(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist

Oil on canvas, 91 x 167 cm
National Gallery, London

On his way back to Rome Caravaggio returned to Naples. This harsh late work has none of the beauty of some of the late Sicilian pictures, such as the altarpiece stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, and it may reflect the assault Caravaggio endured in the Osteria del Cerriglio in the city. A sense of the tired mood of one aware of the pointlessness of a ruthless vendetta pervades the painting.

The Baptist has been executed for denouncing Salome's mother Herodias over her illicit marriage with Herod. Caravaggio uses the device of planting two heads - Salome's and her maid's (or her mother's) - so close together that they seem to grow out of one body as the contrasting stages of youth and age. This had been a trait of Leonardo's, and the way that the head of St John is presented to the spectator recalls a picture by Leonardo's pupil Luini, whose Salome also looks away from her victim. The executioner takes no joy in what he has been commanded to do. He feels only a stunned emotion in keeping with the sombre tones that Caravaggio adopts.

You can view other depictions of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 15 minutes):
Richard Strauss: Salome, closing scene