naples, where he was beaten and left for dead, almost certainly by Roero. Not long after, he would attempt to go to Rome with the promise of a pardon from the Pope’s nephew, Scipione Borghese, but he died on the way there, which we will take up in a discussion of another of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Hello! I’ve been reading your website for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout
out from Houston Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the great job!
No need to get up the courage, I’m just a regular guy like anyone else trying to do what he can. Keep me in your prayers!
I thought you were a 6 foot 3 football player.
excellent description indeed. i also can keep you in my prayer if you want, though i’m a muslim. a muslim interested in painting and latin. salute from turkey. (i don’t use capital letters btw)
Thanks, and a happy Eid!
My daughter went to college in Malta for a year and I was able to visit her while she was there. One of the highlights of my trip was to visit the cathedral and see Caravaggio’s painting. Looking at the image on the internet it’s hard to imagine how very large it is. Dark and haunting.
Great article man, this helped me alot with my history report. Do you still know some of the books or articles that you used to write this :)?
They are a mix of my own observations as an amateur art historian, and Andrew Graham-Dixon’s “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane”, combined with some of the evaluations of Ballori and Cardinal Nicolo Pallavacino from a century afterwards. Dixon’s book is worth every penny, I have read it several times.