30 April 2015

Two paintings by Caravaggio in Saint John's Co-Cathedral

I visited the island state of Malta during the last week of March to attend a meeting on biosphere reserves organized by UNESCO and the national committees of Jeju and Menorca Biosphere Reserves. On the third day of the conference, we had a chance to cross over by ferry to Gozo Island until lunchtime, and later, to go around the capital city of Valletta.

At St. John's Co-Cathedral (there are two cathedrals named St. John) one looks up with awe at ceiling paintings forming a mosaic of Biblical themes. Surely, these frescoes are divinely inspired.

At the right side, one enters a door opening to a small room whose centerpiece is a large Caravaggio. "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist" (1608) depicts the anticlimactic yet still riveting moment when the prophet's head was about to be cut off and put on a plate to be offered to Salome. This painting, the largest canvas ever painted by the master, is a fine piece of chiaroscuro. The combined gestures of the participants even after the murder of a man can produce a vertiginous sensation or asphyxia on the viewer. The horrified fascination of the two men looking out the window at the right was evident not from their faces but from the bent angles of their upper bodies. The commanding finger of the bearded man pointing down to the plate where the head will be exhibited was a menacing figure of authority if only because of the leisurely pose of his legs and his (hidden) left arm on his waist. The young lady at the left already stooped so low, bending in advance to receive the head. The old lady with hands on her face antedating Edvard Munch's The Scream by close to 300 years.

This is only one among numerous painted decapitations that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) produced in his short, chaotic life, notable not only for the size of the canvas, but for the painter's signature writ from the blood that flowed from Saint John's slit head. The artist's statement cries out loud here. Art not only as a vehicle for self-immolation, the fictional insertion of the destroyed self, but also the supreme sacrifice of death (however metaphoric) in the service of some personal, and hence, political, vision of apocalypse. The death of man at the hands of another is a subject worth dying for in literal blood.

Another much smaller painting, also by Caravaggio, is placed at the opposite side of the room. Saint Jerome Writing shows the heroic figure of an old man writing on a desk. The man's demeanor, his emaciated body, and the skull on the table, convey an intimation of mortality and death.

A recently unearthed earlier Caravaggio painting, this time of Saint Augustine, shows the same motifs of concentrated gaze, writing, skull, and a dark background. The saints, writing in repose or bled to death by a sword, have captured for the painter the intensity of feelings, of the immediacy of life and the nearness of death.