Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571 and died in 1610. He went to Milan and, in 1584, he started his apprenticeship in Simone Peterzano’s workshop, who pursued Mannerism. When he was in his twenties, he went to Rome, but his debut was difficult. Caravaggio went to work in Giuseppe Cesari’s workshop, better known as Cavaliere d’Arpino. However, the young painter left for Cardinal Francesco del Monte. He reacted against Mannerism, mostly by the attention he gave to his model’s poses. Indeed, he gave up studied poses. Caravaggio looked especially for light effects. The light comes from a side source from outside the canvas and lights up the essential elements of the composition. As a result, the scene is in a deep chiaroscuro so specific to Caravaggio. This light is there to enhance the volumes and forms but also to dramatize the scene.
As in his paintings, Caravaggio’s life was full of contrasts. His career as a known painter of the Church and his religious subjects differed completely from his personal life. He had a life of debauchery and violence. In 1606, during a fight with Ranuccio Tomassoni, he killed him. Caravaggio became a wanted man, and therefore left for Naples. In 1607-1608, the painter was in Malta and worked for the knights of the Order of Malta. He was knighted but, after another fight, Caravaggio was imprisoned and was discharged from the Order. Then Caravaggio had to run away again and decided to go back to Rome. It was at 38, having lost everything, burnt, and suffering from malaria, that he died on a beach in Latium. Caravaggio had no direct students but he left a great legacy.
This painting belongs to the last period of Caravaggio, when he was in Malta. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was painted in 1608. It was made for Saint John’s Oratory, where it still can be seen. This painting is the biggest Caravaggio ever painted and the only one he signed. The composition is made with an arc of a circle around the Baptist’s body. The scene seems frozen. The painter wants to bring to the foreground the group in front of the wall. Two men attend the event from the prison cell. Those men bring the viewer into the scene instead of taking him or her away. You can see the chiaroscuro on Saint John’s shoulder and the back of his executioner, Caravaggio highlights the importance of those characters. The horror is shown only by the woman holding her head between her hands. The rest of the scene is very sober, which goes along with the geometry of the composition. This restraint is specific to Caravaggio’s last period. The blood of Saint John creates a puddle in which Caravaggio signed. The place of the signature is a strong symbol, and it could be to show the expiation of the murder he committed, but it is more probable that this is the expression of the pride he felt after being knighted in the Order of Malta. The ironic part is that the ceremony for his discharge from the Order took place in the oratory, right in front of his chef-d’oeuvre.