Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)

Born in Milan in September 1571, the artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, ranks amongst the most influential painters in the history of art. His paintings combined a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional with a theatrical use of light that gave his works a dramatic character. He was rebellious by nature and led a turbulent life. In May 1606 whilst working successfully in Rome, one of his many brawls resulted in Caravaggio killing a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni during a duel. The Roman authorities reacted swiftly by issuing a ‘bando capitale’ against him. Fearing for his life, Caravaggio fled and headed for Naples, outside the Roman jurisdiction. After a successful period in Naples where he was given a number of important church commissions, Caravaggio left for Malta. The island was the headquarters of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Caravaggio was encouraged to travel to Malta knowing that The Order was seeking a court painter. On 12 July 1607 he arrived on the island aboard a vessel of the Order. Caravaggio was soon accepted in the folds of the Order and on 14 July 1608, Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, accepted him as a Knight of Obedience.

Documents show that the Grand Master was fully aware of Caravaggio’s past, which should have impeded the artist from entering the Order. The Grand Master, however, had obtained unique papal permission to accept the artist within the Order. Whilst in Malta, Caravaggio painted ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ and ‘St Jerome Writing’, both of which are preserved in St John’s Co-Cathedral. During his Maltese sojourn, Caravaggio also painted a picture depicting a ‘Sleeping Cupid’ and the ‘Portrait of a Knight of Malta’ (Fra Antonio Martelli), both of which are today exhibited in The Pitti Palace, Florence. He also painted the ‘Portrait of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt with a Page’, displayed in the Louvre, Paris.

This period of relative calm in his life was short-lived, and by late August 1608, Caravaggio was in trouble once again, this time causing damage to the house of Fra Prospero Coppini, the organist of St John’s Church and wounding a Knight of Justice, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, Conte della Vezza. He was arrested and imprisoned in Fort St Angelo. Disgraced and unable to paint, Caravaggio did not wait for his trial but escaped from Malta. In a meeting of the Public Assembly held in the Oratory of St John’s Church on 1 December 1608, Caravaggio, in front of his masterpiece, the ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’ was “expelled and thrust forth like a rotten and fetid limb” from the Order.

St Jerome Writing

The Beheading of St John the Baptist