The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608, oil on canvas, 361cm x 520cm.
This painting depicts the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist. It is the altar piece of the Oratory and was commissioned by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt and completed in 1608. It is the largest work Caravaggio painted and the only painting that bears the artist’s signature scrolled in the blood gushing from the Baptist’s cut throat. The painting is considered a masterpiece by Caravaggio. It shows his radical approach to naturalism which he combined with the close physical observation of the figures resulting in a composition that is both realistic and theatrical. The use of chiaroscuro that is, the extreme use of strong tonal contracts he introduced to painting for dramatic effect was an innovation that had a formative influence on Baroque painting.
Caravaggio depicts the saint at the moment of his martyrdom. The beheading of St John takes place in a prison courtyard. The saint is dragged out of his prison cell and executed by beheading on the orders of Herod Antipas because of the vengeful request by his step-daughter Salome and her mother. The lethal blow has already been struck. The executioner holds down the saint’s head to reveal the neck whilst the janitor instructs him to finish the job. An old woman clasps her head in horror covering her ears to block out the sound of tearing flesh and crushing bones. The young woman passively assists and holds a large salver to receive the head. Two prisoners look on intently contemplating their own faith.
This is one of Caravaggio’s most sensitive and realistic works. His focus is on the interpretation of the brutal execution without any form of divine intervention. This painting shows the development of Caravaggio’s late style when he was no longer concerned with the incidentals of the narrative but focused only on the essential human tragedy of the story.
Saint Jerome Writing, 1608, oil on canvas, 117cm x 157cm
Caravaggio was commissioned the painting depicting St Jerome directly from Fra Ippolito Malaspina, an important Italian Knight.
Caravaggio depicts the saint in a semi contrapposto placed against a dark background seated at the edge of his bed. Caravaggio selectively lights prominent parts of the saint’s forehead, torso and arm. All the constructive elements of the composition lead to the main theme of the painting that is the writing hand. St Jerome is known for his theological writings, the revision of the New Testament and translating the Old Testament into Latin. The sudden twist in his posture indicates a spontaneous wave of inspiration. On the table is one modest volume in which he writes the letter S. placed close to the edge of the table are a stone, a skull and a crucifix. They are important symbols of penance and contemplation. The candle is not lit and clearly not the source of illumination. The painting shows Caravaggio’s study of anatomy and its precise depiction. The dark background and the weathered skin of the saint’s face and hands contrast with the deep folds of his rich crimson gown.
The coat-of-arms emblazoned on the painting is of the Italian knight Fra Ippolito Malaspina. After his death, he bequeathed the painting to the chapel of Italy in the church of St John.