Last Thursday, our class ventured out to Trafalgar Square to peruse the artwork housed at the National Gallery. Before turning the focus to two paintings out of the 2,300 that the gallery offers, I first took note of the overall design of the rooms. All the elements in each room—the wallpaper, the sofa, and the frames—perfectly harmonize to give it a specific look. A clear contrast can be seen from the two images above. The simplicity of the wallpaper and the wooden bench give this room an earthy tone to it, perhaps to match with the paintings displayed. The image on the right gives off an extravagant feel due to the intricate wallpaper, the leather sofas, and the embellished frames.
Focusing now on two specific paintings that poured curiosity over my mind, I will contrast Saint Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbarán and Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. A component that both works share is a dismembered head being held up. The first work displays a skull as opposed to a recognizable human head on the other. The first work displays the skull as an object that is respected. The way that the man is holding on to it gives its viewers the assumption that the skull is an important artifact. In Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, on the other hand, displays a beheaded man on a gold platter, almost as a spectacle that is being paraded.
A skull is known to be a symbol of death and, therefore, perfectly embodies mortality. The head on the other painting is of a dead man that has a lingering expression of grief on his face. This plays on the theme of immortality, that even though the man is beheaded, he is still displaying human-like features. The expression on the others’ faces also differs between the two paintings. In Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, the expressions displayed is that of disgust and shame. This contrasts with the solemn look that the man on the first man is portraying.
Another way that Saint Francis in Meditation is depicting mortality is by the way that the man is handling the skull. With one hand holding it close to his chest, he shows that he fears death but also understands that life inevitably comes to an end. The man on the other painting is holding on to the head with one hand grabbing on to the hair. The fact that it is a head of a dead man with an expression on his face that is displayed on a platter, somewhat attunes to immortality. By parading it around, they are creating an arguably grotesque scene that will be hard for anyone who has viewed it to forget.
The direction in which the humans in the paintings are looking also differs. The man in the first painting is looking up, as if he is seeking for help or for guidance of some sort. The man on the other painting is looking directly at the head with a look of satisfaction.
To conclude, the point of focus in the two paintings are similar—a decapitated head that is being held up by human figures. They differ in that their depictions serve different purposes. A skull, to portray mortality, and a human head on a platter to depict the opposite, immortality.