issue 17 :: August 2010

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ART: Off With Their Heads

Caravaggio's Cephalophobic Obsession

Caravaggio — I feel silly explaining as if you don't know Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio — was the most influential and imitated European painter in the first decades of the seventeenth century. Peter Robb's M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio starts with the premise that all the rumors about him were true—pederast, drunkard, gambler, sword fighter, murderer, blasphemer—and seeks to fill in the blanks. Not all historians agree with that particular storyline, but it makes for an entertaining read. These same historians acknowledge Caravaggio's genius and his death at an early age deprived the world of unknown masterpieces. While reading through my second or third book about him, I was suddenly struck by the number of his paintings that feature beheadings and decapitations. I'm by no means well versed in pre-twentieth century art—in fact part of my initial interest in Caravaggio was to gain some critical knowledge of pre-modern art. Surely other painters of the time didn't paint so many beheadings, did they? Caravaggio's collected output is not so large; these eleven paintings seem to point to a perverse obsession. Note — the dates of paintings are not exact, and follow from Vittorio Sgarbi's 2007 book.
Sacrifice of Isaac (1596?) — not a beheading scene exactly: Abraham is in the process of moving his knife to his son’s neck when an angel stops him. Presumably, Abraham would have slit the neck in ritual slaughter, but with Caravaggio calling the shots, Isaac’s head would have ended up on the floor. The ram looks on in disbelief: "if Isaac is not to be sacrificed, then who... damn." A 1605 version of this theme has the figures in an entirely different pose, not quite as horrific, with a gleeful ram ready to jump upon the altar.
sacrafice of isaac



Medusa (1598?) — blood squirts out of the bottom of Medusa’s head in the moment of decapitation. There is no background or context in this painting, not even the hand of Perseus holding the gorgon horror, just Medusa’s horrific squeal of pain and jets of blood.
Judith and Holofernes (1598?) — another squirter, we see Holofernes’ cry of agony mid-slice, blood ruining the bed sheets as Judith’s distasteful wince seems to say “I am not cleaning this up.”
judith and holofernes
david and goliath 1
David and Goliath (1599) — David bends over to string up the head of the giant Philistine, whose facial expression appears to be still alive, resigned to a bodiless fate. Supposedly x-ray imaging reveals an earlier version beneath with a more realistic expression of pain.
Saint Francis in Meditation (1603) — not a beheading scene exactly: Francis holds a fleshless skull in his best Poor Yorick pose (Hamlet coincidentally written only a couple of years before). Skulls appear in other Caravaggio works featuring Francis and Jerome, but this is the only one to have the skull being held, emphasizing its bodilessness.
Saint Francs in Meditation (1603)
David with the Head of Goliath
David with the Head of Goliath (1607) —The young David carries Goliath’s head, his arm stretched out as if to keep the giant head as far from him as possible. It can also be read as David lifting the head into the air to bat it with his sword, as a baseball player would at practice. David as the inventor of baseball? I’d buy that.

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (1606) — Salome’s look is strangely neutral, as if she is trying not to think about carrying a head on a literal silver platter.

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (1606)
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) — Caravaggio’s largest painting, it depicts John on the ground, bleeding from the neck, as his executioner changes from sword to knife to finish the job. A helpful onlooker points to a basket where the head should be deposited.
Burial of Saint Lucy (1608) — A crowd gathers around as two workers dig Lucy’s grave. According to x-ray photography, originally Lucy was decapitated as she lay in front of the crowd. In the finished version, her head rejoins her body with just a slight neck wound. Did the commissioner of the painting, a church dedicated to Lucy, ask for the change? The myth is that she was stabbed in the neck and her eyes poked out, not as exciting as decapitation. Note how Lucy's face looks like a wooden mask and so unlike the detailed expressions (even in the decapitated heads) of the other paintings here. Could this have been a rushed fix up by Caravaggio, Mario Minniti (former model and student of Caravaggio who was instrumental in generating the commission), or the church itself?
Burial of Saint Lucy
Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist
Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (1609) — a slightly different version from the 1606 painting of the same name. This version looks like a more typical Caravaggio work. Salome still looks away from the head, which is not only on the platter, but being held aloft by the executioner. Salome is more concerned with collecting the juices than carrying the head.
David with the Head of Goliath (1610) — considered to be Caravaggio’s last completed work before his mysterious death. Seemingly hastily painted, blood gushing out of the mortal wound; it is commonly held that Caravaggio himself was the model for Goliath. David with the Head of Goliath
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