Many people have lost their head while falling in love with the incredible drama of a painting by the “other” Michelangelo, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Born September 28, 1573, Caravaggio turned heads during his short lifetime and for many years thereafter before falling into inexplicable obscurity until his rediscovery in the twentieth century. For all the beautiful chiaroscuro of saints in ecstasy or Christ’s passion and glory, I always find engrossing the grossness of Caravaggio’s decapitations. In Judith Beheading Holofernes (above, from 1599), Caravaggio tackles the story from Biblical apocrapha with maybe too much realism, getting all the details of anatomy and physiology right even down to the spray of arterial blood as Judith saws away at Holofernes’ carotid. Around the time that Caravaggio painted this work, decapitations were in the news thanks to the very public executions of Giordano Bruno and Beatrice Cenci in Rome, which the artist may have witnessed. Caravaggio’s grisly “research” aside, the drama and power of the painting is undeniable. Such works helped make Caravaggio one of the church’s greatest visual weapons in the Counter-Reformation response to Protestantism. Churchgoers exposed to such imagery wouldn’t soon forget Holofernes’ frantic expression. Such paintings advertised that the Catholic Church meant business in the war for the control of minds and souls.
When Caravaggio hoped to get back in the good graces of the Knights of Malta, who kicked him out in 1608, he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (above, an earlier version from 1607). To save his neck with the influential group, Caravaggio literally puts his head on a platter, lending the severed head of John the Baptist his own bearded face. They would have instantly recognized the gesture and gotten the joke. The headstrong artist often found himself in tight situations spawned by his impetuous, erratic behavior, but he remained confident in his ability to paint himself out of any corner. It’s interesting to contrast this work with several other works by Caravaggio featuring John the Baptist. In those other works, John the Baptist appears as a sexually virile, young man. Caravaggio clearly values the wild man of the desert angle of the Baptist over any portrayal of him as a porcelain figurine drained of life’s blood. Many of those works seem almost Michelangelo-esque in their lingering on male human flesh as a subject for contemplation. Ending the series with the Baptist’s storied end and putting his aging, weary face on the saint for the first time, Caravaggio may signal here his own recognition of his waning powers and his approaching end.
Shortly before his death, Caravaggio painted himself as another severed head in David with the Head of Goliath (above, from 1610). For the last few years of his short life, Caravaggio was on the run, wondering if an enemy lurked behind each corner. Hoping to mend a burned bridge with church officials in Rome, Caravaggio again put his head on the line in this self-portrait as the vanquished Goliath. On the sword David holds Caravaggio writes “H-AS OS,” shorthand for the Latin “Humilitas occidit superbiam” or, in English, "Humility kills pride." A lifetime of hard living had killed Caravaggio’s pride and reduced him to abject humility. David looks at the head of Goliath with clear disgust, holding it at full arm’s length as if ready to drop it into the trash. Fortunately, other artists saved Caravaggio from the dustbin of history in their infatuation with his style. Imitators, called Caravaggisti, spread out throughout Europe and soon influenced a generation of artists. That influence rippled on throughout art history, even after Caravaggio’s name had slipped into the shadows. Vermeer was asked to serve as an authority over a disputed Caravaggio painting, showing just how well he knew the artist’s work. Experts still deal with the chaos of separating true Caravaggios from imitators. Even today, paintings dating from Caravaggio’s time hang in churches, monasteries, and private collections waiting for someone to ask if it’s the real deal or just the work of a follower. Among a sea of admirers and imitators, Caravaggio still stands heads above the rest.