• Matthew Shirfield

De-Caravaggising Caravaggio

Updated: Mar 6

Matthew Shirfield



Galatea ‘is alive!’ exclaimed Ovid in his Pygmalion myth, revealing the inherent wonder and beauty of an ideal sculpture that had taken a life of its own. A work of art is paradoxically one and separate from its creator leading to an interesting relationship that will be effectively represented in the 2022 Venice Biennale through the Maltese curatorial project Diplomazija astuta.

The team of curators, artists and project managers will be reinterpreting the Early Baroque masterpiece by Caravaggio, ‘The Beheading of St. John’, so as to bridge it and ground it within, what Prof. Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci called, “the century of metal”. One of the interesting things which was emphasized by Schembri Bonaci during the 2021 Malta Pavilion press launch was that the project was to “de-iconise” and simultaneously “de-Caravaggise” Caravaggio. This concept of de-iconising raised several questions not only on the original masterpiece, but also on the development of art itself. Essentially, it is these questions which stand at the crux of this article in the hope that one may edge closer to why Malta would seek to seemingly separate itself from the umbilical cord that gave life to its rich Baroque past.


The concept of de-iconising bears the strong influence of the twentieth-century developments of a mass-consumerist culture, leading to repetitive façades being produced that arguably desensitized society of the original aura of these masterpieces, including Caravaggio’s iconic ‘Beheading’. However, the emphasis placed upon these two key words, “de-iconise” and “de-Caravaggise”, signals a deeper separation that bears the seeds of a new beginning for art in Malta; a poetic birth that recalls Bernard Shaw’s ‘Galatea’, independently walking away from her master and creator.


Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a renowned playwright who reinterpreted Ovid’s ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’ myth within a contemporary context. The narrative is loosely based around an artist who creates an ideal woman through ivory that eventually comes to life through the gracious blessing bestowed upon him by the gods. This story was echoed by Shaw in his play ‘Pygmalion’, a play about a Professor of phonetics teaching a girl from the gutter how to speak proper English and thus, transcending the classes and barriers of society, making her an independent woman. However, these two stories differ in their ending as Shaw wanted to subvert the conventional idea that Galatea, after gaining life, would marry her creator, similar to Malta’s bond with Caravaggio’s masterpiece.

(Matthew Shirfield’s, “De-Caravaggising Caravaggio” and Galatea’s Independence, published on The Malta Independent on 23rd January 2022)

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