Narcissus—Caravaggio

The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.

‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

The human being is a well-oiled machine, but it has flaws.

One of them affects that concept as ethereal and mysterious as the soul. Psychology, some call it. If we stick to the latter, the problems of the human psyche are practically endless.

Vanity, for example, would not fall within that group of problems; however, it can be a double-edged sword. Greek mythology taught us this danger through the myth of Narcissus.

The myth

In the Hellenic mythological narrative, we are presented with a very proud and insensitive young man in its cosmogony. A guy who keeps rejecting suitors so that sooner or later, the divine punishment had to come for such a braggart.

Narcissus was not going to be an exception.

Among his many suitors who took a good cut was Aminias; the poor man loved Narcissus deeply, but that did not prevent him from rejecting him in nasty manners and with malice. Among these taunts, he gives him a sword, with which the same Aminias will commit suicide in front of the house of Narcissus himself (did he think anything else was going to happen?). While the suitor was dying, he had time to beg the goddess Nemesis to give him an exemplary chastisement Narcissus, making him suffer the suffering of unrequited love in his flesh. Having launched the supplication, Aminias died.

As expected, Narcissus spent enough of that death in front of his house. The guy continued with his business until, one day, he came to a pond.

He saw his own reflection in its waters, falling in love with it. Intoxicated by this attraction, he did not realize that he saw himself. He leaned towards the water’s surface to kiss that attractive young man, recognizing the tremendous deception.

At that moment, shocked by the discovery, he fell into the water and drowned. Saddened by this pitiful spectacle, the gods decided that his body would become a flower, the daffodil we all know.

The painting

Knowing the myth, we can better understand Caravaggio’s painting, which shows us the moment in which Narcissus is engrossed contemplating his reflection in the pond water.

When contemplating the painting, we can make a mythological reading (what it tells the story of Narcissus, the specific passage of the myth that shows us and that is clear) and another more allegorical reading, the messages that the artist wanted to convey through this representation.

We see in the upper part the real character, who looks down on his aquatic antagonist. Two parts divide the work, an upper and a lower one, that is opposed both in presentation and composition.

Above (the real Narcissus), we see the well-defined light in the arms, neck, and face and some flashes here and there. On the contrary, the lower part (the reflection) is very dark, with a very attenuated image that transmits fragility, which seems to foreshadow the fatal outcome of the myth.

The figure of Narcissus, the luminous one, has his left hand coming out of the frame, and we do not see the tips of his fingers; the lower reflection as well, but also part of his back disappears from the painting beyond the margins.

This technique enlarges the figure of the protagonist and promotes the sensation of proximity. A very distant anteroom to the three dimensions, of which there are many other examples throughout the History of Art.

It is as if we could almost reach out and touch Narcissus.

This technique was prevalent in Caravaggio, who liked his paintings to create an impact. Spontaneity and closeness are two common aspects of his works. He wanted the viewer to feel that the characters were about to fall at his feet.

If we look at the painting again, and as mentioned before, we can see that the reflection of Narcissus is somewhat different. It seems older and worn out. In the shoulder canvas, we can appreciate Caravaggio’s mastery in playing with lighting in his works. The ability to put darkness into light was a revolution in his time, so much so that this technique ended up having its name: tenebrism.

Detail of ‘Narcissus’ (c.1599) by CaravaggioYear. Oil on canvas. 110 cm × 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. Image source Wikipedia

Some interpret this luminous contra-position between the upper and lower parts as the visualization of the Ego confronting one’s self-consciousness.

Some even venture to theorize that Narcissus can be read as an explanation of Caravaggio’s psyche, a man of great vanity.

Focusing on the reflection again, we can consider it as that dark place we all have and where aspects such as excessive self-contemplation or selfishness nest.

Above is the conscious, luminous, beautiful, and evident self; below is the egocentric subconscious, which is what we want to hide and which is the shadow of any human being.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Sibyl Went from Sketch to Finished Painting

A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored

Detail of ‘Studies for The Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.

The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.

Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.

Sistine Chapel ceiling (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo’s commission

Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.

The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.

Studies for The Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US

The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.

For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.

The ceiling

The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.

