The 1608 painting is the only work by Caravaggio to bear the artist's signature, which he has placed in red blood spilling from the Baptist's cut throat.
Malta – Fact Check

This is where you'll find Caravaggio's masterpiece

Photo by Gianni Dagli Orti

Malta – Fact Check This is where you'll find Caravaggio's masterpiece

Perhaps the most magnificent work of art on show in Malta is the painting of The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

“It is the largest painting he ever did and the only one he signed,” says historian Anna Grech Sant. “He was a thug who committed a murder in Rome and went on the run. He stowed away on a galley and came to Malta, the island of the knights. The two prisoners you see in the painting, looking out through a barred window, are a personification of his life as he was imprisoned twice.”

The painting was commissioned by the Knights of St. John, who defended Malta during the Great Siege of 1565, were split into seven divisions, predominantly based on language but also region, called langues. With the English langue in abeyance after King Henry VIII’s Reformation of the late 1530s, the Catholic French, Spanish and Italian knights dominated. They have left their mark in the grand buildings and rich religious art, commissioned as grateful European kings showered them with wealth after the Great Siege.

A masterpiece of chiaroscuro, contrasting light and dark, the masterpiece of Caravaggio – who even briefly served the Knights himself – still stands in the building for which it was commissioned, the baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral. The co-cathedral has seven side chapels, each dedicated to the patron saint of one of the langues (administrative wards of the Order of St. John), who have vied with each other in the splendor of the decoration. Above hangs a vaulted ceiling by Mattia Preti, a disciple of Caravaggio and himself a knight of Malta. It is supported on ornate pillars covered in 24-carat gold, recently restored.

“Some of the gold is from Florence, some from Germany or Morocco,” says Italian restorer Daniela d’Angelo. “We need different sources to match the different colors. Some are more yellow, some are shinier.” I watch her applying a wafer of gold leaf to a detail and she then shows me a large plastic box, filled with flakes. “We save these remnants and roll them into a pill we can use for repairs or touch ups.”

“I am not religious – (it’s OK, they know),” she says. “I have been working here seven years and I know every corner, every ghost. I love some of the beautiful details, the places where the original paint still exists or a face, and the lunettes by Mattia Preti. “This is the only church I know where even visitors from Italy are impressed.”

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