Would you sign?

Caravaggio and the dark moments of life

The first time I was able to sign a document for myself at school, having turned 18, was something of a triumph: I didn’t have to pass by my parents for their signature, but was free to take care of myself. But I also learned that I had to take responsibility over what I’d signed. The same is true for every signature I’ve put down over the years: a signature for my driving license, a signature for my bank account and one for my will (not that I’m a massive pessimist, but writing a will is mandatory once you’ve entered the religious life, even if you don’t own anything in particular).

Since I’ve arrived in Malta, I’ve had the opportunity – through the “Pietre Vive” group I’m a member of – to come into contact, on several occasions, with the signature of the famous artist Michaelangelo Merisi, more widely known as Caravaggio. Two paintings by the Italian artist may be found in the co-cathedral of Valletta. The first portrays St. Jerome, the second, to be found right opposite the first, depicts the beheading of John the Baptist. This second painting is the only work Caravaggio ever signed throughout his artistic career. So what type of secret does this painting hold?

The work is an altarpiece that Caravaggio painted in 1608, during the period of his novitiate with the Order of St. John (the Knights of Malta). It was begun, most likely, in order to fulfill a debt of gratitude to those who had welcomed him to Malta (as well as, perhaps, release himself from a financial debt). The artist’s signature scrawled over the canvas thus represents the new identity he’s assumed, in the eyes of the world and of the Order. No longer Caravaggio but, simply, “Fra’ Michaelangelo”.

It’s interesting to note that the signature in question isn’t simply juxtaposed to the scene being depicted: it’s an integral part of the painting’s narrative. The signature is in continuity with the principal element of the work: the blood flowing out of the decapitated head of the Baptist. Through his signature, the author of the painting enters into the heart of the scene he’s representing.

In fact, among the subjects being depicted, the Baptist’s hands are tied while the others hold off at a distance. Only a subject standing outside the canvas could have put the signature there. Underlining this observation are some recent analyses which have shown that fingers were used to paint the signature onto the canvas. The artist is physically present in the scene being represented. It’s as though Caravaggio is telling us, through this signature: “I’m not just the author of this painting, I’m also the author of the murder!” But what could this mean?

In order to reconstruct the significance of the signature, we need to take a look at Caravaggio’s life. He hadn’t moved to Malta just to take advantage of the island’s great beaches … He was fleeing Rome, where he’d killed a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni during a duel. From that moment on, he lived under the shadow of a death sentence (coincidence …) by beheading. In this difficult situation, entrance into a religious order was a way some, at that time, escaped civil justice and expiated their punishment.

So it’s almost as though Caravaggio, through his signature, is recognising himself responsible for that murder several years before, a murder the circumstances of which remain shrouded in mystery. He recognises that, according to the law of the land, his is the head which ought to have been decapitated. But there’s someone else who’s taken his place: John the Baptist, who’s blood, like that of every martyr, doesn’t cry out for revenge, but continues to offer life. It witnesses to the truth that you can never fall so low that you can’t stand upright again.

Yet Caravaggio’s life will continue to be an adventurous one: some months after the completion of the painting, he won’t be able to keep himself out of another fight, and will have to abandon both religious life and Malta. Yet he witness, over the centuries, to how, even the darkest moments of a life from which we might be trying to escape, can be transformed into something beautiful. Of course, we need to be able to take the weight. We need, we might say, the courage to scribble down our signature.

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