Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (Milan 1571 – Porto Ercole 1610), The flagellation, 1607-1608, oil on canvas, 286 cm x 213 cm, Naples, Museo nazionale di Capodimonte
After the dramatic killing of Ranuccio Tomassoni on 28 May 1606, Caravaggio was forced to flee Rome. Chased by the guards of the Papal State, at the end of that year he stopped in the nearby city of Naples, where he found protection and enough calm to resume painting.
This large painting was commissioned by the De Franchis family to decorate their own chapel in the Church of San Domenico.
The fulcrum around which the work is organised is the column to which Jesus has been tied: we can see its base but not its capital. That Jesus is the fulcrum of the painting is also showed by the beautiful, grazing light coming from the top left corner that illuminates his whole body. Actually, the fact that his shiny skin is still immaculate and without a drop of blood tells us that the flagellation has not yet begun; the three men surrounding Jesus are tying him to the column before they can start to strike him. In fact, they have the scourges in their hands and are about to begin the dramatic sequence that the Gospels tell us occurred in the praetorium, at the behest of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate (cf. Mk 15:15 or Jn 19:1 or Mt 27:26).
The play of light on the three executioners - caught in three different positions to highlight their muscles, twists and movements - alternates light and dark and highlights their traits of strength and cruelty. They are in fact about to inflict a painful punishment on the innocent Jesus. They don’t appear to be feeling any compassion nor understanding: they are people used to evil and to doing it to others without asking themselves any questions.
All this is all the more accentuated by the contrast between their figures and Jesus, who seems to be abandoned to fulfilling the Father's will. He is truly “led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Is 53:7).
Another element that strikes us is that we cannot see the background of the scene; everything is wrapped in darkness. We are reminded of the words that Jesus said a few hours earlier to those who had come to capture him at the Mount of Olives armed with swords and sticks: “Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour, when darkness reign” (Lk 22:53).
But we know that darkness has been overcome by the light, which is Jesus (Jn 1:4-5).