Famous Artwork: The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

A stamp depicting Caravaggio's The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.  Editorial credit: irisphoto1 / Shutterstock.com
A stamp depicting Caravaggio's The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Editorial credit: irisphoto1 / Shutterstock.com

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is a masterpiece art by Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. It describing the biblical event of the beheading of John the Baptist.

Biblical Account

According to the gospel of Luke 1:67–79, John was the son of Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth. His parents were both old when he was born and he was considered a prophet by many. He spent his adult lifetime spreading the gospel and baptizing people in the river Jordan. Among the people he baptized was Jesus Christ which caused him to be referred to as John the Baptist. During one of his summons, John the Baptist criticized Herod, the then tetrarch serving the Roman Empire, for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and taking his brother's wife Herodias as his wife. Herod had him arrested and imprisoned. On Herod's birthday, Herodias' daughter Salome danced majestically and pleased the king and his guests. King Herod swore to provide her with anything she desired including half his kingdom. Under the influence of her mother Herodias, Salome demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod reluctantly agreed and ordered the beheading of John the Baptist.


The oil on canvas artwork depicts the beheading of John the Baptist as Salome eagerly stands close with a golden platter. Another woman is also present in the photo looking shocked and distraught; it is thought that the woman is either a servant or Herodias who realizes that he had made a mistake. A jailer is seen issuing instructions to the executioner who is bending clutching a dagger in his right hand and pinning John the Baptist to the floor using his left hand. The painting was completed in 1608 in Malta. It measures 150 inches by 200 inches; it is Caravaggio largest painting and the only one that bears his signature which is placed by the blood spilling out of the slit throat. The painting's background was drawn from his time in a prison in Malta.

The painting was commissioned as an altarpiece in 1608 by the Knights of Malta. Today it hangs St. John's Co-Cathedral, the same place it was commissioned and where he briefly served as a knight. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist has undergone degradation over time and is severely damaged. In the 1950s some restoration work was done on the painting before an exhibition in Rome. It was after the restoration that people got to view Caravaggio's signature which is signed as f. Michelang.o. The f. indicates his Brotherhood.


Caravaggio painted several other beheadings including the famous beheading of Goliath by David and Judith beheading Holofernes. There are no indicators of spiritual intervention or redemption. The painting exposes raw human expression, naked realism, and no romanticism portrayed by other artwork during the time. Caravaggio is honored for presenting his painting out of well-known stories that people can identify with. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio died mysteriously in 1910 at the age of 39 after fleeing Malta.


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