Caravaggio in Malta

Caravaggio’s greatest painting is located in the Oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta: The Beheading of St. John (1608). It is a painting that I have never seen and I did not include it in my first art book, 149 Paintings You Really Need to See in Europe (So You Can Ignore the Others). I should have.

There is another painting by Caravaggio of great merit in the same church — St. Jerome Writing. It, too, is quite striking but I want to concentrate on The Beheading of St. John (page 9).

St. Jerome Writing, Malta

St. Jerome Writing, Malta


Caravaggio was a sensation during his time as an active artist but successive generations ignored him and he was certainly not an influence in the time of the impressionists. In 1950 a retrospective of his work was exhibited in Rome. It attracted great attention and created a wide audience for his work. A film was made of his life and his adventures and he became a popular figure to the general public. Now this man is paramount in reputation.

I want to explain first why he was revolutionary and why his work was striking.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucifixion of St. Peter
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1600–1601
Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Michelangelo Merisi was born in Caravaggio in 1571. He was successful, and was courted by the church, but all through this stream of success he was embroiled in a litany of repeated violence. His life is well documented in police records. He fought a duel, killed a man, fled Rome, joined the Knights of Malta, insulted a superior, was jailed, escaped, received a papal pardon, and died of a malignant fever while returning to Rome in 1610.

The Conversion of St. Paul

The Conversion of St. Paul
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1600–1601
Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Today Caravaggio is considered one of the foremost baroque artists, arguably the finest painter of his time, certainly a painter who communicates with the modern viewer. But he was not embraced by the art critics until the 1950s. His paintings were contentious. In the view of John Ruskin, the great English art critic of the nineteenth century, Caravaggio fed “upon horror and ugliness and filthiness of sin” and he was “among the worshippers of the depraved.” Bernard Berenson, the legendary art critic of the 1940s and 1950s, wrote that “he was quick tempered and bad tempered, intolerant, envious, jealous, spiteful, quarrelsome, a street brawler, a homicide and perhaps a homosexual.”

Why the furor?

In 1600 there were two conventions for artists. Art should represent ideal beauty, perfect proportion, and classical decorum. Also, a finished canvas should rely on many preparatory drawings. Caravaggio painted directly on canvas without elaborate planning and preparatory drawing. Not a single one of his drawings exists today.

However, he turned the art world upside down by placing at centre stage the poor, the labourer, and the servant as saints. This ran against the convention of the time. There are no cherubs, no delicate rendition of religious tranquillity.

The Conversion of St. Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter are in the Cerasi family chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. They are opposite each other and hard to see unless you put money in a light box which illuminates the scene.

The Conversion of St. Paul was a popular theme for artists of the Renaissance.

Saul, a soldier on the way to Damascus to continue his persecution of Christians, was struck by a blinding light. He fell off his horse, hit the ground, had a vision of Jesus, and became the Apostle Paul.

Here Paul is frozen in a camera flash, with an ordinary horse methodically sidestepping to avoid him as he is whumped on his back, arms in a V, subject to the quizzical look of the horse’s attendant. All very natural, yet there is a sense of electric shock in Paul. The Conversion is swarming in Paul’s head, miles away.

Other renditions portray crowds, as Saul was part of a march, a blinding light, horses rearing, cowering soldiers, and perhaps an image of Christ. In short, chaos. (For instance Bruegel’s Conversion of St. Paul in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.)

Here the colour of the horse is difficult to capture in words, a subtle confluence of browns, greys, creams, and running black — a dappled dreamy off-brown, but the horse’s silky shanks are etched in my memory.

Maybe I’m in love with the cocoa colour of the pinto horse’s flank, the white of the horse’s shank and shoulder setting off the creamy chocolate syrup of the sleek belly, as well as the sense of quiet stillness with the attendant caring for the horse, a sensible thing, so it doesn’t skitter and trample Paul. The details of the attendant’s huge hand on the horse’s bit, his veined legs, bigger than the horse’s, his big dirty toenail, his knobbly toe, all real. No stamping, rearing horses here as a result of the focused purpose of a trainer doing his primary job.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter is a portrait of strain and awkward discomfort, three sinewy workmen methodically doing their job, unconcerned about Peter. One can feel the workmen spit in their callused hands while heaving to the menial task of nailing Peter’s hands and feet.

St. Peter — dirty feet, a heavy power, straining up — is awkward, aggressive, yet looking to some far-off place where he can escape this excruciating torture. He is alone, at the end of his life, yet looking both past and forward. How can an artist capture such an elusive concept with mere paint?

There is a problem that begins to niggle. St. Peter has a huge rusty nail through his left hand and I assume beyond my vision a corresponding dirty spike through his right palm plus one through each foot. Yikes! I know he is a martyr, but surely he should be shrieking himself silly and his effort to roll up must be tearing his right hand. Where’s the pain?

I see Peter saying, “Oh Lord, what have I got myself into?” A resignation surrounded by carpenters’ hands and filthy feet.

Is this painting so improbable that it shouldn’t be revered?

Other artists were shocked and stimulated by Caravaggio.


Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1600–1604
Pinacoteca, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Christ’s feet caked with blood. Joseph, dirty feet, lowering Christ, clearly dead, neither of great weight nor light, with all about as tender as workmen could be. The white linen wrap forms the picture as it spirals down and around Christ.

