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The beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio

The beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio

The beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio, St John’s Co-Cathedral Valletta, Malta

The most recognised painting, by the most famous artist to ever work for the Knights of St John, is located in the Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta. The artist is none other than Michelangelo Merisi, popularly known as “Caravaggio”. The canvas, known as “The Beheading of St John”, is the largest he painted and the only one he signed. His signature, which is written in the blood that pours from the wound to St John’s head, is found at the base of the painting.


This passionate and volatile man was constantly in trouble and whilst in Rome he was challenged to a duel and killed a certain Tomassoni. Sentenced to death, he fled to Naples, met a Knight of the Order of St John and was given passage to Malta. On his arrival Grand Master Wignacourt summoned him and initiated him into the order because he needed an artist of some reputation to paint the altarpiece in The Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral. The painter’s 15 month stay in Malta is considered his most spiritually intense contribution to religious art.

Caravaggio is such an important artist because he is considered a watershed; pre Caravaggio paintings were in the high renaissance style, typified by idealised figures while post Caravaggio we see artists painting much more realistic scenes and portraits. Caravaggio was a fantastic observer of human nature and was able to weave both physical accuracy and socio-cultural aspects into his work through a number of techniques.

So what’s the story behind the picture? The Bible tells us that Herod, whilst drunk, witnessed Salome, his wife’s daughter, dance. Herod was so impressed with Salome that he granted her a wish. She, upon the insistence of her mother, demanded the head of John the Baptist and the rest is history.

the-beheading-of-st-john-the-baptist-by-caravaggio-faces_miniIn this painting the action is not finished. Activity is still happening and Caravaggio manages to capture movement in a still painting. St John is being dragged out of his prison cell and is in the process of having his head severed in the courtyard. Youth and vitality, represented by the young maiden who waits patiently to collect the separated head, is contrasted with elderliness and decline, typified by the old lady who looks aghast, perhaps holding her ears to muffle the sound of breaking bone. The jailor points at the task on hand and beckons the executioner to complete his task. Light and darkness draw the observer towards the action in the foreground, with only a cursory insight into life in the prison as two inmates watch the spectacle from afar and remind us that they too like us are witnesses to an astonishing event. This technique of using light and darkness is called chiaroscuro, meaning interplay of light and darkness and gives his images depth. There are no halos, John isn’t attended by angels; there’s no sign of redemption, just raw human expression, feelings – naked realism and no romanticism that accompanied many religious works completed by earlier artists. Making us feel angst is what he does and the fact that the final act of barbarism is still to come keeps the characters in this picture very much alive.

Caravaggio is revered because his paintings are stories and these stories are alive and people can identify with them. He shares his visions and we feel the scenes.

After getting in trouble in Malta he fled to Tuscany where he mysteriously died in 1610 at the age of 39, most probably poisoned by the lead found in paint.


Focus on Fluency

  • watershed (n) – something that separates one period from another
  • aghast (adj) – in horror
  • beckons (v) – to summon
  • halo (n) – a ring of light that surrounds the head of holy people
  • redemption (n) – the action of being saved
  • angst (n) – the feeling of fear
  • barbarism (n) –  extreme cruelty
  • revered (v) – feel deep respect or admiration


Simon Vincenti - ESE Malta Author: Simon Vincenti

About the Author:
Simon Vincenti is the Academic Year Course Administrator at ESE.
His interests include rugby and Maltese history.