Sistine Chapel ceiling with The Libyan Sibyl highlighted (from 1508 until 1512) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.

The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.

Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.

One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.

This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.

The Libyan Sibyl

Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.

The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.

Left: Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US. Image source The Met. Right: The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.

The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.

The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.

Detail from ‘Studies for the Libyan Sibyl’ (c.1510–11) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk. 28.9 × 21.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, US.

The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”

The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.

The Libyan Sibyl (c.1511) by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Fresco. 395 × 380 cm. Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.

Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

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11 Things Highly Creative People Sacrifice For Their Art

To be a creative can often feel like a choice that is both insane and thrilling in equal measure. There are thousands of jobs that are far more certain and stable than an artist’s work, yet true creatives know that there really is not a choice to be made. The artist must art. Therefore, the artist must find a way to live in the uncertain, wild space between what success looks like to others and what success feels like to themselves. Choosing a creative career is not something for the weak-willed, the comfort-chasers, the ones who need to know how their life will splay out ahead of them for years and years to come. Those are noble endeavors — to value comfort and security — but a creative sacrifices almost all convention in the name of art.

I doubt any of us regret it. We know that life is impermanent and we never know when our last day will be. We’d rather create the work that inspires us most and let it kill us.

1. Highly creative people sacrifice a comfortable life for a big, messy, weird, interesting life

Most creatives learn quickly that comfort and inspiration do not live harmoniously. You can have one, but not the other. Inspiration comes from action, from experimentation, from the chaos, the fire, the big wins and the big fails. In order to art and art well, you must live and live well. And, to live well is to constantly be pushing yourself out of what’s comfortable and into what’s unknown. This is the source of inspiration: whatever lay on the outer edges of comfort.

2. They sacrifice certainty for a big question mark about the future

Creatives have mastered the art of the unknown. Most of them wear this as a badge of honor, because they have learned the hard way that the best laid plans are the easiest sources of disappointment. Nothing about a creative life exists on a straight line. It’s like a squiggly line that often goes backward and then propels forward then stays in one place for an unnervingly long amount of time. There is no plan. The future is a shrug of the shoulders. The words “I don’t know” are the artist’s anthem. To not know is to be open to knowing, to be led, and the creative thrives there.

3. They sacrifice a stable life for the freedom to say yes at any moment

While creatives might have a yearning to build a life and put down roots, they know that there’s always a chance that their lives could be uprooted at any moment. Because an artist does not follow a set path, they have to be consistently open to saying YES quickly and without reservation. They have to be willing to uproot their lives in order to follow the inspiration or the opportunity whenever it comes up. Freedom is the artist’s currency.

4. They sacrifice approval from others for approval of themselves

Most art is created alone in a dark room. It’s thankless work. It’s like doing spec work constantly with the hope that, one day, it will pay off. If creatives needed approval from others to begin, they would never start (and some brilliant creatives never do start, sadly). Instead, artists know that it’s a necessity to approve of themselves, to believe in their work and, as equally important, to believe in the process. Creatives know that chasing approval will always prolong the work from ever leaving their minds, so they simply learn to give themselves the permission they may desire from others.

5. They sacrifice being accepted and understood by the world for being a visionary who may or may not be ever understood

Creatives know that any visionary work will not always be immediately understood or accepted. They accept that they may not ever be accepted or understood — yet make their art any way. They don’t look outside of themselves for the answers, for permission. They simply create whether anyone appreciates it or not.

6. They sacrifice all the “shoulds” for what their heart leads them to create

Creatives know that they can easily “should” their way into a miserable, uninspired life. They know that the world is built on “shoulds” — what this person should or shouldn’t do, how others should or shouldn’t live. Artists know that conventions and traditions hardly inspire creative work, that the only way to listen to what their heart yearns to make is to shut out the “shoulds” of the world and find their own way. This is an arduous process, to empty out themselves from all the beliefs of who they should be and, instead, to allow themselves to simply be who they are now and create what they need to create now.

