In hierdie essay ondersoek die skrywer die konteks waarbinne Caravaggio se skildery Die
onthoofding van Sint Johannes die Doper ontstaan het en die opvoedkundige rol daarvan in die
17de eeu op die eiland Malta. Caravaggio is deur die Ridders van die Orde van Sint Johannes
die Doper opdrag gegee om Die onthoofding as altaarstuk vir die Oratorium van Sint Giovanni
Decollato in die Medekatedraal van Sint Johannes in Valletta te skilder. Die Ridders het daar
aanbid en jong Ridders is daar opgelei om ’n martelaarsdood vir die Orde en die Christendom
te sterf. Die skildery is saam met ’n ander skildery, Die martelaarskap van die Ridders van Malta
te Fort Sint Elmo op 23 en 24 Maart 1565, as grafiese opvoedkundige hulpmiddels gebruik om
sodanige opleiding vir die Ridders te gee. Die skildery het ook as agtergrond vir kriminele
verhore en die ampsontneming van Ridders wat oortredings begaan het, gedien.
In January 2020 the writer visited Malta, where the famous Great Siege of Malta took place in
1565. On this island the Knights of the Order of St John obtained a famous victory over the
Islamic Ottoman Turks of Suleiman the Magnificent, emperor of Turkey. In the past the writer
has conducted some research about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Pretorius 2013) and
has since always wanted to study his painting The beheading of St John the Baptist on the island. When he attended an academic conference there in January 2020 he finally succeeded
in doing this. As part of the research process he assembled a summary of the development and
history of the Siege, which was published by LitNet (Pretorius 2020, online). The precise
development of the Siege and the outcome thereof fall outside the scope of this article, of which
the aim is to investigate the origin, context and educational use of Caravaggio’s The beheading
of St John the Baptist.
The origin of the Knight of the Order of St John can be traced to a specific moment in European
history, namely the rise of the Latin West as a Mediterranean force. Europe, and specifically
the territories of France and Spain, had developed the power and methods to resist Arabic
expansion in the 6th century (Mercieda 2016:8). After that, it was essential to deploy permanent
garrisons in the East, not only to defend the conquered territories, but also to provide protection
to the large numbers of pilgrims from Europe that wanted to visit the Holy Land.
The membership of the Order was sustained by recruiting Knights from the different territories of Western Europe, which led to the development of seven language groups (Langues, which
means “tongues”) in the Order (Mercieda 2016:10‒1). These language groups came mostly
from young noblemen from England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal. It is
important to note that the merging of all these diverse and nationalistic language groups into
well-functioning fighting units must have posed a huge challenge to the leaders and
commanders of the Order.
The Siege lasted for three months and it was ended when the Knights attained a famous victory
over the Turks. Of the 8 000 soldiers that fought on the Christian side only about 500 survived.
As many as 7 000 of them died in bloody and vicious battles. Many of them were killed by
Turkish bullets, but the Turks also used arrows, knives, cannons and fire against the Knights.
Quite a number of beheadings were also reported. Graham-Dixon (2010) reports about Turkish
soldiers who decapitated Christian captives and mounted their heads on poles as a bizarre signal
to the other Christians. These Knights had to defend the Christian faith under the most
dangerous conditions imaginable. How were these young Knights trained to prepare them to
make the ultimate sacrifice?
In the decades following the victory of the Knights there was an increase in the number of
volunteers from Europe. They were lured to Malta by dreams of equalling the heroic deeds of
the heroes of the Great Siege. They were thoroughly trained by their seniors by using, among
other teaching aids, the huge painting The beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
painting (361 cm x 520 cm; Figure 9) was commissioned by Alof de Wignacourt, Grandmaster
of the Order in the first decade of the 17th century as an altarpiece for the Co-cathedral of St
John because John is the patron saint of the Order. He is also regarded as the first martyr and
Knight (Stone 1997:169). Caravaggio portrays this dark act in supreme fashion: The muscled
executioner bends over the body of his victim, whose hands are tied behind his back in brutal
fashion (Graham-Dixon 2010:377). The executioner has thrown his sword down and has to
reach for his knife since the job is not completed.
