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Historiography of Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist, C. 1607-10

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Identification of the Work

Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, c. 1607-10 is a piece of art on display in the National Gallery in London. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio made this stellar art while he was living in Naples between 1607 and 1610. The artist made art between 1571 to 1610. Caravaggio’s artwork is present and fits in the period where he made dramatic expressions in his composition using bold and realistic styles. This fact authenticates that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio truly made the art. During his period as an artist, Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist was made towards the climax of Caravaggio’s career. It was also the last moments of his life between 1609 to 1610 (Vezzoli, 2021)

During this time, the artist made other insightful arts such as The Boy Bitten by a Lizard and The Supper at Emmaus. Caravaggio used oil on canvas as the medium and support, making the art exemplary with contrasting light and shadows. The physical dimensions of the art are 91.5 centimeters in height and 106.7 centimeters in width. National Gallery in London acquired the art through purchase in 1970, after which the Gallery put it on display to date. The National Gallery displays its primary collection in room 32, which art enthusiasts can access through the art route B of the Gallery (National Gallery, 2021). The image depicts a biblical scene where Salome receives a cut-off head from the executioner while the maidservant witnesses.

The Provenance of the Work

Caravaggio had killed a man in 1606 when he was caught in a brawl with a stranger in Rome. His actions forced him to flee the city. The ruling authority issued an order for his head in Rome, so he had to flee from the Papal States to Naples, which the Spanish ruled. He advanced to Malta, where the Grand Master hired him to paint Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, which was a detailed depiction of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. His misgivings stemming from the Papal Pardon led to his expulsion from the Knights Order and imprisonment (Huffman, 2017). Therefore, before unveiling the art the Grand Master paid him to paint, he fled for Rome. This period is when Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio painted Salome receives the head of John the Baptist at least a couple of times (McGowan, 2020). Before its purchase and exhibition in the National Gallery in London, England, Giovanni Bellori, 1672, details that Caravaggio gave the painting to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta as reparation for the actions that had him expelled from the order in 1608. Other researchers claim that art enthusiasts lost the piece of art in history until its discovery in 1970 where the Gallery bought it and placed it on display (Cardinali, 2019).

Analysis of the Work

Stylistic Approach

Caravaggio utilized similar stylistic approaches in this work as he did in other mature works during this time. This late style contrasts with his early works since it uses free paint handling engaging finely modeled gradations to create a mid-tone. Salome receives the head of John the Baptist depicts the human tragedy that fell upon the people when one accesses the essentials of the artwork. In his mature works, such as The Supper at Emmaus and other previous Roman works, Caravaggio used a broader color and more descriptive details to engage the art viewers and enhance their experience when exposed to the art (Tateo, 2019).

However, in this art form, he minimized the work to the essentials to convey the emotional power of the art. To make this possible, he utilized a pronounced chiaroscuro, enhancing the message in the art using highly contrasting lights and shadows. Moreover, a muted palette and dramatic gestures contributed to the work’s dramatic naturalism. The painting diverges from a narrative approach to detail the psychological effects the event had on the people present during the success of Herodias’s evil plans.

Description of Characters in the Painting

Salome receives the head of John the Baptist boldly portrays the severed head of John the Baptist. The art also shows Salome looking away from the severed head when John the Baptist’s executioner presents the grisly souvenir to her while holding the head’s hair. The art also shows the severed head attached to jagged strips of flesh. The dismembered head has closed eyes and an open mouth. Caravaggio engages Baroque lighting in his composition to enhance the horror in the image making the art more engaging and attractive. In other words, Caravaggio uses his unique and stylistic talent in making oil canvases to show the realistic gruesomeness of the actions in the image as opposed to hiding it to make it more socially acceptable (van Bühren, 2017).

The executioner occupies half of the painting, holding a sword in the left hand and the dismembered head in the right. This aspect of the painting engages the viewers by indicating the extent of human violence where individuals can take another individual’s life to receive a souvenir. However, despite the heinous actions, the executioner’s face shows regret and sadness concerning John the Baptist’s demise (Adnyana, 2017). There is no sense of triumph in the executioner’s face since the painting aims to depict the extent of human tragedy instead of condoning the violent acts. The protagonist, that is, the executioner, frowns and takes no joy in the act since the victory of John the Baptist martyrdom was Herodias’s and not his.

Salome has a sidelong glance and a severe expression which are enigmatic considering these were her wishes. This portrayal raises questions about whether Salome evaded her look because she was horrified by what she had done or was disgusted and ashamed of her requests. Similarly, Salome’s face shows no sense of triumph, conferring a similar influence to the viewer’s experience; the victory was not hers but Herodias’s; therefore, she expresses a need to distance herself from the souvenir (Seaman, 2021). The detachment expressions in the two protagonists’ faces confer a sense of eerie quality in the scene.

