Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Oil on canvas, 1608
361 cm × 520 cm (142 in × 205 in)
St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta
The most important painting that Caravaggio made in Malta considered by many to be his greatest masterpiece.
A magical balance of all the parts characterizes the piece. It is no accident that the artist brings into the painting precise reference to the setting, placing behind the figures as a back the severe 16th century architecture of the prison building. At the window two figures silently witness the scene, and the commentators are thus drawn into the painting. They are not projected toward the outside as Caravaggio painted in the Martyrdom of St. Matthew.
This is a final compendium of Caravaggio's art. Figures well-known to him 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 understood as fecit rather than frater) michela...". This is the seal he placed on what may well be his greatest masterpiece.