No visit to Malta could be considered complete without a visit to St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and seeing Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).
Largest of all Caravaggio’s canvases it was specifically painted for the cathedral and was painted during his short stay on the island in 1608. It is said to be the only painting to have been signed by him and this was identified in the red blood flowing from the almost completely severed head of the Saint. A first impression of this painting might be of the vast amount of subdued browns it contains with only a few points of colour in it. But on closer inspection the scene is suddenly revealed to be shocking and perhaps even brutal. Yet there is a gentleness in the painting. It challenges the viewer to really spend time taking in all that the painter was trying to tell the viewer. Caravaggio asks the viewer to really look at what is happening and to consider the role each character takes in the painting.
The painting tells about an event recorded in the Bible and you are looking at the scene moments after the beheading. There is only one action in the painting which might be said to be shocking when you realise that the man standing over the body is taking his knife in his right hand to ‘snip off’ the last shred of skin that holds the head to the body. The only character who seems to be affected by what had happened is the older woman on the left hand side holding her hands to her ears. Is she trying not to scream or is she trying to hold her own head firmly on her shoulders?
Caravaggio used real people when painting and in The Beheading of St John the Baptist the seven people captured in the painting were real people whose faces have come down the centuries to us. Like the characters they portray they too were real flesh and blood people who were caught with their emotions exposed for all who would look to see. The cathedral has another smaller painting by Caravaggio, St Jerome, which is equally beautiful and much easier to look at.
You might not like the subject The Beheading of St John the Baptist deals with but see it and take time to look at this beautiful masterpiece. See it and wonder at Caravaggio’s magic, that his painting is still challenging the viewer more than four hundred years after Caravaggio presented it to the cathedral.