7. They sacrifice constant happiness for the emotional spectrum of self-growth

Artists know that pursuing self-growth means letting go of the desire to be in a constant state of happiness. To grow is to shed old versions of self, which is to also say to grow is to be able to create new versions of art. The only way the art grows and evolves is when the artist grows and evolves. Every creative soon realizes that self-growth is a state of being and that means to be in almost constant flux. The process of evolvement has no room for holding tight to only one emotion — say, happiness — and needs to endure the entire spectrum of emotions to truly evolve. To face who they are as angry, sad, grief-stricken, resentful, bored is to allow themselves to evolve.

8. They sacrifice superficial relationships and work for vulnerable relationships and work

While creating uninspired art is something all creatives have likely had to do in their past — bills are hard — highly creative people feel even more strongly about making art from a vulnerable, real place. They know that at the heart of artistic genius is vulnerability, a brave person who is willing to be rejected, who is willing to share their soul with a world who may not be very kind to it. While creatives know that superficial work and relationships are oftentimes easier to maintain — and success is often easier to come by for the superficial — they know that art is a choice and a privilege and they always want to create from the deepest parts of themselves.

9. They sacrifice their pride for empathy and compassion

The best kind of art comes from a place of empathy and compassion, from an inherent curiosity around the human experience. Highly creative people understand that their curiosity around humanity is what brings them to the page, the instrument, the canvas, the laptop, the camera, the drawing board. Empathy does not exist with pride. It takes a certain degree of humility to have an empathic view of the world and artists understand that at the core of their work is a desire to move people with their art. This means they have a high level of respect for whoever will come into contact with their work. Creatives know that their tender heart, their empathy, their compassion is at the heart of their brilliance and they will eschew pride and arrogance in order to step deeper into that brilliance.

10. They sacrifice the perception of success for their own definition of success

From the outside, a creative’s life may not look very successful if success is defined by cultural expectations. An artist learns quickly that they must define success for themselves otherwise they will drown underneath other people’s expectations. In their conviction of self, they are free to create and build their life however they desire. Not having to “measure up” or prove anything to others is one of the most important things a creative must learn for themselves — because they could spend their entire artistic life trying to prove themselves and always come up short.

11. They sacrifice the life people told them they should have for a life they love, a life that is inspiring and fucking thrilling

Because that’s the whole point. To create is a privilege, one that artists know not to take for granted. To deny a conventional life is a risk, but not as great a risk as to deny their heart.

The Architect & the Egg

Inspired by natural form, Brunelleschi’s famous Florentine dome remains the biggest of its kind ever built…

A church, of some sort, had stood at the site of Florence Cathedral since the fourth-century. Not surprisingly, by the thirteenth-century, it was no longer in a good state of repair and in dire need of an overhaul. The building of the ‘new’ cathedral began in 1296 and was not completed until 1436. That’s 140 years under construction.

‘Il Duomo’ at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, viewed from Michelangelo Hill

The original designs for ‘Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore’ were laid-out by the the architect and sculptor, Arnolfo di Cambio, and were startlingly different from the medieval fashion of the time. Seeking inspiration from classical buildings, he’d avoided towers, high arches, and flying buttresses. Thus, the building of Florence Cathedral signalled the decline of the Gothic and ushered in the Renaissance.

Hoping to recreate the grandeur of Rome’s Pantheon, he’d left room for a massive dome with a span of around 150 feet, but the secrets of such monumental scale construction had been long lost, as had the formula for the Roman structural concrete used in the dome of the Pantheon. When Arnolfo di Cambio died in 1302, he’d neglected to share any plans for that part…

Work on the Cathedral slowed and the local parishioners continued to use the smaller medieval church, still standing within the larger, incomplete structure being built around it. Construction resumed in earnest some thirty year later when Giotto di Bondone was placed in charge of the project. He managed to avoid working on the dome, instead concentrating on adding his impressive and aesthetically pleasing campanile tower.

After Giotto’s death in 1337, his collaborator Andrea Pisano stepped-up to oversee the continued construction for the next decade, until he succumbed to the Black Death in 1348. Thereafter, work on the cathedral was sporadic, directed by a series of architects who didn’t deviate significantly from the original vision of Arnolfo di Cambio. The ancient basilica within was finally demolished and the Cathedral’s nave was then completed by 1380.

There was just the one problem… A huge hole remained in the roof that needed to be covered with a vast dome! Not one in the succession of chief architects had managed to come up with a suitable solution and the cathedral remained open to the elements.

