Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Martyrdom of St John the Baptist

Caravaggio - Beheading of John the Baptist 1608, Valletta, Malta
The feast of the Martyrdom of St John the Baptist which we celebrate today was actually a sad day for Christianity. It was sad that Herod terminated his life just to please a girl for a well-performed dance. And then her mother requested John the Baptist’s head as a gift. Everyone knows that a girl would have asked for a nice necklace, some perfume, a pair of pretty sandals or a beautiful dress as a gift, but Herod used the opportunity to destroy John the Baptist. The most famous painting of this horrible scene is the Caravaggio masterpiece which he painted in Malta in 1608, and is still seen at the Oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.

An invisible line travels from the top left hand corner to the bottom right and dissects the work into two triangles.  All the action takes place in the left triangle. John the Baptist lies on the ground, probably dead, blood flowing from his neck, his head almost severed. Salome reaches out with her plate to take his head. The jailer points to the plate: "Cut it off and throw it there". The old lady clutches her head in horror as the executioner, body gleaming and radiating light grabs St. John by the hair and moves in for the cut.  The group forms a beautiful arc that is mirrored in the shade of the outer arch and the inner stone arch above them.

The right triangle is mainly empty space, punctuated by the rope that once bound the prisoner and a square window, through which two boys look on in horrified fascination. Their eyes are fastened on the knife that the executioner holds behind his back. If one draws another invisible line from the top right hand corner of the picture to the bottom left, the point in which the two diagonal lines meet is the knife - the exact center of the picture.  Like the boys within the framed window, our eyes too are drawn to this weapon.

What makes the painting so real for our time, is the casual brutality. It is something that we fear, but are drawn to. Few of us have ever heard a gunshot, or seen a corpse. Yet our news, our entertainment, the newspapers that we read and books that we enjoy are filled with senseless violence and play to our voyeuristic instincts.  We fear this violence, we shudder at the thought of it, yet, like the two boys, we cannot but help to be drawn to it.

The painting is huge and was recently restored in Italy. The figures are life size. It is the only painting that bears a Caravaggio signature. He has signed his name in the blood that flows from John the Baptist, perhaps in atonement for the violence, indeed murder, that he himself had perpetrated, according to historical records. Soon after completing this painting Caravaggio was once more involved in an incident of terrible violence.  He fled Malta, never to return.  A hunted man, he died soon after. 

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