Why was The beheading required for the Co-cathedral of St John? The novices of the Order of
St John listened to sermons in this room (Stone 1997:161; Graham-Dixon 2010:378). It was
also the room where the Knights could do private dedications (Stone 1997:161). Apart from
this, the bones of the Knights that had sacrificed their lives in the Great Siege were also buried here. In the oratorium the young Knights were trained in the demanding habits of the Knights
of Malta and it was drilled into them that they, too, should embrace the idea of a gruesome
death in a foreign and distant country. Caravaggio’s altarpiece was designed in such a manner
that they could be under no illusion as to what this would entail. A martyr’s death meant
everlasting glory with the angels in heaven, but there would be nothing glorious about the death
itself. The painting is like a catechism, namely the asking of pertinent and piecing questions:
Do you have what is needed to be a Knight of the Order of St John? Are you ready to die?
To die in this manner? (Graham-Dixon 2010:378).
Above The beheading a painting by an unidentified artist, The martyrdom of the Knights of
Malta at the Siege of Fort St Elmo on 23rd and 24th June 1565 (270 cm X 590 cm; Figure 8),
is displayed. It is a picture of the martyrdom of these Knights during the unsuccessful defence
of the Fort (Stone 1997:167). The Madonna, the Child and St John the Baptist rest in the upper
part while angels spread palm leaves over the heads of the decapitated Knights that arrive in
heaven and the martyrs on the battle field. In contrast with the peaceful upper part of the
painting the bottom part of it portrays a wave of death and destruction. There are decapitated
and crucified Knights in this part. It contains gruesome, fearful and historically accurate scenes and is aimed at moving even the most obdurate to piety (Stone 1997:167).
Integrated with these historical references are specific references to Christian martyrdom
(Stone 1997:168). At the top left there are three men tied to a tree and shot with arrows – like
St Sebastian. On the right another knight is crucified upside down – like St Peter. To the right
of this is a headless corpse, with his head alongside him (Figures 8 and 10). One head in
particular seems like an imitation (Figures 8 and 11) of St John in The beheading or even to be
competing with it (Stone 1997:168).
This painting was seemingly intended to be used in collaboration with The beheading in an effort
“to transform the brash, sword-toting youths of Europe’s nobility into a unified corps of Godfearing
Christian soldiers” (Stone 1997:168); it was the perfect educational tool for their training.
The painting’s shocking images were used to inspire shock, faith and heroism in the young
knights. The oratorium was built for exactly these sermons, and the two paintings display a
memorable, even mnemonic form. One could imagine the young knights reflecting on the two
paintings on the altar while being lectured about how their predecessors obtained “crowns of
immortality” with their heads (Stone 1997:168).
The impact of the lectures has been doubled because the Oratory is, as mentioned, positioned
on top of the original cemetery of victims of the Siege. This cemetery, which still exists in limited form, carries a memorial plate with the names of the Knights that died in the Siege.
Because the original entrance to the Oratory was not through the main church, the novices had
to march over the bones of the deceased martyrs of 1565 (Stone 1997:168). The didactic,
memorial and ceremonial value of The martyrdom functioned in symbiotic partnership with
Caravaggio’s The beheading to train the novices in the nature, spiritual environment and
circumstances of a cruel, bloodthirsty death.
The beheading was completed in mid-1608. It was a huge success. Alof de Wignacourt was
very impressed by it, and he awarded Caravaggio with a golden chain and gave him two slaves.
He now was what he had always wished for: an important man on Malta (Graham-Dixon
This situation would not, however, last. Within a few weeks, in August 1608, Caravaggio became
involved in a serious attack on a fellow Knight, Giovanni Rodomonte Roero (Graham-Dixon
2010:387). On 28 August 1608 he was thrown into the jail in Fort St Angelo. He escaped in
almost superhuman manner, but on 1 December 1608, in his absence, he was defrocked and
called “a rotten and deceased limb” – in front of his own painting (Graham-Dixon 2010:391–2).
Caravaggio was a fugitive once again.