This painting seems to be set at a dungeon or in front one at least. The atmosphere is dark which can either indicate nighttime or daytime where the sun shines through openings in dark prison cells, so I’m not certain of the time of day that is meant to be depicted. There are five people participating in the main activity in the foreground, and two men, most probably prisoners, simply observing them in the background. I do not know who those people are, however, based the title of the painting, I am assuming that Saint John the Baptist is the person held to the ground.
That assumption is purely based on the clothing and the overall Jesus-like feel of the character. Both executioner and victim are dressed very lightly, and a lady is holding a bowl or deep plate, perhaps filled with water so this scene might be set in a baptistry room, not a dungeon. That is very unlikely though because everyone besides the two men in action is fully clothed.
Maybe there was an act of baptistry inside a dungeon somehow and the man meant to be baptized was deceived and killed. That is still highly doubtful though, in my opinion, so I will be describing the rest of what I see as if it is all set in a dungeon. After all, space does look empty and dirty, like a prison cell. Besides, the metal gate and window also indicate that it might be a prison. In terms of identification of the rest of the people, the man in turquoise could be a guard since a key is tied to his belt, the young lady looks like a helper, the old lady could be another helper or a relative of the man called to witness a death penalty, and the two men in the back are probably inmates.
I am not familiar with the context, but it is clearly a religious painting, whether the story is retrieved from the Bible or from the Golden Legend. I am confused as to why there is a knife behind the executioner’s back if there is a sword and blood gushing out of the neck already. What is there to hide?
Having the grandmaster, Alof de Wignacourt, supporting him, Caravaggio was accepted into the Order of St. John, also known as the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. The Knights of the order were supposed to pay for their admission and Caravaggio paid for his by creating the Beheading of St John (Fried, 2010). According to Puglisi (2003), this is the story of St John who was beheaded by King Herod’s order after his stepdaughter, Salome, wished so. This painting was his passagio or passage money. Caravaggio produced much less work in Malta, but he did work on this monumental piece. It was painted for the Oratory of St John’s altar wall (Schotze, 2017). Schotze (2017) also wrote that Caravaggio was even celebrated as the Apelles of Malta. This commission was very significant because the oratory was the most sacred building in Malta (Fried, 2010). Religious ceremonies and criminal trials were held there. Knights were even buried in the oratory’s crypt (Schotze, 2017). The half-naked, muscular man bends over, grabbing St. John by the hair and pulls out a dagger to decapitate his head after he had failed to do so in one go, increasing the agony and suffering the Baptist (Zuffi, 2016). So he was not trying to hide the knife as I had initially thought. He was simply trying to finish the job. The guard in the turquoise garment points at the platter, gesturing to the executioner as to where the head should be placed. There is a contrast between the aged lady and the youthful one. The old lady is shocked and horrified, while the young one, Salome, is just helping out with the platter on which the head is to be placed (Zuffi, 2016). Her expression is cold-bloodedly apathetic as if the platter is about to be filled with food, not a human head. Everyone is casual about it, but the humble old lady who seems to be the only one sympathizing, but clearly unable to change the situation. There are ropes on the right side of the painting. Perhaps they were used to tie up the saint. Out of the martyred saint’s spurting blood, written was f.michelan where the letter f stood for fra or frater, meaning “brother” which refers to his knighthood of which he takes pride (Gash, 1994). However, Zuffi (2016) believed that it stood for fecit, which is the Latin word for did or made. This painting was done four months after he was announced as Knight of Obedience of the Order of St. John on the 14th of July 1608 (Gash, 1994). However, the work was revealed on August 29th, when Caravaggio was in prison. He was arrested on August 7th for being involved in a violent brawl and he was kept in an 11ft deep underground prison cell before he managed to escape on the 6th of October (Fried, 2010). On December 1st, an assembly was held at the oratory to state Caravaggio’s official expulsion from the Order.
The artist placed all figures in this gloomy, dull architectural environment where he heavily depends on browns. Caravaggio used all the force of his brush, having worked with such boldness that he left the priming of the canvas in half-tones (Puglisi, 2003, p. 297). Puglisi (2003) also stated that this might be the first time Caravaggio acknowledged the physical environment in a painting. He made St John the focal point of the composition by shining bright light on him, by partially covering him in luminous red drapery, and by centering him, unlike every other figure. The figures engaged in the action are tightly arranged in the left half of the painting. The symmetry is absent, but there is a visual balance that is achieved by juxtaposing the bright, condensed half of the composition with the dark, empty half. The composition was based on the artwork’s position in the oratory where there are windows on the left side, giving the illusion that the light in the painting is shining through the actual windows of the oratory (Ebert-Schifferer, 2012).
Caravaggio highlights the creation of this sacred relic (Ebert-Schifferer, 2012). There is an idea of sacrificial slaughter and since the Middle Ages, the blood of St John has been seen as a Eucharistic symbol (Ebert-Schifferer, 2012). The saint’s face is framed by the sword and the blood which portrays him as a martyr and precursor of Christ (Schotze, 2017). It is as if he is slaughtered above the altar, with blood representing rebirth. A painting about the first Christian martyr is definitely suitable to be put in a place where Christian knights were entombed. It creates an unforgettable experience for new pilgrims (Puglisi, 2003). Fried (2010) associated the sword with the moment of immersion and the short blade with specularity. He also suggested that the decapitation refers to Caravaggio’s wish to separate himself from the order and that the ropes on the right indicated his desire to escape. If Caravaggio signed with did, does that refer to himself killing someone? He may have signed with the saint’s blood because he felt regretful and penitent for his wrongdoing. Perhaps Caravaggio related with baptist in the sense that he had a death penalty haunt him (Schotze, 2017).
When creating artwork about this subject, artists usually either depicted the executioner preparing to decapitate the saint, like Rahib (1684) did (see fig.1) or after the whole process is complete, like Dorer (1510) (see fig.2). Caravaggio remained somewhere in between, depicting a completely different moment of St John’s death. Fried (2010) found that this painting is a lot like Caravaggio’s own Judith Beheading Holofernes (see fig.3) in the sense that it illustrates the physical struggle to sever someone’s head, but unlike it, the process of cutting the head was not shown.
The protagonists are frozen, their motion is exaggerated, and the details emphasize the drama. Those are all characteristics of the Baroque period in which Caravaggio lived his life. However, the painting does not show any of the grandeur that existed in the works that followed the baroque movement. Perhaps the painting belonged to the Baroque era, but with a touch of Caravaggio’s harsh naturalism. Even though this story has been illustrated so many times before, Caravaggio managed to take it to a whole new level. He introduced the viewers to a new angle that highlights the Baptist’s pain during the decapitation.
This piece turned out to hold much more meaning than I had initially thought it would. Caravaggio may have been an arrogant criminal, but he really excelled at what he did. His attention to detail, his thought-provoking symbolism, and his ability to portray a story that has been painted repeatedly for hundreds of years in a new manner; is, in my opinion, very impressive. After researching this work, I grew to feel more compassion and sympathy towards the helpless, agonizing saint. His martyrdom really sets him as an incredibly heroic figure not only to Christians but also to anyone who cannot escape unjust death.
Rahib, I. (1684). The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. [Ink and Pigments on Laid Paper] The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
Dorer, A. (1510). The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. [Woodcut] Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Caravaggio, M. (1598- 1599). Judith Beheading Holofernes. [Oil on Can- vas] Palazzo Barberini, Rome.