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VALETTA, Malta — A street fight broke out in the Roman night of May 28th, 1606; weapons were drawn, and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s sword sliced through the thigh of a young pimp named Ranuccio Tomassoni, severing the artery. Caravaggio ran off with a grievous head wound, and Tomassoni bled to death. That’s as much as anyone can agree on.
Whether the fight arose over a trivial bet on a tennis match, sparked by years of bad blood, or whether Caravaggio’s cut to Tomassoni’s leg was meant to humiliate and not kill, or whether the blade was aimed at the groin as a symbolic (or even attempted) castration, the result was the same: the bando capitale, a sentence handed down by the Borghese pope, Paul V (the notorious persecutor of Galileo), granting license to anyone in the papal territories to kill the painter and present his decapitated head as proof that justice was done.
A few days later, Caravaggio fled Rome, with rumors of appearances in Florence, Modena, and the Lazio town of Paliano. Within four months he had arrived in Naples, and by July 1607, he was living in Valetta on the island fortress of Malta, where he sought the protection of the Knights of the Brotherhood of Saint John, with the hope of being admitted to their Order and thus obtaining a papal pardon.
As usual with Caravaggio, the history is murky, but some believe that the artist’s largest work — “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” (1607–1608), which is installed, now as it was then, in the oratory of the city’s Cathedral of Saint John — was painted as a form of passagio, the not-inconsiderable admission fee paid to the Knights by applicants to the Order.
Whatever the machination, on July 14th, 1608, Caravaggio succeeded in joining the non-celibate Knights of Obedience. As a point of pride, he added the letter “f” for “fra” (“brother”) before his name at the bottom center of the canvas — tellingly, the only signature of his career — painted as if it were formed by the pool of the Baptist’s blood.
It was in front of this painting that the Knights gathered on December 1st, less than five months after his induction, to expel the artist from the Order — like a “putrid and fetid limb,” as every biography will tell you — following his audacious escape from the impregnable Fort Saint Angelo, where he had been thrown into a bell-shaped dungeon for assaulting (in some accounts, shooting) a fellow Knight.
The artist resurfaced in Siracusa, Sicily, where he was promptly commissioned to paint “The Burial of Saint Lucy” (1608) for the city’s newly refurbished Church of Santa Lucia alla Badia. He later traveled to Messina, where he completed two other major commissions, “The Raising of Lazarus” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (both 1609).
These four paintings, along with “Saint Jerome Writing” (c.1607–1608), which hangs opposite “The Beheading of Saint John” in the oratory of Valetta’s cathedral, are the only Caravaggios to be found on permanent view in Sicily and Malta (a sixth canvas, “Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence,” c.1600-1609, was stolen from Palermo’s Oratory of San Lorenzo in 1969).
Together they form a time capsule of the artist’s life during a period of relative (and the operative word is relative) calm between his tumultuous sojourns in Naples. Within a year of finishing his last commission in Messina, Caravaggio was dead.
The paintings of Saint Jerome and of the Adoration are pierced by crystalline beams of light, freeing their figures from the surrounding darkness, while the actors in the other three, depicting by turns a murder, a burial, and a resurrection, seem to be losing their battle with the shadows.
“The Raising of Lazarus” and “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” hanging on adjacent walls in their own darkened gallery in Messina’s Museo Regionale, are both exercises in diagonals, one ascending and the other descending, but both ostensibly terminating in signs of hope.
In “The Adoration,” the ragtag group of shepherds stand, sit, and kneel in a downward-slanting line from right to left, in veneration of the Christ Child, cradled by a reclining Mary. This straightforward movement, reflecting the imagery’s straightforward sentiment, makes it the less interesting of the two paintings, despite the solidity and brilliance of its forms.
“Lazarus” is also anchored by a right-to-left diagonal in the form of the rigid, eponymous, nearly naked corpse, but its movement is offset by a countervailing directional from left to right. In contrast to the single element of the dead body, this diagonal is fragmented into a welter of details: the faces and bodies of gawkers jostling for a glimpse of the exhumed body or turning toward the figure of Christ, who raises his arm to point a finger at Lazarus — in a mirror image of the pointing finger in the artist’s “Calling of Saint Matthew” (1599–1600) — commanding him to return to life.
This is where complications set in, thanks to the ambiguities implicit in the shadows. The murkiness (and this is a particularly darkened painting) all but swallows Jesus, whose head, sans halo, is cast in complete darkness, a seemingly heretical reversal of Christ’s own words: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (KJV, John 8:12).
But that is hardly as disturbing as the treatment Caravaggio accords Lazarus, whose left arm is apparently stiffened with rigor mortis, and perhaps the right arm, too, even if such an interpretation would fly in the face of the work’s premise. Caravaggio was suspected of being a nonbeliever, and this painting could supply ample evidence to the charge.
