The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

The most famous painting on Malta is one done by Caravaggio called The Beheading of St. John which hangs in the Co-Cathedral of St.John. I have seen it and at first you don’t really understand what is so fantastical about this piece. It is well done but there is a quiet about the scene which puts a damper on an emotional reception from a viewer.

Please take a moment to look at the piece with this linkBeheading of St. John. I put it on a link because it is very large and you need to look at the detail about it so that you get a good idea of the composition and what the artist was trying to tell you.

First, this was a commissioned piece which Caravaggio did for the Knights of St. John who virtually ran the island of Malta and were headed by The Grand Master. I have been told that The Grand Master had the power to say mass and act as a priest though he had never taken Holy Orders. He was widely feared and never crossed. So, when Caravaggio was commissioned to do this painting, he happily accepted the job and put his most solemn attention to making a supremely well crafted “history painting”, the pinnacle of art at the time.

If you look carefully at The Beheading of St. John, you will notice that the canvas contains a great deal of empty space, all of the action taking place in the left half of the canvas. But, please consider that the canvas has been neatly divided into The Golden Proportion, the perfect composition for harmonious balance which is a guiding principle to this day in art!

The Golden Proportion divides a rectangle into a square and a bit left over. Then it divides the leftover bit into a square and a leftover, and it goes on and on like that. It is the same proportion as a Nautilus shell or the arrangement of sunflower seeds in the flowerhead. It is such a pleasure to look at and makes perfect visual sense, and so I think that Caravaggio used it to charm the Grand Master.

In addition to the Golden Rectangle, there are two triangular compositions breaking up the scene. The set of figures around the murdered saint forms a neat triangle, and the onlooker makes a triangular white figure against the black interior of the house, while forming a neat echoing Golden Rectangle square!

Please note the gazes and where they direct your gaze. This is one of the oldest techniques in painting and it still works a wonder. The figure in the window gasps at the knot of people who are killing St. John. Both hands and arms point to the action and almost force you to look at where they lead. Everyone of the figures around St. John has arms which point to the collapsed saint. One even points directly to the pan which will receive his head. However, there is one figure which does not follow the pointing and gaze, and that is the executioner, whose right arm is tucked behind his back with knife in hand ready to deliver the coup de grace and then decapitate John. It is that arm which is really the subject of the gesture of the figure in the window, which points to the concealed weapon! You can’t miss it, and the whole scene fairly shrieks “The Knife!”

I believe that it is the composition of the piece which starts the viewer out as an impartial witness to the scene of the martyrdom of St. John, and then with several deft uses of composition and light, the extreme drama of the scene seeps into your consciousness and the whole thing becomes compellingly gruesome and fascinating. A masterpiece to encourage meditation on the subject of St. John!

It is the only painting which Caravaggio signed and his signature is in the blood cascading from St. John’s body. Some people have opined that this was a form of atonement for killing a man in Italy but I think it was more of a dramatic gesture and one time when Caravaggio wanted to be remembered for what he had done.

Caravaggio would need the help of a powerful patron, and the backup of a group like the Knights of St. John. He killed a man and ended up notorious for his crimes. He had been made a Knight of St. John because of his service to them with this painting BUT his crimes caused the order to cast him out in less than a year of his being brought into it. He was expelled in a horrific manner by his brothers (including calling him a “putrid limb” which should be cut off in the ceremony of excommunication).

Isabella was well versed in art history, as a matter of fact she is very good at it. When she sees the Caravaggio she is immediately struck by its composition, a facet which eludes her lover, Stewart, who admires her ability to bring scientific points into artistic observations. Her ability to immediately recognize artistic merit is evident in her discovery of the Maltese Venus, too. Want to read Chapter 7 of Dark Matter and see what I am talking about? Here it is!

Chapter 7 of Dark Matter is
released at Possets.Get the intro at the blog, and then read the
story. Stewart and Isabella have run away in the mid 1800s to the Island
of Malta. After experiencing many astounding sights, Isabella makes a
shattering discovery!

Happy Halloween & Ch. 7 Of Dark Matter Is Released!

The Maltese VenusThe lovers are now alone with their lives and what has befallen them? Find out in the newest installment of Dark Matter. Stewart and Isabella have fled to Malta and are under the protection of the most powerful man on the island, Count Sir Doctor Luigi Preziosi. But can his aegis stop the forces of mainland society from intruding on our heroes? Should it?

As they settle into their lives in their villa in Hagar Qim, Isabella makes an astounding discovery. The photograph to the left is what she found, The Maltese Venus! This is a replica of a real Maltese fertility goddess statue, I wanted you to get a feel for the beauty of what Isabella found and how she could have become so immediately captivated by such a beautiful little object. So, see for yourself. Read Chapter 7 of Dark Matter! And, there are two new perfumes released along with the tale, one named Perpetual Orgasm which I think is apt. Find out! Happy Halloween!