The knights’ painting

The famed Baroque artist Caravaggio painted his masterwork while on the run from Rome, as an accused murderer and a Knight of Malta. When the knights expelled him from the order, they did so beneath that same painting.

Caravaggio - The Beheading of St John the Baptist
Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio was a bridge between the high art of artists like Michelangelo and Raphael and the Baroque. Trained in the techniques of the Renaissance, his paintings nevertheless departed from it in some influential ways. Caravaggio’s subjects are still religious, but his models look like normal people in the street. He painted action, events in motion rather than people standing around. The play of dark and light that Renaissance artists used to great effect, chiaroscuro, in Caravaggio’s hands became a stark spotlight. Key figures spring out of the painting, bathed in shafts of light and enveloped on all sides by murky darkness.

Caravaggio was also a notorious hothead. During his time in Rome he frequently got into fights (over money, insults, and women). In 1606 he went too far, and murdered a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in a sword fight. It’s not entirely clear what or who triggered the duel. It may have been a dispute over debts, over a tennis match, or over a prostitute who was one of Caravaggio’s models (Tomassoni may have been her pimp). In any case, Caravaggio’s sword castrated Tomassoni and he bled to death.

Sentenced to death, Caravaggio fled Rome for Naples, and soon after further afield to Malta. The Knights of Malta (also known as the Knights Hospitaller) had ruled the island state for over seventy years, and they happily took the famous artist in.

In 1608, Caravaggio was officially knighted by the order’s grand master, Alof de Wignacourt. Caravaggio’s masterwork, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, was painted for De Wignacourt; it still hangs in a cathedral in Malta today. Curiously, it was the only painting that the artist ever signed, and he signed it in typically flamboyant fashion: in the blood coming out of Saint John’s severed neck.

Caravaggio's signature
Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Caravaggio’s full name, by the way, was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; the “f” at the start indicates his status as a Knight of Malta. That status, though, wouldn’t last. At some point in 1608 he was arrested again for fighting with another knight. Caravaggio fled Malta for nearby Sicily and then back to Naples.

The Knights of Malta met in the church to formally expel Caravaggio from the order. The ceremony was conducted in front of his own painting, and the escaped knight was decried as a “membrum putridum et foetidum” (a foul and rotten member).

Máté, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Two years later, Caravaggio was dead. He died on his way back to Rome, hoping to secure a pardon for his crimes. We don’t know what killed him – illness or revenge (by the knights, or by the family of Tomassoni) – but he left behind a reputation as both a villain and an artistic genius.

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