Michelangelo’s Pietà was the accepted model of dead Jesus, slender and graceful with a young mother. Caravaggio here was competitive. The Madonna is old. Christ’s body is not delicate at all, heavy-veined, dirty feet, big hip bone. John’s fingers press on Christ’s wound. Christ is brusquely handled. All this was new.

Supper At Emmaus

Supper At Emmaus
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, c. 1606

Caravaggio is difficult, but his Supper at Emmaus, all dark and hardly protruding, is a true masterwork. He uses darkness as a revelation. The Caravaggio is hard to come to terms with, as you need time to incorporate the dirty fingers, the sceptical waiter.

This may well be the king of the litter in the Brera. His Supper at Emmaus in London (1602) is not as subtle as this.

Death of the Virgin

Death of the Virgin
Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1605
Louvre, Paris

This painting is just before a large marble urn in the middle of the long hall of the Grande Galerie in the Denon wing of the Louvre, on the right.

Caravaggio was the master of shock. That was his trade. He used models from the street. The model for this Virgin was most probably a prostitute. The Carmelites, who commissioned this, were not happy and refused the painting because the Virgin’s model was a courtesan and the picture was “compromised by its lasciviousness and lack of decorum.”

Today you might think we are used to this. But maybe not so. According to a 2003 guide put out by the Louvre, Centre Pompidou, and Musée d’Orsay,

According to Catholic tradition, the Mother of God does not suffer death: she falls asleep and is borne to heaven to be crowned by her risen Son. The wretched model Caravaggio employed, her face bloated as if she’d drowned, has visibly experienced physical death; this time it is the tears of the apostles that are sacrilegious. Will the miracle take place? Is this a sacred scene at all?


The hand of the Virgin on her distended belly, at rest at last. Her face is tired; it has seen much of a gritty life. The nape of the weeping woman’s neck (in front) as she hunches over is a naked sight, almost erotic. The Virgin’s feet are spread in an inelegant pose with swollen ankles.

The red curtain above seems to put a lid over the boiling pot of grief. This is a portrait of actual death and immediate shock.

The Beheading of St. John (1608) – Malta

The Beheading of St. John


Carravagio died young   at the age of 38 in 1610. In 1607 he went to Malta. It is somewhat complicated but he had friends of sufficient power that he was in a position to become a knight of the Order of St. John which were headquartered in Malta. In return for this honour he agreed to paint The Beheading of St. John, a work over 10 feet high and more than 15 feet across.

As I said above, I have not seen The Beheading of St. John and I usually would not write about a painting I haven’t seen so I am partially relying on a well respected author, Andrew Graham-Dixon, and his book Caravaggio, A Life Sacred and Profane, Allen Lane/Penguin Group, [England, 2010].

There is some history you should be aware of concerning Malta and the Turks. In 1565 a massacre by the Turks of captured Christians occurred on the feast day of St. John (June 24th). The Knights of St. John were a very aggressive military force of the Christian Church. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had given the military order of St. John a home in Malta in 1530.

You are all aware of Salome asking King Herod for the head of John the Baptist, beheaded in his prison. The head arrived on a platter given to Salome.

This painting doesn’t have Salome in it. As you can see it is a gloomy courtyard with two prisoners watching behind the barred window. St. John lies on a sheepskin, the symbolism being that he is a blessed Christian lamb delivered for sacrifice.

This painting was for the benefit of the novices of the Order of St. John and it was a chilling message that if you were a knight you might die without dignity. There isn’t any dignity as the executioner has, as Dixon says, “botched the job”. St. John may still be living, the blood flowing, the executioner’s large workman hand steadying the head. The red drapery clashes against the white of the butcher’s back and the blue cape of the Turkish jailer who is directing the operation and pointing rather stupidly at the golden plate.

The plate is held by a serving girl, although there is one influential critic who takes the position that this is a portrait of Salome but considering the mode of her dress and bearing, she isn’t a lead player in this drama.

Dixon says of the servant girl who has been sent to collect the head:

Her pose has an eloquent woodenness about it. She is trying her best to carry out a task that appals her, affecting a mechanical workaday demeanour that the expression on her face belies. She stares fixedly down at the plate in her hands, pursing her lips like somebody desperately stifling the impulse to puke.

My take on it is as follows.

The grief of the old woman is, I would think, accentuated by the grim back-drop.

This painting is a stage of quick and ugly death. Hence the shocking white of the butcher’s arm set against the massive stones of the arch that represent the power of institutions and the rabble. The fascination of the two prisoners behind bars is a portrait of spectator sport. The bent howl of the old lady is an operatic chorus. Here is raw murder and yet it doesn’t have the passion of the usual portrayal of murder. Perhaps it’s the clinical, methodical carpentry aspect that shocks. Saints don’t die pretty.

The artist has spelled out “F. Michelangelo” inscribed in the blood of St. John the Baptist. This is the only example of the artist’s signature. The “F” stands for Fra, the official prefix of any Knight of St. John. Caravaggio used his signature with Fra to eliminate his own mortal sin of murder.

It’s complicated as to why Caravaggio left Malta but he was proceeding back to Rome. In that journey he engaged in another fracas and was jailed. Somehow he got out of jail. He died en route to Porto Ercole, close to Rome, exhausted trying to reach a boat that was carrying his paintings.

Caravaggio is opera. He is rarely subtle. I envy you seeing this painting. I know you will be moved by its bleak drama.

Julian Porter

P.S. If you are interested in North American art you might enjoy my new book, co-authored with Stephen Grant who used to be with Gowling WLG, entitled 149 Paintings You Really Need to See in North America (So You Can Ignore the Others).