The story of the death of John the Baptist is related in the Gospel of Mark (6: 16–29). John had criticised King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias, and she sought revenge. At Herod’s birthday feast, Herodias’s daughter Salome so delighted the King by her dancing that he promised her anything she wanted. Encouraged by her mother, she asked for the Baptist’s head, and the King had John executed.
This is a late work by Caravaggio, probably painted towards the end of his life. He has reduced the story to its essentials, focusing on the human tragedy and conveying the scene’s emotional power through a restricted range of colour, pronounced chiaroscuro and dramatic gesture. The brutish executioner places John’s head on a salver held by Salome, whose serious expression and sidelong glance are enigmatic. An elderly maidservant clasps her hands in grief, setting the emotional tone. Characteristic of Caravaggio’s mature works, the composition appears simple but actually hides a sophisticated physical and psychological interplay between the main protagonists.