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It’s when I see paintings like these that I picture Caravaggio on the run, scribbling severed heads in his sketchbook and darkly muttering under his breath: “Never saw a beheading I didn’t like.”

Yup, it seems Caravaggio never lost his taste for a skull undone from its owner. He’s painted at least a dozen decapitated heads, including some “almosts”: domes on the verge of being permanently set free from life, body and soul. And this painting, The Beheading of St. John, is a stellar example of Caravaggio’s macabre obsession. Of course, throughout art history we see other painters inspired by this gory Christian scene (see Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist), but we think Caravaggio does it best.

Because you see, this is an action scene. Here's the executioner bent over poor John’s still bleeding neck, switching from sword to knife to finish the messy job. Then there’s this super helpful and, in my mind’s eye, slightly annoying, over-efficient dude who’s pointing, “Here’s a platter!! Put it in here when you’re done! Did you see this platter? It’s right here! Whenever you’re ready, buddy!!” Salome, holds out said platter, looking unusually unsexy. Guess witnessing decapitation doesn't bring out your inner glow. An even unsexier lady clutches her face in voyeuristic horror, so one can assume she thinks what’s going on is sinful as hell...but that she didn’t care enough to stop it from happening. Oh, well. Can’t win ‘em all!

This is Caravaggio’s largest altarpiece, commissioned by the Knights of Malta and hanging in St John’s Co-cathedral. They’re the same guys who knighted him briefly and instated him into the Order. But when the famous artist got into trouble with the law, the Knights stripped him of his title in front of his own altarpiece! That should make it to the top ten most humiliating defrocking moments ever. And, to further season his wounded ego, he was kept in their prison too before being banished.

For some reason this is the only image that Caravaggio ever signed. And he signed it in blood. Yikes. Not his own thankfully, but in the red paint you see spilling forth from St. John’s slit neck. How Marilyn Manson of him. It wasn’t really visible until the painting was cleaned and restored in the 1950’s. Caravaggio signed it as “I, Caravaggio, did this,” which may sound arrogant unless you know about his homicidal history. Then it sounds like more of a confession than a humble brag. In which case, ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers should do the trick.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Beheading of St John the Baptist (Caravaggio)

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is an oil painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio. Measuring 3.7 m by 5.2 m, it depicts the execution of John the Baptist. It is located in the Oratory of St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.

According to Andrea Pomella in Caravaggio: An Artist through Images (2005), the work is widely considered to be Caravaggio's masterpiece as well as "one of the most important works in Western painting." Jonathan Jones has described The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist as one of the ten greatest works of art of all time: "Death and human cruelty are laid bare by this masterpiece, as its scale and shadow daunt and possess the mind."

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Beheading of St John the Baptist (Caravaggio)