Severed Heads at the Nelson-Atkins Museum

My search for history’s finest depictions of severed heads continues in Kansas City. The Nelson-Atkins only has two severed head paintings on display, although they do have many sculptures that are either missing their heads, or are simply bodiless heads, but those don’t count, of course. Unless they depict a severing or a severed head itself, they don’t make the grade.

Hendrick Trebrugghen - The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist - Nelson-Atkins Museum

Hendrick TrebrugghenThe Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, oil on canvas, 1620’s (label) – This painting is all that remains of a larger work, so the composition is artificial. I’ve seen/shot a fair number of images of Saint John the Baptist’s beheading, and this one seems particularly constrained and calm. I think it’s the short, military sword wielded by the executioner, which is simultaneously radiates a sense of praticality of arms and drools thick arterial blood carelessly is what makes the scene seem so motionless, like a snapshot. John’s body, supported by a secondary character, remains kneeling, almost as if it still retained some life, despite the greenish pallor of his bare and dirty feet. Salome, residing in the missing portion of the painting, is unseen in this composition, except for her arm which holds out a platter, awating the deposit of the Saint’s head.

Givanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guercino) - David With the Head of Goliath - Nelson-Atkins Museum

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guercino)David With the Head of Goliath, fresco, ca. 1618 (label) – This fresco comes across a little primitive or “sketchy” in person, and the label says that Il Guernico might have doing it as an exercise in mastering the technique of fresco. This painting seems a little primitive and it has confusing depth, so I find it hard to tell if David is being cast as exceptionally small, or if Goliath is simply portrayed as fantastically large. I’ll presume that’s Goliath’s collossal sword that David has used to rather roughly remove the head of Goliath, leaving us with the image of a rather angelic young man astride a pile of gore. The scale of the sword seems to draw all attention and to be what creates all the drama in this painting – it’s either absurd or the manifestation of the degree of unlikelyness in David’s victory.

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