Episode 8 | Martyrdom | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London

Episode 8 | Martyrdom | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London


For this episode on the martyrdom of John
the Baptist, I thought we had to come here to Malta to the oratory of the Knights of
Malta to look at Caravaggio’s extraordinary over life-size representation of the beheading
of the Baptist, which he painted in 1608. He actually came to Malta, he fled Rome, he
had been accused of murder, came to Malta, came under the protection of the Knights and
then was actually made a Knight of the Order himself. It’s very likely that he painted
this just in time for the feast day of the Beheading of John the Baptist. So it must
have been unveiled for August 29th. The other great feast day of the Baptist.
The birthday is celebrated in mid-summer and then the death day in late August. And the subject of John the Baptist is obviously
one that’s particularly appropriate because John is a patron saint of the Knights of Malta
and the Knights were traditionally always associated with the sacred holy places where
John preached, where he was buried and so forth. And they were also responsible for
the preservation of relics and of John’s relics in particular, so this is a very important
person. He’s really their saint. Precisely. So you can see why this would be
so appropriate for their Oratory. And it’s extraordinary, the composition that Caravaggio’s
made here with John actually front and centre but actually being pushed down by the executioner
who’s sort of essentially stepping on him and you can see he’s begun the execution.
Do you see? He’s used the sword, he’s placed it on the ground and he’s now reaching for
a dagger on his side and he’s about to finish off the job. Here on the left presumably we have Salome
with her dish ready to receive that head. That’s a reminder of the fact that there’s
been a very dramatic series of events before this very dramatic event. John’s been imprisoned
by King Herod for his very public criticism of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who was the
wife of Herod’s brother. During the time of John’s imprisonment, Herod has a banquet to
celebrate his birthday and Herodias’s daughter, who isn’t given a name in the New Testament
but who we know from other sources is called Salome, dances for the king. And he’s so entranced
by the dance that he offers her anything she wants; up to half of his kingdom. She checks
it out with her mother and the mother says, “Ask for the head of John,” and that’s what
she does. And at least one of the accounts Herod is rather disturbed by this but he grants
the wish. We get delivered to this point in the story. We know that very soon Salome will
return to the banquet with the head on its salver to the various reactions, astonished
reactions, of the guests I imagine. The fact that Caravaggio has shown John in
the position that he has, to me it almost echoes the idea of a bound animal; a sacrificial
lamb, which is very powerful because Christ Himself is interpreted often as a sacrificial
lamb and indeed it is John who describes him as the lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, which is
a hugely important text in the Christian liturgy. Often sung, in fact. That sends that this
is an anticipation of Christ’s ownsacrifice. John is the only Christian saint who dies
before Christ does and here it’s almost as if he’s participating in Christ’s death in
advance. You can imagine actually when mass is being
celebrated and the chalice is placed on the altar. It’s almost as if it’s catching up
John’s blood, not Christ’s blood but in anticipation of Christ’s blood. And something for Caravaggio
that he focuses in on that blood in particular. It’s front and center together with John,
but actually if you look just to the right, you’ll see that Caravaggio has actually signed
his name in the blood and this is the only signed picture by Caravaggio. Rather extraordinarily
he signs it F. Michaelangelo. F probably for Fra or Frate. He’s probably proclaiming his
new status as a member of the Knights of the Order. It helps us date this painting as well.
Unfortunately, he’s then part of this larger altercation with others of his fellow knights
and he’s actually imprisoned for that. So life imitates art at that point. Precisely. He’s imprisoned here on Malta,
in St. Angelo and he flees. You can imagine to the dismay of the knights, the military
knights in the order of Malta, and he flees to Naples. His biographer Bellori says that
in Naples, sort of in expiation for his sins in fact, he paints a painting very related
to the scene that actually represents Salome holding the head of the Baptist on the platter
and he, Caravaggio, then sent it back to Malta to the Grand Master in hope of reconciliation. To make amends. That may well be the painting that we have
in the National Gallery today. But that will be the focus on one of our other episodes. I’m very struck as we look at this drama that
Caravaggio has painted for us a sort of audience to it in the form of these two other prisoners
who are craning their necks at the window of their cell to see what’s going on. It heightens