The elderly maidservant appearing in the background on Salome’s shoulder contrasts Salome’s beauty and youth with wrinkles on her face. Caravaggio uses the contrast to emphasize Salome’s innocence and youth despite her being caught up in the human tragedy that befell their family incorporated in her mother’s evil plans (Sapir, 2021). The maidservant’s wrinkly hands are crossed together in grief, but her face portrays an insightful look, a knowledgeable glance or recognition. The insightful look aims at influencing the viewer’s perspective that it was not the first beheading he had seen. In other words, human violence is traceable even before John the Baptist’s martyrdom.

Painting Techniques

Critical analysis of Caravaggio’s painting technique in Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist indicates that Caravaggio must have engaged carbon black, lead white, and calcium carbonate to paint the exquisite image with pronounced chiaroscuro and a dark ground of mixed earth (Xu, 2020). To achieve the mid-tone of flesh and hair in the painting, he utilized the warm color of the dark ground. Further, Caravaggio exploits the dark underlayer of the painting to increase the lighter colors’ opacity and make the ground increase the luminosity and depth of the darker paint by making it thinner and transparent. The violent contrasts between light and dark made Caravaggio’s painting more attractive to the viewer’s eyes, providing a guide of what to focus on when assessing the image and where to begin (Cabot, 2018). The characteristic chiaroscuro contributes to the three-dimensional appearance of the figures in the painting. It hence contributed to the exciting experience of the viewers who interact with the painting.

Detailed assessment of Caravaggio’s work reveals how he used his stylistic art-making to develop enigmas once the viewers glanced at the artwork. For instance, Caravaggio details the contradictory response of Salome where she averts her glance when the brutish executioner presents John’s head and places it on the salver. Caravaggio also influences the viewer’s experience using the half-length format. This format makes the characters in the image appear up-close, contributing to the immense drama of the scene. The artist uses a simplistic and straightforward style to conceal the physical and psychological give and take of Salome and the executioner, the main protagonists in the painting (Stolic, 2021). Additionally, Caravaggio’s painting depicts Salome, not as a mythologized figure but a realistically flawed woman for easy comprehension and alignment with the viewers’ period of existence.

Caravaggio also uses poses to correlate the two protagonists who have divergent roles and representations in the painting. The lighting on their face and the tilt angle of their heads complements each other. The artist uses the face of the two protagonists to make the viewers understand that despite it being the executioner who wielded the sword while implementing the act, the orders were hers; therefore, the guilt of John the Baptist’s death is hers to carry (Levi, 2021).

Related Works

Overall, Caravaggio’s painting technique, where he engages pronounced chiaroscuro, dramatic naturalism, and bold depictions of human tragedy, influenced painters such as Mattia Preti, Jusepe de Ribera, and Battistello Caracciolo. However, most of his influence is evident in Jusepe de Ribera’s work such as Martyrdom of St Andrew (1628) in the Museum of Fine Art, Budapest, Christ Disputing with the Doctors (1630) on display in Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, and Drunken Silenus (1626) in Capodimonte, Naples (van Gastel, 2018). Furthermore, Caravaggio uses similar stylistic approaches in his paintings that engage biblical scenes, such as The Flagellation of Christ, which has a similar engagement of chiaroscuro and muted palette (Levi, 2021; Dow, 2017; Mercier 2017).

Art Style Painters Used In The Period Caravaggio Painted Salome Receiving The Head Of John The Baptist

From 1575 to 1770, the artistic style that was prominent among the painters was the Italian Baroque style. The Baroque period which followed the Renaissance, was founded by Caravaggio, who actively painted in the Early Baroque period between 1575 and 1650 (Yuen, 2017). He used violent light contrasts to paint vivid descriptions of models in the streets, allowing him to engage the emotional responses that stem from the scene. His realistic painting influenced the works of other painters contributing to the foundation of the Baroque period. In light of this, Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist fits in this period since it engages similar contrasts in light or marked chiaroscuro (Kamuntavičius & Noyes, 2021). It resembled other artworks in its period since most artworks drew from the Renaissance’s structured paintings and factored in some exaggerations to constitute the splendor and pageantry of the era (Costa, Dellunde, and Falomir, 2021). It also had strong depictions of power and wealth were also characteristics of themes that paintings in the Baroque period engaged. Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist depicts power and wealth by showing how humans can indulge in the extremities of violence to exercise power.


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