Clayton Eshleman The Beheading

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He shook the Counter-Reformation
decorum out of tableau vivants,
eliminating from painting
saccharin distortion and ecclesiastic agit-prop.
If by "the human" we mean actual lives
kicking up dust as they speed toward us
shattering idealistic frames,
then Caravaggio, like Vallejo’s Human Poems,
produced human paintings.
A young whore in red dress dumped on a simple bed:
"The Death of the Virgin,"
The painting refuses the porcelain vagina.
There is no Jesus appearance, just Carmelite men,
convulsed, confused. Whore or virgin, she is laid out,
feet bare, arms and hands dangling
carnivorous, red shadow. The canopy bucks, collapses,
stung through by sin and atonement —
Caravaggio could not completely
slip the Christian corset.
He tore it, revealed its sweated inner lining.
In the destroyed "Resurrection"
it is said that he depicted Christ as
an emaciated convict climbing out of a pit.
What was this painter’s engine?
What does his strong room look like?
The 1602 "John the Baptist in the Wilderness"
(with a gorgeous, naked "Baptist" pulling his ram to him,
a gesture rich with animal coitus),
and the "Victorious Cupid" (a naked fuck-boy with wings,
offering himself joyously to the viewer)
would not have been realized by a heterosexual painter.
He painted the Baptist eight or nine times,
at first using Biblical trappings to be able to work with
adolescent flesh. The story of someone
living on locusts and wild honey,
shaman-like with his lamb or ram familiar,
a moral loudmouth, perfect grist for
a despot’s mill, is of little concern.
These attributes only register on Malta,
site of Caravaggio’s second undoing, 1607.
He arrives with a capital bann on him (for the accidental
killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni who
provoked him over a small debt), meaning:
anyone can sever his head and present it to a judge
for a reward anywhere under Papal jurisdiction.
With the image of the severed head,
we open his strong room. There is the 1597 "Medusa,"
with a shocked, young Caravaggian face,
the 1599 "Judith and Holofernes" jetting blood
as the repulsed but turned on Judith
saws through the neck bone (the fact that the model
for Judith is a 17-year-old whore transforms
the Biblical setting into a brothel).
There are three "Davids with the Head of Goliath,"
the finest of which, done in 1609 or 1610
after the painter’s face had been slashed outside
a Naples’ tavern, depicts a pained, even sorrowing, David
holding out the head of Caravaggio!
David withdraws, with his other arm,
his sword from his crotch. Implication:
the beheading of Goliath/Caravaggio is David’s self-castration,
or, the Goliath/Caravaggio head is David’s phallus.
Tomassoni bled to death from a sword-nicked penis.

On Malta, he paints "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist"
as payment for becoming a Knight of Obedience.
Prison yard dark, 17th century Valletta.
Night in brownish-black settles through,
just enough rakes of light to see, in silence,
what men robotically visit on each other.
The Baptist lamb-trussed on the dirt,
neck partially slit. The executioner,
gripping a fist-full of long Baptist hair,
yanks the head toward us, as, with his right hand,
he pulls a small knife from his leather belt sheath.
His rigid left arm is vertical architecture —
in the deltoids, triceps, radial forearm muscles,
contoured with amber shadow, ivory light,
I sense a sculptural Last Judgment
(it is as if the Ivory Tower rose from the ground of
the Baptist’s "rape"). The executioner’s
white bloomer folds have been painted so that
between his legs a phallic loop dangles,
inches over the Baptist’s red cloak-covered rump.
Under this cloak: his lamb pelt,
the two forked legs of which jut out
as if from his groin. They are vulva-evocative.
The castrational humiliation of beheading
underscored by implicit buggery.
Baptist as catamite. Under the blood
oozing from the cut neck Caravaggio has
the one time in his life —
signed: "f michelAn," directly from the blood blob.
In what spirit does the painter sign?
"f" = "fra," brother — and as a man,
condemned to duplicate the Baptist’s fate —
and as a martyr to his own cause
which is, in the spirit of Herodian denunciation,
to tell the visual truth, to penitentially argue,
as an artist, the glacial contradiction between
transcendental hope and squalid reality.

After 1608, along with the Goliath/Caravaggio head,
there are two "Salomés with the Baptist’s Head,"
including the executioner and the old woman witness
who, like a compressed Greek chorus,
holds her own "head oh head oh head don’t leave me now!"
over the Malta beheading. The three float
as partially bodied heads in inky blackness about
the head-charged platter. The heads of Salomé and granny
implicitly share the same torso
as if making up a whole. Given Caravaggio’s
fixation on the Baptist and Goliath,
with the signature and the painter’s ruined face,
a dyadic Caravaggio is evoked,
a Baptist-Goliath, two heads sprouting off
the same severed neck, or
off the same severed erection
while there are soft penises in the oeuvre,
there are no erections, so erection may be
the undepictable "thing," in Vallejo’s words,
Caravaggio’s "dreadful thing thing,"
generating the decapitational obsession.
Neck as erection, stem connecting
root to bloom, yes, but also the demonic link between
damnation-pocked head and runaway body,
this head that cannot really "lose itself"
as long as the neck yokes.

Four months after becoming a Knight,
Caravaggio is said to have been thrown into
the Fort Sant’Angelo oubliette,
to have gotten out of this eleven-foot-deep "hole,"
and to have sailed to Syracuse. There is
no record of his misdeed or crime on Malta,
nor how he was able to escape the "hole"
or who arranged his successful flight.
Peter Robb conjectures that the painter got caught
with one of the pages that his sponsor had
imported into unruly Valletta.
"Sex with a page would have been the ultimate outrage."
So they whisked Caravaggio out of there,
stripped him of his Knighthood (he left the island
without permission), leaving him to his own devices.

One of his Maltese paintings is a portrait of his sponsor,
Adolf de Wignacourt, Grand Master.
Next to Wignacourt in full armor is a page in red hose
looking directly at the painter (as very few subjects do),
holding Wignacourt’s large red-plumed helmet.
If one takes the Goliath/Caravaggio head from David’s grasp,
and superimposes it over the Grand Master’s helmet,
Robb’s conjecture is visualized. Grand Master
(surely the profoundly offended in this scenario),
delectable page, and Caravaggio as the Goliath-to-be,
a kind of ménage à trois. The unacknowledged
Maltese crime is, in its own way,
duplicated in July 1610. Caravaggio has disappeared,
his body is never found, all the official
reports of his demise make no sense.
Robb thinks he was murdered, probably by
people associated with the family of the man
he had killed. Martyrdom and salvation
are packed into the double Caravaggio head.
His paintings show, in compressed form,
a new self, released from Scholastic rote,
cloaked in Venetian red. Behind it:
desire for revelation, not of a transcendental ilk,
but of the soul made monstrous. Out of this full showing,
the true life of humanity — the poor, the tortured,
the saintly, the common, mother and child — may assemble.
Caravaggio gyrates on in me. I have,
in my stomach, some of his hermetic lantern shards,
undigestible martyrdom/salvation.

This material is © Clayton Eshleman

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