My Favourite Painting: Charles Saumarez Smith

'[It] fills the whole space of the Oratory off one of the aisles of Malta Cathedral with its intense, hyper-dramatic realism'

Beheading of John the Baptist, 1608, 205in by 142in, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610), St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta. Bridgeman Images.

Charles Saumarez Smith says:
‘The picture that has made by far the greatest impact on me in recent years was when I travelled to Malta to see Caravaggio’s astonishing painting of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, which fills the whole space of the Oratory off one of the aisles of Malta Cathedral with its intense, hyper-dramatic realism.’

Charles Saumarez Smith is secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘This is Caravaggio’s largest painting and the only one with his signature. It is also the first instance in art history of space as a dramatic element. The Caravaggio revival dates from a 1951 exhibition. Since then, he has become a cult figure, art’s bad boy, a subject for T-shirts. But his importance is that his boldly designed and vividly life-like religious paintings embody the spiritual fervour of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. That Christianity today awaits similar resurgence against similar enemies only emphasises his pertinence.

The aristocratic Knights of Malta were the ultimate exemplars of Counter-Reformation Christian chivalry. Caravaggio fled from Rome to Malta as a wanted man, having killed a rival in a fight. He sought forgiveness through admission to the Order and, as a famous painter with loyal and noble patrons, he was welcomed by the Grand Master. This great altarpiece was his passagio, the gift presented on becoming a Knight.

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The beheading is more grisly for its perfunctoriness. The Baptist has been untied, but still lies like a tethered animal. Only the old woman shows feeling. Yet for all its truth to life, the scene is not natural. The lighting in the looming darkness is theatrical, the crimson cloak a metaphor of martyred blood. Caravaggio’s signature is scrawled in the ‘actual’ blood. Make of that what you will. Caravaggio was no sooner made a Knight than he was banished, another brawl forcing him on the run again. He died of a fever at Porto Ercole on his way back from exile to Rome.’

This article was first published in Country Life, January 5, 2011