There are two paintings by Caravaggio in Malta – St. Jerome Writing (above), a quiet, dark portrait of the saint waking up in the middle of the night to jot something down, and the massive, magnificent Beheading of St. John the Baptist. I love the Jerome painting. It calms me just to look at it. But the Beheading is a masterpiece, one of Caravaggio’s greatest and certainly a touchstone work of European art. It’s his biggest painting, by far – 3.6 meters tall and 5.2 meters wide (approx. 12 x 17 feet). The figures are larger than life-size.
The painting depicts a moment during the beheading in which John has already been struck by the executioner’s sword, and now the man has drawn a knife from his belt to finish the job. With the exception of the old woman covering her face with her hands, the other characters appear unaffected by the act.
Helen Langdon wrote: “It is an ignoble scene. John does not kneel as is customary in art, but is brought low on the ground, and his body is trussed like that of a sacrificial lamb, his hands tied behind his back, his red cloak suggesting blood, and a rope snaking across the floor. Action is arrested, and the group, earthbound, downward-looking, is utterly still, gesture and expression muted. Caravaggio emphasizes the reality of John’s death in a gloomy prison, unattended by angels; the threat of the prison, the terror of torture and punishment, are powerful – this was a place where justice was meted out.”
This is Caravaggio’s only signed painting. Written with the blood that has spilled from John’s neck, he scrawled: “f. michel.” – meaning Fra Michelangelo, Brother of the Knights of Malta. The Beheading was most likely painted as his passaggio, an offering to the Order that was given by prospective knights. It was commissioned to hang in the Oratory, which, among other uses, was the setting for criminal trials. Ironically, on December 1, 1608 – a few months after completing the painting and two months after escaping prison and fleeing the island – a trial was held for Caravaggio in abstentia to defrock him and cast him out of the Order of St. John. The trial took place directly underneath his painting.