Tag Archives: christian art

Interview 042—Faith Matters with Philip Campbell on Renaissance Art

We joined Philip Campbell on his EWTN Radio Program Faith Matters to talk about the Early Renaissance. We discuss the Early Renaissance in Italy and the Netherlands.

Interview 039—Phillip Campbell on the Nitty Gritty of the Middle Ages, and why most people will hate it

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Today, Phillip Campbell (aka Boniface) of Unam Sanctam Catholicam joins us to talk about the history of the Middle Ages, and why most people, traditional Catholics in particular, who have romantic notions of medieval life, would positively hate it. Not to dissuade one from study or admiring the Middle Ages, this conversation about medieval life is aimed at painting an accurate picture of it. Join us, as we dig into the nitty gritty of the middle ages.

**Warning**: [insert danger Will Robinson]
There are some points in the podcast where profanities are used demonstratively, as in medievals used the word in a title of this or that and we repeated it. Moreover there will be frank discussion of medieval views about sex and modesty and weird perverted things.  There will also be cool medieval music in Latin about bawdy subjects which would could not understand probably. If that offends you, or you thought this would be good for your younger kids, we give fair warning, you will not be happy.

Episode Notes:

Previous interviews with Phillip/Boniface:
Interview 014 on being a mayor in a small town.
Interview 024 on Pope Boniface VIII
Unam Sanctam Catholicam
Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch
Medieval end times views
Medieval Churches used for theater
The Theatre: Three Thousand Years of Drama, Acting and Stagecraft by Sheldon Cheny
Feast of the Ass
Feast of fools
Humility and State in Life
Bacche Bene Venies
De Defectibus

Alphonsus Liguori on whether it is licit to have sex in Church
Instructions for Parish Priests by John Myrc (1400s)
Priests working secular occupations (barber/surgeon, lawyer), so common that Lateran II specifically forbid this in 1139
Jacques Fournier records people had sex inside the church (Béatrice de Planissoles)
-Source: Readings in Medieval History
Apostolic Origins of Clerical Celibacy, Cochini
Francis and Joseph Gies
Life in a Medieval Village
Life in a Medieval City

Limbourg Brothers

Related image
Mailoica Plate:

abortion and contraception in the middle ages
Origin of the heart shape is from seed-pod of a Roman contraceptive plant:
(NB: I made a mistake in the podcast, I called if fenellinium, it was actually called silphium, got it all mixed up in my head).
A Cyrenian coin from the 6th century B.C., with a silphium seed imprinted in it.

Catullus on Silphium:
“as the number of Libyan sands that lie in silphium-bearing Cyrene.” (Poem 7)

Virgo Lactans, St. Bernard:
Troubador Movement
Liber Facetiarum of Poggio Bracciolini
History of Private Life Part 2
Medieval depictions of walking, sword-wielding genitalia (Danger Will Robinson! Crass, weird, odd, and just— enter at your own risk).
Edward IV
Unfortunate Wives of Philip II
Pope Alexander VI annulled the first marriage of Louis XII.
Pierre Darmon’s 1979 book Trial by Impotence.
For more on Henry VIII, see my own talks on the subject.
Politically active clergy:
Investiture Controversy
Albrecht of Brandenburg


Interview 034 — St. Robert Bellarmine on Purgatory

The following is an interview I gave on Reconquest with Br. Andre Marie, on St. Robert Bellarmine’s work on Purgatory which I translated last year. Unfortunately I did not make my own recording so I only have the goo-tube version to share.
The book was too much to cover in a simple interview, thus instead we focused on the apologetic arguments and St. Robert Bellarmine’s Scriptural Exegesis which makes this book one of the best treatises I have seen on the subject anywhere.

While we did not delve into the whole book; the second section which we did not cover moves away from the arguments of Purgatory’s existence to it’s incidental details, some of which are dogmatic and some of which are merely speculative. You can see all of that if you purchase St. Robert Bellarmine’s On Purgatory here.

Episode Notes:

(These will be updated soon).

