In 1996, the huge altarpiece Caravaggio painted in 1608 for the Oratorio di San Giovanni in Malta was brought to Florence for restoration at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, because five years before it had suffered two slashes from the knife of a demented attacker. For someone who had never been to Malta and seemed unlikely to travel there, this provided a unique opportunity: the damaged painting was first put on public display in the Sala del Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, and then, some five years later, the beautifully restored canvas was again exhibited, this time in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, directly across from the Brancacci Chapel.
Both times, it was possible to make repeated visits to contemplate this altarpiece depicting the beheading of the prostrate John the Baptist by Herod’s executioner and to examine it from much nearer than one ever could in the Oratory. In both the Palazzo Vecchio and the Carmine it stood on the floor, and it was possible to come almost close enough to touch the vast canvas, nearly twelve feet high and seventeen feet long. It made its greatest impact, however, if one stood farther away, so that one could encompass the image in its entirety, with its unconventional but assured composition and its breathtaking mastery of light and shadow, and imagine how it must extend the space above the altar in the Oratory (for the canvas has the same dimensions as the end wall of the Maltese chapel).
There is a theatrical quality to this picture, as if one were witnessing a frozen moment of an opera or a play, a tableau vivant, yet at the same time one is aware that its significance is far greater than merely histrionic. For there is something profoundly, ineluctably, ineffably moving about the tragedy depicted in this dimly lit, eternally resonant scene: once experienced, it can never be erased from the mind. Even today, when I summon it to my memory, I can palpably feel the immense, dark stillness that suffuses this miraculous work of art, one of the greatest paintings in the world.
The story of who painted this masterpiece, why it exists in remote Malta—where Caravaggio briefly was a member of the the Order of St. John—and how it represents such a revolutionary moment in the history of art has repeatedly been told; for Caravaggio has inspired biographers and critics from the very beginning. As early as the first half of the seventeenth century, only a few years after his death, two people who had known him personally, one of them an angry, bitter rival, wrote the first biographies of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Since his critical rehabilitation by Roberto Longhi and others just after World War I, the story of the triumphs and vicissitudes of Caravaggio’s posthumous reputation across the centuries has also been told many …