If you ever find yourself in the hustle and bustle of Trafalgar Square in central London, you’ll be surrounded by historic statues and fountains, some built as early as the 1800s. You’ll also find London’s National Gallery, which is open to the public free of charge. It is home to paintings by Raphael, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet, and Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio (1571-1610).
Caravaggio was a Baroque artist who was skilled in creating three-dimensional scenes by using oil and canvas. He was very talented in the “chiaroscuro” technique. This was used to create depth by accentuating the extreme contrasts of light and shadow. Caravaggio used this method in order to bring the viewer face-to-face with the characters in his paintings. He wants the observer to take notice of the intricate details of the expressions on his character’s faces as well as their body language.
Caravaggio is known for his tendency to paint biblical stories very dramatically and sometimes grotesquely. Even American Film-Director Martin Scorsese has been inspired by the work of Caravaggio. An example of one of his more intense paintings is Salome with the Head of John the Baptist.
Saint John the Baptist
This is the John who leaped in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary greeted her cousin after making her long journey through the hill country to Judah. The John who we learn in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel “appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.”
He proclaimed to the people that one mightier than he would be coming, one who would not just baptize with water, but would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
John’s Imprisonment and Beheading
The Gospel account on the Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist speaks of Herod’s arrest of John. Herod had him imprisoned in order to heed the request of his new wife, Herodias, who was formerly the wife of Herod’s brother, Philip.
John spoke to Herod about how it was unlawful for him to have his brother’s wife. He was not shy about speaking to Herod honestly. Because of this, “Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so” (Mark 6:19). Despite the fact that John spoke to Herod of his sin, Herod had a respect for him. He did not share his wife’s dislike of the man. Rather, he had a holy fear of John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. He kept him in custody, and though he did not always understand the things John was saying, he enjoyed listening to him. While John was imprisoned, Herod had no intent of killing him. That is… until the day of his birthday party.
At Herod’s birthday celebration, Salome, the daughter of Herodias, performed a dance for Herod and his guests. This pleased Herod so much that he told Salome that he would give her whatever she asked for. Herodias suggested to her daughter that she ask for the head of John the Baptist. Under the influence of her mother, Salome made the request and asked that John’s head be brought to her on a platter. This is what is portrayed in Caravaggio’s masterpiece Salome with the Head of John the Baptist.
Entering into the Scene
The name “Salome” is derived from the Hebrew word for “peace.” However, the Salome we encounter in this Bible story is not a woman who exemplifies the roots behind her name.
In the famous use of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, we are brought right into the presence of the four characters in his painting. It is as if Caravaggio is trying to push John the Baptist’ head into our view while spilling his blood out of the frame.
The Four Characters
Executioner // The executioner appears nonchalant and apathetic about the deed which he just carried out. He looks ready to wash his hands of this chore and pass along John’s head to the woman who requested, removing himself from any responsibility. Yet at the same time, there is a slight look of repentance in his eyes, not totally understanding the purpose of what has just been done. He grips his sword in a position where the handle and his hand form the shape of a cross.
Elderly Woman // An elderly woman appears in the background with her hands folded. Though her face does not show much emotion, it appears that her hands are clasped together in prayer.
Salome // Here is the very woman who asked for the head of John to be served to her on a platter. Despite the haste in which she had her mother’s request made, she can’t seem to turn her eyes towards John’s lifeless face.
John the Baptist // We see John’s head at the forefront of the painting, his mouth hanging open. Fitting, as he is the man who is known as the forerunner of Christ. He is the one who spent his life actively preaching about Christ’s coming.
What Does It Mean?
This image reminds us of the sad indifference that people can have towards Christ. It illustrates to us the distance people have placed between them and morality. John is there to call us out of this indifference saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2). If we have become lukewarm or detached from our faith, John pleads with us to humbly return to Christ.
The elderly woman in this painting has her hands folded in prayer. What is the prayer that you want to bring before the Lord today?