The Exorcism of Arezzo – Giotto

Giotto_St.Francis009Today we turn away from the world’s troublesome events, and call our attention to the patrimony of culture in the Western Tradition. In past art posts I have focused mostly on the Baroque. Today, however, we go back to the very beginning of the Renaissance, to the great painter Giotto.

One of the things that is normally said about Giotto, is that he threw out the Byzantine tradition, in order to invigorate art with more realism and thus kicked off the “Renaissance” in art. This narrative begins in Georgio Versari’s Vite Degli Artisti, where he makes this claim. Continue reading

The Raising of the Cross – Peter Paul Rubens

The Raising of Christ on the Cross - Peter Paul Rubens

The Raising of Christ on the Cross – Peter Paul Rubens

Rubens is perhaps one of the greatest artists of all time. We spoke a little bit of Rubens before in my book review of Master of Shadows: the Secret diplomatic life of Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens is one of the greatest genre painters, because of his Catholicism, his stoicism and sense of order, his love of the classics, and his diligence and hard work. Today I want to look at one of his best early works, which took his budding fame and made it immortal. Michaelangelo Buonarotti reckoned that Flemish artists were good for nothing but landscapes, which was not strictly true, particularly if we consider Van Eycke or Jos van Cleve, or even Bosch, but it is Rubens who will put to rest this bias forever. Continue reading

Vermeer: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Jan Vermeer, Self Portrait

Jan Vermeer, Self Portrait

I have mostly covered art in Italy, and for good reason, Italy is seemingly unbeatable. Yet, there is another art tradition, whose Renaissance predates Italy’s, that might be the sole rival in classic European oil painting, and that is the Netherlands.

Previously, I talked a little about Rubens (here), but today we are going a little more north. While Rembrandt was trying to retrench himself in Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter, another artist was making his mark on Dutch history.

Jan Vermeer is a curious artist. Dutch, but Catholic, of moderate impact in the art market, yet remembered for his characterizations of Dutch life. In the case of Rubens we could say he is distinct from Rembrandt by his southern Flemish style, or his adherence to the Catholic faith, his vibrant colors, as opposed to Rembrandt van Rijn’s darker views, personal rather than mythological subjects, etc. But ultimately the difference between Rubens and Rembrandt is that Rubens gave the clients what they wanted, Rembrandt painted what he saw, the light of truth without the social graces to touch it up, and increasingly he displeased clients, most famously in his revolt of Claudius Silvius, originally destined for Amsterdam’s town hall. That same difference can be placed between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Vermeer knew how to paint to please his clients.

Interestingly, if we look back to what we said about artists previously, we noted that:
a) artists were craftsmen, who sometimes arose to a more noble bearing working for royalty, particularly in the 17th century
b) other artists where highly charged with political or philosophical ideas and made social and political commentary, as well as ending up in court frequently and are thus celebrated by modern art, albeit only in so much as they start the road to the collage of insanity that sells for millions in London, Paris and New York.

Therefore more has been written on Rembrandt than perhaps any other artist, even more than some who have made big come-backs recently such as Caravaggio or Tiziano. So while Vermeer’s art doesn’t hit the top, it is still fascinating for the techniques he uses with his brushes to capture the idea of what he is getting across. Obscure after his death (there were bigger things to worry about for a while, as we shall see), he was rediscovered in the 19th century and ranked among the masters of the Dutch Golden Age.


Lapis L'Azuli This stone, coming from Afghanistan, would be hammered down and purified into a blue pigment, and provides for the rich color blue in western art from the 14th century onwards.

Lapis L’Azuli
This stone, coming from Afghanistan, would be hammered down and purified into a blue pigment, and provides for the rich color blue in western art from the 14th century onwards.

