I love the drama of this, the way that the curtain is thrown back in the middle of an event – the head isn’t fully detached and the executioner is reaching for his knife to finish the job. It’s so vividly theatrical, and utterly alive in a particular moment, painted in 1608 (the year after L’Orfeo and two years after Macbeth and King Lear). The range of reactions and ages is interesting: the old lady horrified (covering her ears not her eyes, making us hear this as well as see it), and the relatively casual young maid waiting to plate up the head. John the Baptist looks like a slaughtered animal – I think it was him who coined the name “lamb of god” for Jesus, so, even in the overwhelming present, we’re linked to the sacrifices of the future. This is also the only painting the artist ever signed: ever alive to melodrama, his autograph is in the saint’s blood at the bottom of the picture.