Among several artists to advise on the design and décor was Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze who was also working on frescoes for the Chapter House of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella — another prominent Florentine church. One of his panels there, Allegory of the Militant and Triumphant Church, was intended to glorify the achievements of the Church in general and the Dominican order in particular.

‘Allegory of the Militant and Triumphant Church’ (c.1366) a fresco painted by Andrea di Bonaiuto da Firenze

Problem was, that Andrea di Bonaiuto had imagined the Cathedral topped with its impressively voluminous dome. The patrons liked his ‘concept art’ and anything less would now imply the church was not quite as triumphant as the fresco proclaimed… Of course, painting an imagined dome wasn’t the same as building a real one!

The patrons really needed to find an exceptional architect, capable of overseeing the construction of an ostentatious dome like no other. They attached an attractive fee of 200 florins to the commission yet no architect they asked thought it was possible to build such a dome.

So, they cast around outside the field and were intrigued when Filippo Brunelleschi, a local goldsmith with no prior building commissions, claimed he was the man they were looking for.

How did Brunelleschi convince the patrons to take a gamble on him when many of his contemporaries were also competing for such a prestigious job? Reputedly, it was all down to something he did with an egg…

The story goes that when he gave his pitch for the project, he had no plans to show! Instead, he presented the panel with an egg and set them a seemingly impossible challenge: He asked them to balance the egg on end.

After each of the patrons and masons had passed the egg round and failed his challenge, Brunelleschi took back the egg and with a decisive gesture brought it down onto the table top with just enough force to impact the shell at the blunt end, effectively flattening the small air space within the shell so that the egg stood stable and upright. No mess.

successful recreation, by the author, of Brunelleschi’s egg action and ‘Il Duomo’ as it is today, viewed from Giotto’s Campanile

The panel dismissed his little trick, claiming that any one of them could’ve done that! Brunelleschi pointed out that, nevertheless, not one of them had. He knew that they were reluctant to entrust such grand work to a ‘newbie’ with no formal training but argued that if he explained his plans to build the great dome, then any architect could do that, too. They were impressed enough with this upstart’s audacity that they decided to take a chance.

It seems things did not go quite as smoothly as this oft-told tale suggests as there are also accounts of Brunelleschi, “a buffoon and a babbler,” being forcibly ejected from the assemblies on more than one occasion! Although they did finally award him the commission, his main competitor, Lorenzo Ghiberti, was appointed as his ‘supervisor’ on equal pay.

Also, once the contracts were drawn up, Brunelleschi did explain, in detail, the ingenious and highly original construction techniques he was to employ. He did this using scale models made out of precisely carved wooden blocks and would also carve explanatory maquettes out of wax and, on occasions, vegetables…

He had sought the solution not in the work of predecessors but in the study of nature — something that marks him as ‘a Renaissance man’. If grasped in a fist, it takes huge effort to crack a humble hen’s egg and the mechanical strength of such a fragile material had impressed him. He’d discovered how parabolic curves distribute force tangentially, giving such forms incredible load-bearing properties.

The religious significance of eggs would’ve also been an influence on his thinking. The oval had long been an alchemical symbol for the fifth element of spirit and the egg had become a Christian metaphor of the everlasting Holy Spirit. This association may date back 60,000 years to decorated ostrich eggs in prehistoric African culture. Eggs, often made from precious metals, were placed in the tombs of kings in ancient Egypt as a symbol of rebirth into the afterlife. Hence the traditional exchange of Easter eggs as gifts to commemorate the Resurrection. Originally, they represented Christ’s tomb and the potential of new life, sealed within.

decorated wooden Easter egg in traditional Greek Orthodox style and modern diagram of the Dome’s structure *

Brunelleschi devised a way to build without the use of internal scaffolding, for which there wasn’t enough available timber anyway, thus enabling use of the church to continue uninterrupted. He employed an array of processes combined in unprecedented ways to build the dome that has survived to this day.

It is, in fact, two domes, one inside the other. The lower sections are built of stone, laid out in a series of smaller, overlapping curves. Each layer is stabilised by the weight of the one above and so forth. He solved the problem of lifting the masonry without using a traditional scaffold by ‘scaling-up’ his goldsmith’s experience of working with clock mechanisms. He invented a new, ox-driven pulley system that used an ingenious clutch and gear system with giant ropes that had to be specially made by shipwrights.