The uplifted right arm — the only sign that Lazarus is alive — sets the body into a cruciform pose, presaging Jesus’s own death and resurrection, but it is barely visible on the canvas, sinking into the empty, abysmal darkness that makes up the upper half of the painting. The only glimmer of light to reach it, coming from an off-frame source rather than the personage of Christ, shimmers like a wispy flame across Lazarus’s palm as his head lolls backward into blackness, clearly dead.
A conventional interpretation would suggest that the spirit reanimating the hand will spread to the rest of the body, suffusing it with life. But all we see is a fragile ray of light that may be on the edge of flickering out. The atmospherics around the pallid corpse are revealing; while the statuesque form of Christ reads as a pillar of calm, the expressions of those around him betray only fear, confusion, and sorrow.
If the finality of death is hedged, slightly, in “The Raising of Lazarus,” it feels absolute in “The Burial of Saint Lucy” and “The Beheading of Saint John,” with escalating degrees of horror.
The composition of “The Burial of Saint Lucy” is particularly perverse. The two most prominent elements are the profane gravediggers looming on either side of the canvas, framing the indecorously prone body of the saint, who was tortured and martyred in Siracusa because she wouldn’t submit to a Roman patrician’s desire. It is said that Caravaggio repainted Lucy’s neck, which he had initially depicted as visibly detached from her body, because his patron found the imagery too brutal. The neck is now intact, with a discreet sword slice on the side, but it consequently looks awkwardly distended.
The narrative thrust of the painting arises from the gravedigger on the left, who lifts his head from his task to witness a mitered bishop, jammed into the right edge of the canvas, blessing the corpse. The regret passing over his face indicates that he has embarked on the path to redemption, like the Good Thief executed with Jesus on Golgotha, while his unperturbed companion puts his shoulder into the job.
The irony is that the unheeding worker is the more powerfully rendered. His shorn pate, bent at a 90-degree angle, echoes the head of the dead saint, while his back seems to bear the oppressive weight of the blank wall above him, a thuggish Atlas holding up the void. His position in the painting, with his left foot planted on the bottom edge, is commanding, as if his spade, and not the bishop’s benediction, were the final arbiter of Lucy’s eternal fate.
“The Beheading of Saint John” is chronologically the first of the three paintings described in detail here (“Lazarus” is the last), but it is by far the grimmest. Caravaggio, over the course of his career, painted every manner of decapitation, most spectacularly in his pyrotechnic masterwork “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (c.1598-1599), where we witness the act in progress at the peak of its violence. Elsewhere, heads are held aloft, knocked to the dirt, presented on a silver platter, and, in the case of Medusa, mounted on a shield. But nowhere else do we anticipate a decapitation before it happens, as we do here.
Saint John, like Saint Lucy, lies on the ground, but this time it is an executioner, and not a gravedigger, who commands our attention. The Baptist’s nearly naked body is draped across the hips by a long red cloth, as the edge of his camel hair cloak slips down beneath. A jet of blood spews from the same jugular wound inflicted on Saint Lucy’s neck. The pool below it, as mentioned above, forms the artist’s name.
The executioner, straddling the body, bends forward in a posture similar to Lucy’s gravedigger. In one of the more chilling gestures in Western art, he reaches behind his back to pull a dagger from its sheath. In this unvarnished vision of the Baptist’s death, decapitation is not delivered swiftly on a chopping block. Rather, the killer will use a short blade, slowly and roughly, to saw through bone, muscle, and nerves.
In light of the bando capitale Caravaggio sought to escape when he fled to Malta, this grotesque detail can be seen as the artist’s contemplation of how his own life could have ended if he had not become a fra, an interpretation underscored by his signature in John’s blood. And it ironically foreshadows a harrowing incident that befell him after his return to Naples from Messina, when he was ambushed at a tavern door by persons unknown (quite possibly a band of vengeful Knights), who slashed his face until he was unrecognizable.
Ultimately, for Caravaggio, there was nowhere to run. As Francine Prose speculates in her short, beautifully written biography of the painter: “Perhaps he made new enemies everywhere he went, everyplace, as Susinno [the 18th-century biographer] said, he stamped with the mark of his madness.”
There is good reason to conclude that Caravaggio was a special brand of sociopath, or else a merciless truth teller with one foot in the dark side, but his madness did not flourish in a vacuum.
Like Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose violent death reflected the brutality of his vision, Caravaggio’s eye was as cold as the world he lived in, where fate is indifferent to virtue and innocence is routinely sacrificed on the altar of greed, lust, and raw power. It’s what makes him our own.
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