At Large  November 19, 2021  Ivy Pratt

Why You Should Watch "Secrets of the Dead: The Caravaggio Heist"

Wikimedia Commons.

Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing, c. 1607-08. Oil on canvas. 44 x 61.8 in (112 x 157 cm).

The PBS documentary series Secrets of the Dead is set to release an episode entitled The Caravaggio Heist on November 24. While it proves to be an unusual installment for a series that typically investigates historical mysteries, attempting to solve them with modern technology and science—the episode delivers a fascinating story of a 1984 art theft and a priest who risked his life to recover a painting.

More specifically—and perhaps most importantly to the art historically inclined—the episode delves into the context of Caravaggio’s creation of Saint Jerome Writing, why the painting matters to the people of Malta, and how this led to the involvement of Father Marius Zerafa.

Fr. Marius Zerafa telling the story of the Caravaggio's recovery. 
Courtesy of Halo Pictures.

Fr. Marius Zerafa.

Fr Zerafa sits smoking a pipe
Courtesy of Halo Pictures.

Fr. Marius Zerafa.

As the center of this particular art heist story, Zerafa is unsurprisingly fascinating. The pipe-smoking Dominican priest studied art history abroad in his youth, found work as a curator upon his return to Malta, and eventually became the director of museums in the country. Art & Object readers, as art lovers themselves, will likely see a kindred spirit in Father Zerafa and thus find his eventual success all the more gratifying.

Photo Credit: Kayleigh Grech.

Thieves rolling the canvas after cutting it off frame.

Time in the episode is also unsurprisingly dedicated to the more true crime-esqe aspects of the story. This includes ransom letters, death threats, wiretapping, and an eventual car chase as well as the frankly ridiculous circumstances of the artwork's disappearance from the cathedral of St. John in Valletta.

Early in the episode, someone observes that the details of the painting's theft almost seem like they were pulled from fiction. Without giving too much away, this author can firmly agree with that statement. Even so, seemingly outlandish art museum thefts were nearly a trend over the last three decades of the twentieth century—think of the high-profile Boston Gardner heist or the rash of thefts experienced by the Louvre over those three decades.

Maurice Calleja.

From left, Brigardier Maurice Calleja, Police Investigor Alfred Calleja, Minister Ugo Mifsud Bonnici and Fr. Marius Zerafa (Behind) at the Police Depot following the recovery of the painting.

If nothing else, this author recommends readers tune in to this episode to see Zerafa participate in the reenactment scenes. For context, he would have been around fifty-five at the time of the theft and is now ninety-two. Quite honestly, it is deeply endearing to witness.

Secrets of the Dead: The Caravaggio Heist will premiere Wednesday, November 24 at 10 p.m. on PBS (check local listings), pbs.org/secrets, and the PBS Video app.
About the Author

Ivy Pratt

Ivy Pratt is a regular contributor to Art & Object.

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