It is not known precisely when Vermeer was born, but we do know he was baptized in the year 1632, into the Dutch Reformed Church in the city of Delft. This suggests he was already a few years old, between 8-10 by the Calvinist practices of the time. His father was part of the St. Luke’s guild and operated an art dealing business. It is certain that Vermeer was schooled in art, for, though there is no record of his having been abroad, nevertheless in later life he was one of two men in Delft who was considered an authority to identify Italian paintings. It is not known, however, at what point he took up active painting, but he appreciated bright colors, expensive pigments like lapis lazuli, and as a member of the St. Luke’s guild himself, he was influenced by the Antwerp school of art (Rubens, Caravaggio, etc.). It is perhaps Rubens’ influence that accounts for Vermeer’s use of bright colors, and the influence of Caravaggio’s works that accounts for Vermeer’s use of light and shadow. Yet, like Rubens, Vermeer takes what he found useful from other artists without becoming slavishly devoted to that style, like the networks of Caravaggisti. What Vermeer does well is the sacredness of ordinary things, which is fully within the Dutch spirit.

Holland’s art market at that time was an anomaly when considered in the context of the west of Europe. Normally painting was the provenance of the wealthy, and the trend was for artists to be increasingly noble, or at least seek knighthoods and honors. Baglione, the great rival of Caravaggio, was awarded a golden chain for his talents and was highly respected in his time (except of course, by Caravaggio). Bernini was made a Papal Knight, while his rival Borromini was made a knight of the Holy Cross. Valesquez was knighted by Philip IV of Spain, as was Rubens, who was also knighted by Charles I of England. Rubens’ pupil and later colleague, Van Dyck, was knighted by Charles I, and Jan Breughal, the son of Peter Breughal, received a title of nobility. The trend was nobility, the clients of artists were nobility, the Church, and though there was great competition for artwork, the majority of works were meant for the public to see in a set place, like a Church, to be the focal point of the community, centered around religion.

The problem of the nascent Dutch Republic is that it had no public religion. The great Churches were defaced, and they did not want art in their Churches, because that was to them idolatry. But, of every day things? Thus the Dutch began a celebration of their culture, which was at its height as a world power, and whose navy easily outnumbered Spain, France and England’s navy combined. The order of the day was to celebrate Dutch culture, but the problem was the number of artists far exceeded the demand, so figures like Frans Hals, or Rembrandt had their boom moments when people could not get enough of them, and their bust moments when people had seen enough. So what about Vermeer?

The Jesuit Church on Oude Langendiijk, Delft

The Jesuit Church on Oude Langendiijk, Delft

Vermeer married a Catholic girl in Delft named Catarina Bolnes in 1653. Her mother Maria Thins required of Vermeer that he become Catholic in order to marry her, and he did so. It is not entirely clear if at first he converted out of conviction or for the girl, but what is certainly clear is that once he had done so he became quite serious, and his art shows this in many ways. His new mother-in law was also considerably wealthier than Vermeer, allowing him the freedom to paint in exchange for a little work in her business. It is often thought that Vermeer painted for the schuilkerk, or secret Church, which was not far from his home in Delft and was run by the Jesuits. Much is made of the Dutch Republic’s famous ‘religious toleration”, but in point of fact it was a sporadic and uneven, depending upon the province. So while Haarlem offered full religious toleration, Amsterdam and Delft were more restrictive. The Mass was illegal in Amsterdam, for example, until the 19th century, but tolerated since a majority of the city’s population was Catholic well into the 17th century. Thus one famous schuilkerk was the Ons’ Lieve Herr op Solder (Our Lord in the attic), which served Catholics for 200 years. Delft was no different.

The Painting

Jan_Vermeer_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_MaryChrist in the House of Martha and Mary was painted in 1655-56, shortly after he was married. It is one of the earliest works to survive, and it is his only painting that is overtly on a religious theme. (In the future we’ll look at some other ones that recall biblical themes). The circumstances of the painting are not known, but it is thought to have been commissioned for a Church, possibly the schuilkerk in Delft. It is now in the National Gallery in Edinburg, Scotland.


Christ in the house of Martha and Mary -TintorettoThe thrust here shows Martha rebuking Mary, as opposed to Vermeer’s image of the two working together.

One of the things we see is the placement of the characters. We have the conforming of the biblical narrative, with Christ seated and Mary Magdalene at his feet, but what is unique about this piece is Martha’s placement. Older images of this scene show Martha a pace or two back, calling out for Mary Magdalene to do something. This takes a different approach, and Vermeer shows off his theological sophistication.

