(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist1608
Oil on canvas, 361 x 520 cm
Saint John's Co-Cathedral, La Valletta
This is the most important painting that Caravaggio made in Malta. It is still in the Oratorio di San Giovanni (now St John Museum) in La Valletta. This is one of Caravaggio's most extraordinary creations, for many it is his greatest masterpiece. It is characterized by a magical balance of all the parts. It is no accident that the artist brings back into the painting a precise reference to the setting, placing behind the figures, as a backdrop, the severe, sixteenth century architecture of the prison building, at the window of which, in a stroke of genius, two figures silently witness the scene (the commentators are thus drawn into the painting, and no longer projected, as in the Martyrdom of St Matthew, toward the outside).
This is a final compendium of Caravaggio's art. Well-known figures return (the old woman, the youth, the nude ruffian, the bearded nobleman), as do Lombard elements. The technical means adhere to the deliberate, programmatic limitation to which Caravaggio adapts them; but amid these soft tones, these dark colours, is an impressive sense of drawing that the artist does not give up, and that is visible even through the synoptic glints of light of his late works. This eminently classical balance, which projects the event beyond contingency, unleashes a harsh drama that is even more effective to the extent that, having given up the "aesthetic of exclamation" forever, Caravaggio limits every external, excessive sign of emotional emphasis. The painter signed in the Baptist's blood: "f (perhaps to understood as fecit rather than frater) michela...". This is the seal he placed on what may well be his greatest masterpiece.
The painting, restored in Florence in the 1990s, is displayed in the in the Oratorio di San Giovanni Battista dei Cavalieri for which it was painted.