|Courtesy of www.Caravaggio.org|
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist is a disturbingly matter-of-fact image. Salome is baffling; she turns away from the head as if to avoid seeing what has been done, her expression blank. Is she ashamed, or willful, or simply irresponsible? Certainly she seems unmoved. The executioner appears detached. Is he like those who do what the rich and powerful require of him, without question, but not without his own opinion? He is certainly not the sadist of The Flagellation; his expression hints, if anything, of David's compassion. The old woman, almost disembodied in the shadowy background, is a disengaged onlooker, a sister to the Greek chorus. She clasps her raised hands in dismay, but she feels helpless and her disavowal of the execution is as wraithlike as her presence. If their attitudes are not quite casual, Caravaggio has allowed none of them to convey any adequate sense of the magnitude of the crime that has been committed. It is a paradoxical image. What makes it most disturbing is the inconsequentiality of the responses: Salome callous, the executioner hardened, and the old woman too defeated to assert any substantial moral presence. There remains only the pathos of Saint John's pallid face, as tragic in accepting death as Goliath's is grotesque in rebelling against it.
Apparently an original composition, it is in fact only another step along a well-worn path. The motif of Salome turning away from the head exhibited before her can be traced back at least as far as Roger van der Weyden through the Titian painting then in the Salviati collection in Rome (and now in the Doria Gallery) to the Cavaliere d'Arpino's Salome of the 1590s. The executioner's gesture of extending the saint's head by the hair had often been used previously, although sometimes from a different angle of vision.
Caravaggio metamorphized these sources. The painting is like a movie close-up, focusing on the essential elements and excluding all others. It has turned the narrative description of the process of the martyrdom into a psychological study of its protagonists, and through them into a sad commentary on human heedlessness. Such concentration is certainly not novel in Caravaggio's oeuvre, but it revitalized the theme. Combined with his penetration of the personalities, it transformed the subject from a kind of fable into a disquieting actuality.