Martha is not here voicing her complaint about Mary’s seeming inaction, when in fact she is in contemplation of Christ. Instead Martha is assisting and contributing to Mary’s action. The placement of Martha next to Mary and Our Lord is meant to show the unity of Faith and Works, with Mary representing the former and Margaret the latter. The reason older artists treating this scene, particularly in the Italian renaissance, would not have considered it important to include Martha and Mary together was that the reformation hadn’t happened, or else wasn’t an issue (or you took the other view, such as in anti-papal Venice). Tintoretto’s Martha rebukes Mary, while Vermeer, a Catholic living in a country where Catholicism is against the law, and the official view of the majority of those in government, as well as in Delft, a Calvinist town has the false notion of faith and works to contend with. The Dutch cultural scene emphasizes work, but outside of its context of faith. Vermeer draws a complete union between the two, as culminating in the blessed Sacrament.

Jan_Vermeer_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_detailLook at that loaf of bread. This is not just the fruit of windmills grinding flour, this is a symbol of the Eucharist, as the fruit of faith and works. Notice the lines of symmetry, a technique from Italian baroque painting that Vermeer employs several times. If we follow diagonally from the bottom left, we arrive at Christ’s hand, which is in many ways the key to the painting, since it occupies the central place if we draw a diagonal line from any side. Yet here should begin from the left, for in doing so we come not merely to Christ’s hand, but even more to his index finger and thumb. Immediately above the these two fingers we find the bread. These are also a priest’s consecration fingers, and so the Eucharistic symbolism could not be more clear.  By faith and good works we live a life by which we can partake of the Eucharist, which is the fruit of a work, united to faith, effected by Christ acting in the person of the priest.

While our Lord is depicted in traditional Holy Land attire, Martha and Mary are dressed like Dutch maidens, one who could be expected to embroider in the parlor, and the other working in the kitchen. It is a device to merge the ancient with the modern into one fabric, that Christ is relevant today, or, we might say contrary to certain churchman, the Gospel is relevant today. It might also be a criticism of others who name their home “St. Martha’s” to emphasize works over faith, as certain people today do, though we won’t name them. Thus, a commentary on faith and works is set perfectly in the context of Dutch art of the golden age.


Vermeer had limited success and seems to have been happy to work for a limited number of clients. In 1672 he went mad, and his life went down hill, until he at last died in 1675, leaving his wife and children with debts. Immediately he was more or less forgotten, until the 19th century when he was rediscovered. Part of the reason for this, and why he went mad in 1672, is because that year was the catastrophic year for the Dutch Republic, which was a world-wide empire. The French and English signed the treaty of Dover (although it was secret in England), by which Charles II promised to help Louis XIV at sea, and convert to Catholicism, while Louis supplied him a subsidy and invaded the Dutch Provinces. William of Orange ordered all of the dykes and levies broken, so that the ocean would flood the countryside and halt the advance of the Dutch troops. It did that, but at a cost. Fortunes and livelihoods were ruined, Vermeer’s savings were wiped out, and even his mother-in-law was going down financially, as were many people all over the country. Thus in the aftermath in 1675, the Dutch had forgotten about many more recent painters, as they were trying to survive the tragedy.

We will look more at Vermeer in the future.

Book Review: Peter Paul Rubens: Master of Shadows

51UNns6mqOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Today when we think of artists, we often think of emotionally or psychologically disturbed individuals, staking out radical positions, challenging authority, championing unpopular issues, or in general just being rebels. This however, is not what artists were in the 17 and 18th century, with the exception of notable figures like Caravaggio and Rembrandt, or we might add in the 19th century Van Gogh, who have, arguably, created the melancholy temperamental view of the artist.

Artists, historically, were viewed as craftsmen, who were given their talents by God to bring beauty and light into the world, to raise man up to God, by the medium of art. It is in the Netherlands that oil painting first became the supreme art by the genius of Jan van Eyck. It is in the Netherlands that an artist obtained nobility, fame, and wealth by respectability virtue and above all his devotion to the Catholic faith. That artist was Peter Paul Rubens.

