Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

michelangelo merisi da caravaggio was, without a doubt, one of the most infamous personages to ever set foot on these islands. The year was 1607 and, although the latter was on the run following the murder of a man in Rome, the then Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt welcomed the exiled artist with open arms. Not only that, but, within a few months, Wignacourt personally wrote to the Pope asking for permission to enrol Caravaggio as a Knight of the Order; a decision he would come to regret a few months later. But, before going into that episode, it is important to mention two of the inestimable works of art by Caravaggio for the Knights of the Order of St John. Both paintings can be seen at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta.

St Jerome Caravaggio

The first one is the Saint Jerome executed in February 1608; it is very probable that this painting was done for the Knight Ippolito Malaspina who had travelled to Malta together with Caravaggio back in July 1607. The Knight, much like Saint Jerome, left much of his wealth to the poor and retired to a life of solitude. The painting shows an aged St Jerome sitting on a bed in the act of writing. The saint is illuminated by a ray of light that hits him on the torso and allows him to concentrate on his writing. It is not the first time that Caravaggio paints this saint; however, in this particular painting he includes the crucifix and the penance stone. The painting is executed in the chiaroscuro style so popular during the 17th century and of which Caravaggio was the undisputed master.

The Beheading of St John Caravaggio

The Beheading of St John is the largest and only painting worldwide known to carry the signature of the artist. This work of art, commissioned by the Grand Master who wanted to impress on the young novices the martyrdom of the Saint to whom the Order was dedicated, can be found hanging in the Oratory, the area of the cathedral where the novices were trained. Unlike other artists of his time, who would have probably shown a less gruesome aspect of this biblical episode, Caravaggio paints the just decapitated martyr lying prostrate on the floor, blood sprouting from his severed head. Standing next to the protagonist we find the executioner still holding the saint down with the bloodied knife behind his back, a janitor pointing to a basket held by a young woman waiting to collect St John’s head in it and an older woman looking compassionately down at St John; two prisoners observing the execution behind iron bars are shown on the right hand side of the painting. This painting differs from the ones previously painted by Caravaggio in that here the artist increases both the depth and height of the space in which the central action takes place; a style which he developed further during his later stay in Sicily.

Caravaggio was not present during the unveiling of The Beheading of St John. A few days before he is involved in yet another brawl with six other Italian knights, one of which is seriously injured. As a result of this incident, on the 27th August 1608, he is imprisoned in Fort St Angelo. His imprisonment lasts around 6 weeks as, on the 6th October of the same year, he is reported missing from the fort (and from Malta). Following this event his knighthood is rescinded by the Order of Saint John.