The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

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Caravaggio, Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608
By SAI GONDI
Brutal...violent...and just downright Caravaggio.

Caravaggio portrays the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist, removing divine aspects commonly associated with religious works. The impulsive painter created this altar piece following his admittance into the Order of St. John while taking refuge in Malta. When The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was revealed to an audience of knights and nobleman, everyone gazed with an eye of eerie discomfort and brutality. Caravaggio takes a saintly figure and violently buries him into the Earth, evoking no sentiments of becoming closer with God or passage to Heaven. The muscular assassin seemingly pins John downward with no escape, turning this into a seemingly back alley murder in a dainty corner. Even the figures around the corpse, aside from the old woman, lack emotion standing next to a horrible act of murder. Caravaggio pushes the boundaries even further, signing "F. Michelan" in the spewing blood from John's neck. Some historians believe this is short for Fra Michelangelo, meaning Brother Michelangelo (his first name). Or, could he be comparing himself to one of the greats?

The composition is split by the dark brick column, part of the larger arch behind the figures. Caravaggio leaves a noticeable amount of excess space, all of which are somber browns and near blacks. The earthy color scheme helps John's piercing red cloak strike the viewer more intensely. In other Caravaggio paintings, he used red sheets to represent the transfer of a body from Earth to Heaven, however here its different. The murderer's foot pins the red cloak down, suppressing from John from advancing upward. The gory imagery of John being so heavily defeated seems ironic given Caravaggio intended this painting to go to the Order of St. John. Though, are we really surprised? Undeniably one of the most talented in history, Caravaggio's unpredictability and rebellious nature makes his works even more enjoyable to study. 

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