Friday, August 29, 2008

Beheading of the Baptist

Andrea Solario. Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist. c.1506–7. New York City.

Solario was a milanese pupil of Leonardo. He painted this scene several times. The head of John is pale green, for the skin, without blood, is that hue. Salome, also, has the blood go from her face, and she is white with discomfort. The head hangs there, suspended by the executioner’s arm in a symmetry of separation and detachment. The trophy is about to be displayed in a basin. Solario gives extravagant portrayal to the girl’s clothing and jewelry. Renaissance draped finery is well painted. The style is a more flamboyant a portrait than da Vinci’s girl with the white ferret, Lady with ermine.
For Herod himself had sent and apprehended John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias the wife of Philip his brother, because he had married her. For John said to Herod: It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife.Now Herodias laid snares for him: and was desirous to put him to death, and could not.For Herod feared John, knowing him to be a just and holy man: and kept him, and when he heard him, did many things: and he heard him willingly. And when a convenient day was come, Herod made a supper for his birthday, for the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. And when the daughter of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he swore to her: Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my kingdom. Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, What shall I ask? But she said: The head of John the Baptist. And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: But sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish. And he beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a dish: and gave it to the damsel, and the damsel gave it to her mother. — Mark vi. 17-28.
Caravaggio invented black, (well, not really). He painted dark reality, and limned the darkest portions of the soul, and yet his appreciation of truth guides us to the bright light of salvation, though, he is extra-ordinarily stark and his graphic force would blind a camera, in his harsh drama.

As an exemplar, of the artistic expression, of the catholic reformation, and the baroque, Caravaggio holds a stellar rank. His own life spoke of the turmoil of the age. His interior psychological drama was fearsome. He had rough and seedy company. He, himself was a violent man. He had killed, and he was hunted. He stalked heaven through horror. He wanted the good, but it did not come effortlessly.

The Founder of our church suffered, was tortured and executed. Many of our heroes were red martyrs. Caravaggio’s commissions were often of the horrid, heroic sacrifice, and they are religious master works: grim, graphic, gory.Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.1608. La Valletta.

The sword is a long knife and it cuts. In this fearsome world, it cuts flesh and life’s blood flows away. In Caravaggio’s surviving œurve, there are several decapitations. There is Medusa’s severed head. He has David with Goliath’s head twice (Goliath being a self-portrait). He has Judith decollating Holofernes. He has two scenes of the Baptist. He has the Sacrifice of Isaac, just when the knife is about to be wielded to slice, it is averted by the angel’s intervention. The terror is there.

The other Baptist scene has Salome and the silver salver, comparable to the Solario. The one here was near the end. In the blood, there is Michelangelo’s name, this is his only signature, and it is abbreviated; a self reference with the killed. The scene takes outside the prison entrance, two jailees watch. A commanding official, the executioner, Salome, and an old female servant complete the scene.

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