After the idealism of the Renaissance and mannerism - where artistic ‘rules’ were broken - came the drama of Baroque, which reflected the religious tensions of the age. The vivid power of Italian artist Caravaggio’s work was more than matched by events in his own life. After murdering a young man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in May 1606, Caravaggio fled Rome for Naples, before travelling to Malta a few months later. Whilst in Malta, he was commissioned to paint The Beheading of St John the Baptist for the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
The painting was created as the altarpiece of the Oratory in St John’s conventual church, Valletta, where it still hangs today. It was the largest canvas completed by Caravaggio and is the only work known to have been signed by him. In work such as this, Caravaggio took chiaroscuro – the painterly contrast between light and dark – to thrilling new heights.
Caravaggio’s dramatic style influenced many artists. Spanish artist José de Ribera used powerful three-dimensional modeling and pronounced contrasts of light in paintings such as his Pietá from 1633. Its dynamic composition and selective illumination of faces and Christ’s body convey the emotion and spirituality of the scene.
Explore more of Ribera’s work on Europeana here.
Portuguese Baroque artist Josefa de Óbidos created sumptuous still lifes and executed religious altarpieces and portraits as well, living as an independent woman through the sale of her paintings.
Slovakian artist Jakub Bogdan specialised in painting still life and bird pictures in a lively Baroque style. From his native Eperjes (Prešov in modern Slovakia) Bogdan travelled across Europe, first in Amsterdam and later in London where he married and settled for the rest of his life. His Cat Amongst Cockerels from 1706-1710 shows the influence of Dutch 17th century genre painting. It was commissioned by Admiral George Churchill, one of the artist’s English patrons.