the sense that this is a drama with an audience. Absolutely, they become witnesses to this
horrific event much in the way that we the beholders standing in front of this altarpiece
are witnesses to this very moment in John’s death. And really after Caravaggio paints
this altarpiece in 1608, other artists pick up the subject. It becomes extremely popular
for centuries afterwards. For example, a French painter in the National Gallery collection,
Puvis de Chavannes paints almost the exact same subject and really picks up on the drama
initiated let’s say by Caravaggio but for very different reasons and to different ends.
So whereas Caravaggio is picking up on these liturgical aspects that you mentioned, Puvis
de Chavannes’ painting looks far more like the backdrop for a theatrical set. So when
we get back to London we should have a look at that. Ben, this is Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes’
rather monumental and unfinished canvas he painted around 1869. And it’s quite interesting
in this time period, towards the end of the 19th century, this subject, the beheading,
the martyrdom of John the Baptist, became exceptionally popular with artists, be they
poets, playwrights, composers. And there were figures like Flaubert and Malraux writing
about this subject, Oscar Wilde producing stage plays on the theme. Then Strauss picking
that up and composing one act operas. More interestingly perhaps for us is that increasing
prominence of the figure of Salome. She becomes a major character in all of these versions
of the story. Absolutely, yes. It’s as though a certain
sort of 19th century Romanticism spills over into a fascination with the femme fatale,
the seductress. Some of the elements of this story that are actually not terribly near
the surface frankly in the biblical account are explored imaginatively by these artists
and it has almost a fairy tale atmosphere, this painting. But that works in a way because
there’s a self-contained quality to this story of the Baptist imprisonment, the feast, the
dance and the death. It can be lifted quite neatly out of the biblical narrative and given
a presentation in its own right. It’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, a very dramatic
end. Absolutely. I always imagine that these figures
are actually fully self-contained. They all seem so completely absorbed in their own world.
So, even though they are functioning as an ensemble cast in a way they’re also focused
in their very own concern with this moment. Yes. The Baptist himself is absorbed, it seems
to me, is absorbed by the cross, which floats almost weightlessly up from his left hand. He hardly seems to be holding it. He hardly seems to be holding it. And yet
in turning to the cross and contemplating it again with this sense of almost quiet submission,
at the same time rather movingly he’s exposing his neck to the executioner. So his turn to
the cross is at the same time his willing acceptance of the blow. What do you make of
the face of Salome? It’s very hard to read. To me I read that as sort of ambivalent. She’s
neither horrified nor smug and satisfied as we do see her in other representation sometimes.
And that sort of thoughtful, questioning gesture that she’s making and the way she’s holding
the salver, the platter, strictly close to her body there. She’s not holding it out to
accept the head. It’s still very close to her. So it still seems to be sort of moment
of indecision And in some of the 19th century versions of
the story. She’s in love with John the Baptist, so there’s a sense in which she might desire
his end but also not. Yes. In later versions of the story it becomes
a tale of unrequited love. And yes, John doesn’t return her affections. So she is the one;
not Herodias nor Herod, is the one who orders the Baptist’s death. Interestingly the representation
here and the quite peculiar inclusion of her as a redhead, we haven’t seen that before,
it seems to be actually that this figure of Salome may well be a portrait of Puvis de
Chavannes’ mistress. She was a princess, in fact she was Princess Cantacuzène whom he
later married. The idea of including one’s mistress as Salome is quite provocative. Equally,
the figure of Herod here making that thumb gesture may well be a portrait also of an
author called Anatole France. And I suppose it shows how the imaginative
identification with the story went all the way to almost sort of dressing up and joining
in with the story and acting it in some way. I’m very touched by that fallen fig leaf.
This tree is almost denuded of its leaves and there’s almost a sense of both lost innocence,
the fig leaf falling away. And even more than that a sense that this is an anticipation
of the head tha t’s about to fall as the executioner’s sword swings. Absolutely. Interestingly representations
of the head of the Baptist on a salver is something that takes on an entire new life
of its own and actually that’s something we’re going to explore in the next episode.

2 Replies to “Episode 8 | Martyrdom | Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading | National Gallery, London”

  1. I understand from the booklet from the Cathedral that the woman with the tray for John's head is Salome's servant.

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