With his work of art depicting the death of the Baptist “The Beheading of St John”, Caravaggio also painted his own resurrection – of his new name and fame, said Caravaggio expert and scholar Professor David Stone yesterday.
Prof. Stone was one of four speakers at a symposium called “Shedding New Light On The Master Of Chiaroscuro” organised by St John’s Co-Cathedral as part of the Caravaggio and Paintings of Realism.
The symposium was held, appropriately, in the Palace of the Grand Masters in Valletta in a dimly lit room with the slideshows of the artist’s most famous and not-so-famous works as the main focus.
Scholars, experts and students listened in perfect silence for almost three hours of presentations about Caravaggio given by Dr Keith Sciberras, who also chaired the symposium, Dr Philip Farrugia Randon (LL.D), Dr John Gash – a principle figure in the field of Baroque art – and Prof. Stone. The talks ranged from the historical and technical to the artistic.
Dr Farrugia Randon gave a brief but detailed history of Caravaggio’s tumultuous stay in Malta – especially about the time he was imprisoned in Fort St Angelo.
In 1606 he killed a young man in a brawl and fled from Rome. Soon after, in 1608, he was involved in another brawl in Malta, and yet another in Naples in 1609, possibly a deliberate attempt on his life by unidentified enemies.
Despite his success in Naples, after only a few months in the city Caravaggio left for Malta, presumably hoping that the patronage of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Knights, could help him secure a pardon for his crime.
The Grand Master was so impressed by the fact of having the famous artist as official painter to the Order that he inducted him as a knight.
However, in late August of 1608 he was arrested and imprisoned again in Fort St Angelo. Recent investigations by Dr Sciberras brought to light that it was the result of yet another brawl, during which the door of a house was battered down and a knight seriously wounded.
Dr Farrugia Randon explained that cases of prisoners escaping from Fort St Angelo was not exceptional.
“Caravaggio’s defrocking following his escape, took place in St John’s Co-Cathedral. Although the artist was not present, the ceremony ironically took place before his painting – the Beheading of St John,” he said.
Professor David Stone, a leading authority on Caravaggio’s later works and scholar on the social and religious contexts of the artist’s lifetime gave an interesting perspective on the use of images and intertextuality in his paintings, especially the Beheading of St John.
Prof. Stone explained that it is a common cliché, going all the way back to Sherlock Holmes stories and film noirs, where a murder victim tries to write the name of the murderer before he dies.
“However, in many films and books, killers used their victim’s blood to leave their signature or message at the crime scene,” he said.
The colour of blood – red – also has diabolic implications and this is something that Caravaggio used in the Beheading of St John, said Prof. Stone.
“He signed the painting Fra Michelangelo, in the blood streaming out of the Baptist’s severed head,” he said.
Prof. Stone explained that the painting was probably part of Caravaggio’s rite of passage – a form of payment – for the knighthood before he was inducted.
“The painting has two violent images – the sword that killed the Baptist thrown on the floor and the knife in the executioner’s hand.
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However, the knife is suspended in mid-air, in limbo, probably just like Caravaggio’s life at that time who was stuck in Malta, a fugitive from justice with his career on hold,” he said.
Prof. Stone also said the painting could also be seen as an act of contrition for his crime.
However, he went on to explain that there might be more complex meanings behind the symbolism in the painting.
“Malta was Caravaggio’s ticket to freedom. Malta is also full of heraldry – it tells a story about Malta’s history,” he said.
Prof. Stone pointed out that celibacy was one of the oaths taken by the Knights of St John and these, as a result, wanted their name to live on through their coat of arms.
However, Caravaggio did not have a coat of arms because he was not a knight or of noble blood.
“Prospective knights had to present a fully-fledged family tree – these were carefully scrutinised to ensure that no one was a tradesman, Moor or Jew,” said Prof. Stone.
“Caravaggio had to suffer the humiliation of obtaining a pardon for the murder he committed and his common status,” he said.
Prof. Stone spoke about the strong message sent out with image of the beheading of the Baptist.
“The image is all about Caravaggio’s martyrdom and his baptism of blood – he wanted the painting to be a gift and it was no coincidence that he choose John the Baptist who was the first fallen knight of the Order,” he said.
Furthermore, added Prof. Stone, the fact that this masterpiece is the only one signed by the artist shows that Malta played a significant role for Caravaggio – it was a type of visiting card.
“Caravaggio reinvented the typical Renaissance signature, which was either the artist’s signature at the bottom of the painting or part of the painting. By painting the blood flow onto the ground and then signing his name, he combines both reality and the image into one,” he said.
“Caravaggio first paints the blood and then uses the blood to paint,” said Prof. Stone.
This is a new dimension to Caravaggio – he is being witty, he added.
The exhibition “Caravaggio and 17th century realism in Malta” at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta opened last Thursday and will close on 16 December. It is open everyday from 9.30am to 4.30pm including Sundays. On Saturdays the exhibition will be open from 9.30am to 6pm.