There are a number of good works about Rubens’ art, and no biography can do without talking about it. However, Master of Shadows, by Mark Lamster, is about another, less known side of Rubens, not as painter, but as a diplomat and spy. He couldn’t have been born at a better time for it either. Spain and the nascent Dutch Republic were at war, and Spain, the greatest empire in the world, was on the losing side it seemed. The real losers were the inhabitants of the Spanish Netherlands (modern day Belgium) who were ruled by a foreign power that did not understand them, prevented from making peace with their Protestant neighbors, and their greatest city, Antwerp, turned into a ghost town on account of the Dutch blockade of the Schlect, the main river leading to it from the English channel. It was his native Flanders that Rubens loved, and he would devote his life to bringing it, and the rest of Europe, peace.

What is fascinating about this biography, is that we find Rubens continually involved with the great men of his time. Not just the Duke’s of Mantua, his first big patron, but the Spanish regents of the Netherlands, the Empress Maria and the Count of Lerma Philip IV’s chief counselor, Philip IV himself, the scheming Count Olivarez, the kind and upright general Spignola,  and conversely, Marie de Medici, Chrales I of England, and many other contemporary artists and poets. He clashed swords, diplomatically speaking, with Cardinal Richelieu and won, he was knighted by Philip IV of Spain and also by Charles I of England. His correspondence was enormous, and his art production in the thousands of works, and even more copies of other great masters. What I have always particularly admired in Rubens, is his staunch Catholicism, married to his love of the pagan classics. Like Raphael or Michaelangelo in the 16th century, for Rubens, classical and mythological themes were often used as an expression of Christian virtue, and they saw no particular contradiction in it. This was of course, the luxury of a christian age that had survived and long since vanquished the old paganism. Nevertheless, that pagan inheritance is the key to understanding most of Rubens’ art, as well as his life.

Flemish by birth, in a city where one could speak either Flemish or French, Rubens chose to speak Italian, which at that time was the mark of an educated and intelligent man, as opposed to the 19th century where British culture popularized the Italian as thief and pirate.

What Lamster brings out about Rubens in this work is two-fold: a) His work ethic and discipline b) his moral integrity, manners and discretion. For instance, Rubens’ wife died while he was in his 30s, but he re-married in his 50s, and was celibate for the entire 20 years he was single. One of the reasons we know this, is because Richelieu wanted all dirt possible dug up on Rubens, because he knew that the later was a Spanish agent, but his vast spy network came out empty handed.

The work traces Rubens’ career, from birth in strained circumstances in Flanders, to his education at a grammar school, where he learned Latin and Greek, French and Italian. He then embarked for Italy, where he spent several years in the retinue of the Duke of Mantua, at the same time as the great composer Claudio Monteverdi was also composing for the duke. He busied himself with the normal jobs of a young artist, copying the great masters, and innovating his own techniques. He was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, and it is apart of Rubens’ genius that he was able to appropriate elements of Caravaggio’s painting, but not become a slavish copier as many of the continuators of the painter, the Caravaggisti, would later be known for. He went to Rome shortly after Caravaggio had been condemned in absentia for murdering Rannucio Tommasoni in a duel, and was able to acquire a number of commissions this way.

While in the Duke of Mantua’s retinue, he was entrusted with the job of bringing a number of paintings to Spain which were to be presented as a gift to the highly influential Duke of Lerma, the chief counselor to King Philip IV, at that time considered the greatest monarch in the world. In this first visit to the Spanish court, Rubens would be able to see up close the Spanish court and its workings, which would help him appreciate later how the Spanish work.


The Adoration of the Magi, -Peter Paul Rubens The painting was made to commemorate the 12 years truce between Spain and Holland.

While back at Rome, however, received news that his mother was dying, and hastened back to Flanders. He narrowly missed his mother’s passing, but was fortunate in that around the same time, the Spanish and the Dutch were celebrating the twelve years truce (circa 1609), and were the city council of Antwerp wanted a painting to commemorate the event. Lucky for them, they had a young painter who had already acquired fame in Italy. How better, than to have a son of Antwerp paint a work celebrating a truce which would free the city economically? Thus, Rubens painted the first of his works on the theme of the Adoration of the Magi.

