Salome with the Head of John the Baptist

Year c. 1607
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 91.5 cm × 106.7 cm (36.0 in × 42.0 in)
Location National Gallery, London

Caravaggio's captivating portrayal of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist emerged from obscurity when it was unearthed in a private collection in 1959. This masterpiece, laden with historical significance, is steeped in the intrigue of the artist's tumultuous life.

The renowned Caravaggio biographer Giovanni Bellori, writing in 1672, added a layer of complexity to the narrative by recounting an episode involving a similar painting. According to Bellori, Caravaggio sent a rendition of "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist" to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta in 1608. This act was perceived as an attempt by the artist to regain favor after being expelled from the Order. However, uncertainties arise as it seems probable that Bellori was referring to a distinct painting of the same subject, pointing to another work in Madrid (see "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Madrid)").

The handling and distinctive raking light in the painting tie it to Caravaggio's artistic endeavors during his brief sojourn in Naples between 1606 and 1607. This connection is reinforced by striking similarities observed between "Salome" and the Virgin in the "Madonna of the Rosary." Furthermore, a parallel can be drawn between the executioner holding the head of John the Baptist and a figure in the scenes of "Christ at the Column" and "The Flagellation of Christ." These interconnections unveil the thematic coherence and artistic development across Caravaggio's Neapolitan works.

The painting gained renewed attention when it became a centerpiece of the exhibition "Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) from November to February 2012–2013. This exhibition provided a unique opportunity for art enthusiasts and scholars alike to delve into the intricacies of Caravaggio's oeuvre, exploring the nuanced interplay of light, shadow, and subject matter that defines his legacy.

"Salome with the Head of John the Baptist" stands as a testament to Caravaggio's mastery in capturing the raw and dramatic essence of biblical narratives. Its journey from private obscurity to public exhibition underscores the enduring allure and significance of Caravaggio's contributions to the world of art.