Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Not Seeing Caravaggio in Malta

It's 3:00 p.m. Thursday afternoon in Zurich, Switzerland.  I finish teaching, grab my weekend bag and stroll outside to the bus stop. A bus, then a tram, then a train, then a plane, and I land in Malta in time for a late dinner. The next day, at the Theory of Knowledge conference I'm attending, the bright, blue sky and beach are tempting, but most of all the Baroque town of Valleta, built by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, beckons, and especially this painting, by Caravaggio, his great masterpiece, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist:

Caravaggio: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

 Our conference carries on through the weekend, and there will be no time to view the painting. But we, the conference participants, hatch a plan - on Saturday morning we will move our morning session to the St. John's Co-Cathedral of Vallata where this Caravaggio masterpiece hangs in the place where it was originally hung in 1608.  And our morning session will centre on the painting, and the role of interpretation in art. To what extent does interpretation add or detract from our knowledge of a work of art? That is the essential question we will address. We, the members of the conference, are unified in our excitement, and I cannot but help already reflect upon Caravaggio's work, even before I see it in flesh and blood.

An invisible line travels from the top left hand corner to the bottom right and dissects the work into two triangles.  All the action takes place in the left triangle. John the Baptist lies on the ground, probaly dead, blood flowing from his neck, his head almost severed. Salome reaches out with her plate to take his head. The jailer points to the plate: "Cut it off and throw it there". The old lady clutches her head in horror as the executioner, body gleaming and radiating light grabs St. John by the hair and moves in for the cut.  The group forms a beautiful arc that is mirrored in the shade of the outer arch and the inner stone arch above them.

The right triangle is mainly empty space, punctuated by the rope that once bound the prisoner and a square window, through which two boys look on in horrified fascination. Their eyes are fastened on the knive that the executioner holds behind his back. If one draws another invisible line from the top right hand corner of the picture to the bottom left, the point in which the two diagonal lines meet is the knife - the exact centre of the picture.  Like the boys within the framed window, our eyes too are drawn to this weapon.

What makes the painting so real for our time, is the casual brutality. It is something that we fear, but are drawn to. Few of us have ever heard a gunshot, or seen a corpse. Yet our news, our entertainment, the newspapers that we read and books that we enjoy are filled with senesless violence and play to our voyeuristic instincts.  We fear this violence, we shudder at the thought of it, yet, like the two boys, we cannot but help to be drawn to it.

The painting, I've heard,  is supposed to be huge. The figures are lifesize. It is the only painting that bears a Caravaggio signature. He has signed his name in the blood that flows from John the Baptist, perhaps in atonement for the violence, indeed murder, that he himself had perpetrated. How can anyone visit Malta and commit the crime of not viewing this painting?

And then, this morning, as we are about to embark on our journey, the word comes from on high, from the organisers of the conference - we are not allowed to travel with our group to the painting, as the conference organisers are not insured for such an excursion. When we, educators all, protest, the Chief Bureaucrat announces "This is not up for negotiation".  And so the day passes. We discuss the difficulty of the correspondence theory of truth within the sciences, and the necessity to deal with uncertainty in historical studies, and the role of intentionality within the arts.  But I cannot shed the feeling that we are the victims of a casual form of brutality, that which is inflicted thoughtlessly, matter of factly, by a bureaucrat.  As one colleague remarks - "I now understand Bureau-Crat, that is, Rule by Bureau."

Tonight was a beautiful warm November evening in Malta. I had dinner in Vallata, on the lovely square outside the Co-Cathedral which is home to The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.  It is closed to vsitors until Monday morning.  I fly back to Zurich tomorrow, that is Sunday, afternoon.  What did I say? It is some sort of crime, to visit Malta and not view Caravaggio's masterpiece.

Soon after completing this painting Caravaggio was once more involved in an incident of terrible violence.  He fled Malta, never to return.  A hunted man, he died soon after.  Some day, I will have to return to Malta to see The Beheading of St. John the Baptist.


  1. Isn't Valleta a terrific place for a conference :)

    I have not seen the St John painting either, but HOW DARE they stop you from visiting the Co-Cathedral!! I would have been storming the offices of the conference coordinators in disgust!

    I _have_ seen the two portraits of Alof de Wignacourt, one of them with his page c1608. They are also lifesize and stunning portraits of a really important Maltese identity, but alas the paintings are now in the Louvre and the Pitti Palace.

    p.s you forgot to give the post a heading. The photo is coming up in Blog List, but no text describing your post.

  2. how unfair of them not to let you go!

    I very much enjoyed this post, how you wove together the story of your trip with your thoughts about the painting, specially its relevance to our society today.

  3. It's not so much missing out on seeing the work that is disappointing, it's being denied by 'higher ups' which would make it truly unbearable.

    I think you are remarkably disciplined - I would have taken off and seen it!


  4. Thank you for your sympathy folks. I'm now back in Zurich, Caravaggio unseen. As Hels says, Vallata is amazing, though we only saw it for a few hours in the dark.

  5. A similarly miserable story :( A few years ago I was once doing a residential summer holiday course at Cambridge University for senior academics (over 50s).

    The Olympic Games opened that same week, so of course all the Australian academics wanted to see the march of nations, with their flags and their athletes (plus my cousin was playing hockey for Australia). But the Opening Ceremony started at 11 PM and the porter always locked up the television room at 10 PM each night.

    He would not be budged. We offered him 100 pounds sterling to leave the key in the television loungeroom, just for one night. Nope.. he had signed a document in 1957 saying he was responsible for the students' welfare and he was going to do just that! Did we realise he could ring our mums and dads, and tell them we weren't studying properly?

    In the end, I got in a taxi at 11 PM and cruised around the hotels of Cambridge, until I could find one with a vacant room. It added 200 pounds sterling to my costs that week, all because of some officious pig of a porter :(

  6. That's some story Hels! What a silly fellow!

    @PM Doolan - if it's any consolation, there is a new Caravaggio exhibition opening in Berlin until Jan 2011 - not too far away and you still get a good dose of his characteristic Tenebrism for your troubles :)

    More info here:


  7. That's an amazing story Hels - I hope it was worth the 200 pounds. Thanks for the tip about Berlin H Niyazi. I don't have plans to visit Berlin in the near future, but you never know.