The painting’s meaning is clear, the kings of the earth adore the infant Jesus, bearing gifts, the gifts are the fruits of the peace, presented to the prince of peace. A man in gold fabrics kneels before the Christ child, who represents the Spanish, the man in a simple red garment represents the Dutch Republic, rich but austere. One thing that has baffled art historians, is the presence of an oriental figure standing just behind the main action, wearing glorious blue robes. Many times in depictions of this scene, oriental figures are depicted like Europeans, or depicted looking somewhat dumb, or lacking majesty. Rubens dresses him in rich blue garments and with jewels. The reason for this, is he is depicting the gifts of the orient (at that time called the East Indies), which could now flow freely while the Spanish and Dutch are not fighting each other at every corner of the world.

The work was a hit, and launched Rubens onto the international stage. It was at this point that he was invited by the Empress Isabella, the Spanish regent of the Netherlands, to undertake diplomatic work for Spain. In spite of Rubens’ many duties, his busy life in his workshop, the constant demands for his work, he nevertheless through himself into this energy and alacrity. His decorum made him trusted by Isabella, even though he was seriously mistrusted by the Spanish court for being a commoner who “worked by his hands” (something despised by the old nobility, which looked at privilege and position as something more noble than work). Philip IV would rectify this by knighting him, but he nevertheless, could not escape the veneer of a mere workman in the eyes of the Spanish aristocrats, no matter how polished his manners and splendid his decorum.

Lamster’s narrative takes us into Holland, France, and even distant England, where Rubens painted the famous Apotheosis of King James which even today adorns the ceiling at Whitehall. It is here, that Rubens, solely through his tact, decorum and discretion, outwitted Richelieu’s over-reaching and tactless ambassador’s, and prevented an alliance of England and France against Spain. What is glorious about it, is if one is not familiar with history of this period, Lamster’s narrative is simple and explanatory enough that one does not feel lost or amiss following Rubens around Europe.

At the end of his life, Rubens gave up his stardom and ambassadorial life, to retire in Flanders where he married again. He began, at this juncture, to carry out a number of landscaping works, depicting a peaceful life at home. He had labored his whole life for peace, through his art, and through his perilous missions, and it was peace he most longed for now. The twelve years truce had lapsed, and the Dutch and Spanish would be at it until the end of the Thirty Years War. That war, so destructive and pointless, tore Europe apart and left millions in misery. Thus we have one of Rubens’ last works, a picture of the Flemish landscape.

Landscape with a rainbow. -Peter Paul Rubens

Landscape with a rainbow. -Peter Paul Rubens

The shepherds and farmers sit at ease with their wives, another is playing music, within easy site of their habitations. Its an idyllic day, with the sun shining, yet a storm which provides a cool breeze. The reality is behind that rainbow is a terrible storm on its way. On this side of the rainbow, is Flanders as it ought to be, while on the other side, is the dark stormy reality of war, both religious and political. The sad thing is the history of the Spanish Netherlands would turn out as the image of the storm, not the peaceful scene in the country. Conquered alternatively by French and Dutch, it would not know peace until the modern era.

Rubens however, is one of the greatest of painters, but understanding his works requires, like with the renaissance masters, an understanding of both the Christian world and the classical tradition which gave them birth. Understanding Rubens the man, however, requires knowing his century, and “Master of Shadows”, is a fantastic biography to start with.

Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John the Baptist

The Beheading of John the Baptist - Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Beheading of John the Baptist – Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

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).


Alof de Wignacourt -Caravaggio

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 Painting

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.

Judith beheading Holofernes -Caravaggio Barberini Palace Museum, Rome

Judith beheading Holofernes
Barberini Palace Museum, Rome

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.

beheading_john_baptist3Take 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.

beheading_john_baptist1Next, 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.

beheading_john_baptist2Now 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).

beheading_john_baptist5At 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,beheading_john_baptist6 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.