“Salome receives the head of John the Baptist”, Caravaggio, 1609-10, National Gallery London. Caravaggio painted John the Baptist, again and again. There are at least 11 paintings that show John as a young boy or an adolescent posed in the wilderness, as if he were waiting for the moment when he would utter his great cry for repentance and Christ would appear. On 28th May 1606, Caravaggio killed a man in a brawl in Rome and left the city in haste. With a price on his head in Rome, he fled south from the Papal States to Naples, which was then under Spanish control. In this different jurisdiction he received a welcome and also several commissions. From there, he went to Malta and gained the patronage of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, who commissioned him to paint the martyrdom of John the Baptist. This is the famous painting now at La Valletta. The Oratory where it still hangs is dedicated to St John the Baptist. However, things went far from smoothly. By the time of its unveiling, on 29th August 1608, the Feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, Caravaggio had gained a Papal Pardon and had become a Knight, but, then, he had got into more trouble, was expelled from the Knights, was imprisoned, had escaped , and went on the run, heading back north towards Rome. In this period, he would paint Salome with the head of the Baptist at least twice. He also painted a very poignant David holding the head of Goliath with his own features on the severed head. Many of his other works from these final years , speak more of of tragedy than violence and he is clearly preoccupied with death. This is the context of the London “Salome receives the head of John the Baptist”. The executioner takes up half the canvas, as with his right hand he holds up the severed head. His left hand is on his sword. But his expression suggests that he is moved by the tragic fate of the man. Salome holds out the metal platter to receive the head, but averts her eyes. There is no sense of triumph in these two protagonists of the Baptist’s death. . The victory of Herodias, is not theirs. They would seem to want to distance themselves from it. The elderly serving woman with wrinkled skin is there, perhaps, to emphasise the youth, beauty and innocence of this girl who has got caught up in her mother’s evil plot. In the old woman’s stare there is knowledge, as if this is not the first severed head she has seen. There is another version of this scene, now in the Royal Collection in Madrid, which is probably also from these years. In it the two women are in the same pose. In both, with the play of light and shadow, Caravaggio suggests a kind of two-headed monster, in which youthful innocence and knowing old age are strangely juxtaposed, as if, perhaps, this girl’s experience has gone beyond what should be the case for one so young. It seems to me, at least, that to some extent, Caravaggio identified with the Baptist, both in the early days when his star was rising and in the latter days when his own death stalked him.
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