The First Severed Heads, 1599

In Caravaggio’s Rome he could scarcely avoid seeing public executions. Almost daily, proclamations announced, “Today there will be hangings, quarterings, and clubbings.” There were nearly as many beheadings. He was well accustomed to watching condemned men and women being led in chains through the streets to the scaffold. Perhaps he knew that during the condemned’s last night on earth priests often howled like demons in rooms over their cells, rattling fetters in the hope of conjuring up thoughts of hell and arousing a wish to die in the penitent.

But only now did Caravaggio start to paint severed heads. Historians date the earliest of these disquieting pictures to sometime during the last two years of the seventeenth century. There is no direct evidence that it was at the end of 1599, yet arguably what had been done to the Cenci at the Ponte Sant’ Angelo first inspired him.

The poetry readings at the Palazzo Madama, or in any other great Roman household, must have included descriptions of decapitation. Sixteenth-century poets had seen plenty of beheadings. In Orlando Furioso Ariosto describes the death of the monster Orrilo, whose limbs had an alarming knack of rejoining his trunk after they had been severed. Having cut off his head, under the delusion he has triumphed, the hero Astolfo rides away with it, but:

The stupid monster had not understood

And in the dust was groping for his head

Astolfo realizes his mistake just in time, learning that Orrilo can be killed by destroying a magic hair on his head. He shaves the monster’s skull and ensures a happy ending.

It is clear to anyone who looks at Caravaggio’s paintings that he was unhealthily fascinated by decapitations, especially those in the Bible. The first beheading he painted did not, however, come out of the Bible. It was, to use Baglione’s description, “a really frightening Medusa with vipers for hair, set on a shield.” The Medusa was one of the Gorgons, the three fearsome maidens from Greek mythology, with hissing serpents instead of hair and brazen claws instead of hands. She possessed a face so terrifying that anyone who looked upon it was turned to stone. To kill her, the hero Perseus had to use a mirror, so that he could cut off her head without looking at her face.

The picture is painted on a leather shield. Blood drips from the head of Medusa, who shrieks in horrified disbelief, her eyes protruding in anguish. Bernard Berenson commented that it was very like the photograph of a head he had seen, taken “the instant after its owner was guillotined.” What makes the Medusa still more unnerving is that she may be a self-portrait of the young, clean-shaven Caravaggio. Despite its macabre quality, Cardinal del Monte valued the shield so highly that later he sent it as a gift to his illustrious friend the Grand Duke Ferdinand, at Florence, where it remains today in the Uffizi.

Judith and Holofernes was painted at about the same time as the Medusa. Judith was a Jewish heroine who saved Israel from the Assyrians by decapitating their general, Holofernes, as he lay in his tent in a drunken stupor. The Book of Judith relates how: “she took him by the hair of his head, and said ‘Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour.’ And she struck twice upon his neck, and cut off his head, and took off his canopy from the pillars, and rolled away his headless body. And after a while she went out, and delivered the head of Holofernes to her maid, and bade her put it in her wallet.”

As his model for Judith, Caravaggio employed the prostitute Fillide Melandroni, who had sat for St. Catherine and for the Conversion of the Magdalene. Brows bent in fierce concentration, her strong, handsome face wears a look of disgust and savage concentration as she hacks off the Assyrian’s head with a hunting sword, the only sword a sixteenth-century lady would have been accustomed to handling. Holofernes screams in agony, a stream of blood spurting out as the blade slices through his neck. His contorted face is almost certainly a self-portrait of the artist, bearded by now. Judith’s maid, standing next to her mistress, holds a bag in which to put Holofernes’s head. An old crone, bald and toothless, her face is disfigured by huge wrinkles. For all the horror of the scene, there is something slightly comical about her—she is very nearly a caricature.

Judith and Holofernes is much more alarming than the Medusa. A somewhat questionable eighteenth-century source claims that when pressed to comment on the picture, Annibale Carracci replied, “I don’t know what to say, except that it is too natural.” If Carracci really did say this, perhaps it was because he was repelled by the brutality that, to a modern observer, seems to verge on sadism or sado-eroticism. One has the inescapable impression of an almost gloating enjoyment of the cruelty. However, Caravaggio’s motives involved much more than sadism.

There was a very famous Judith and Holofernes in Rome, of which Caravaggio cannot have been unaware, Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in which Holofernes’s head was a self-portrait of Michelangelo. It has been suggested that Michelangelo was identifying himself with evil, publicly confessing that he was a sinner. Similarly, it has been argued that in later self-portraits of himself, such as that of Goliath beheaded by David, Caravaggio was announcing to the world that he was a sinner. Certainly, at that date it was far from unknown for artists to depict themselves as penitents.

By the time he died, he had painted a dozen severed heads, some of them unmistakable self-portraits. Contemporaries appear to have found nothing odd or morbid in this fascination with beheading. Mario Minniti even copied him, painting a Judith and Holofernes of his own. According to some modern historians, it was an obsession that stemmed from a subconscious fear of impotence, but this does not tell us very much about what went on in his mind. And the more one learns about Caravaggio, the more one realizes he was never simple or straightforward.

Alchemy may provide part of the answer. “Beheading is significant as the separation of the ‘understanding’ from the ‘great suffering and grief’ which nature inflicts on souls,” explains Jung in Mysterium Coniunctionis, citing alchemy texts. He adds that, for alchemists, the head was the abode of the understanding and the soul. While it is too much to suggest that Caravaggio was painting an alchemical statement of his search for wholeness, he must have been well aware of alchemical symbolism. We shall never know why decapitation figured so often in his art. All we can be sure of is that it reflected some hidden anguish.

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