The inner ‘shell’ was strengthened by hoops of wood and metal that act like the restraining bands around a barrel. This prevented the load-bearing parabolic curves from distorting and was a new way of countering the spreading tendency without the use of hefty buttresses. The outer dome is stabilised with concealed chains attached to the inner.

The inner dome was built to be seen from the cathedral’s interior below, its concave surface suitable for decoration, whilst the outer dome was intended to be viewed from outside. Its convex surface was finished with brick, partially for aesthetic reasons, and because it was a much lighter material than stone.

The dome was completed by March 1436 though the finishing touch of the ‘lantern’ at its top was not added until 1461, posthumously created according to Brunelleschi’s design by his associate, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi.

The frescoes for the interior would be designed a century later by Giorgio Vasari who began the decoration in 1568. They were completed in 1579 by Federico Zuccari. However, the cathedral’s outer façade was not entirely finished until the nineteenth-century.

Brunelleschi had carried his egg theme right through from initial inspiration to final product. Not only has the shape provided an enduring structural integrity, it also works to visually compensate for foreshortening. When viewed from the streets below, the subtly elongated oval appears domed, rather than looking ‘flattened’ as a true hemisphere would. The completed structure was, and still is, the biggest masonry dome ever built.

‘La Divina Commedia di Dante’ / ‘Dante and His Poem, the Divine Comedy’ (1465) a painting by Domenico di Michelino depicting Dante Alighieri presenting his epic, with Brunelleschi’s completed dome in the background and the dome’s interior decoration later

Symbolism Found in this Italian Masterpiece

Decoding The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

There are many symbols in this ornate painting that capture its story. A ray of light bubbles up from the clouds in the sky and bursts forth into the street of an Italian town. It cuts through an aperture in a building and eventually touches the head of a woman in prayer.

The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, outside, two figures kneel in the street. One is an angel who has feathered wings on his back and holds a lily flower in his hand; beside him is another man who appears to balance a miniature model town on his knee.

Around the image, various birds perch: a peacock sits on a first-floor loggia whilst numerous doves populate the town. At the front of the painting, an apple and a cucumber lie on the ground. They seem to have been placed there deliberately, and even overhang the edge of the image as if they’re not quite part of the painting.

And then there is the overall strangeness of the composition, the radical perspective and the vivid selection of colours, of terracotta, gold and grey-blue.

It must have been more than ten years ago when I first saw this work of art, The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli. The very first impression it made on me — as my eyes tried to become accustomed to the scene — was one of disorientation.

It can feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a labyrinth and asked to find your own way out again. So what’s going on and how do we find our way in this remarkable painting?

A miraculous moment

As the title of the work indicates, this is a scene of The Annunciation. The woman praying is the Virgin Mary. The event marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ — the moment that Jesus was conceived and the Son of God became Mary’s child.

The Annunciation describes the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and informed her that she would become the mother of Christ. Mary adopts a posture of humility as the news is delivered to her, with her arms crossed in diffidence.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
The Virgin Mary. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Mary is dressed in fashionable 15th century clothing, with an embroidered bodice and puffs emerging from her slashed sleeves. Notably, her head is uncovered: since only unmarried girls and royalty wore their hair uncovered, it is a reminder that she is both a virgin and Queen of Heaven.

Crivelli followed the established tradition by painting rays of golden light descending from heaven and blessing Mary on the head. Arriving on the rays of light is a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, the symbol of God as spiritually active in the world. The motif is from the words of John the Baptist: “I saw the spirit coming down from heaven like a dove and resting upon him” (John 1:32).

An unusual setting

What makes this painting unusual — and what I didn’t understand when I first saw it — is the urban setting of the angel’s appearance, who brings his message forth directly into the street. Traditionally, paintings of the Annunciation show Mary in some sort of walled garden, a reference to her purity as well as the idea that the incarnation of Christ took place in springtime. (The lily carried by Gabriel is Mary’s traditional attribute, a sign of her virtue.)

But in this work, the setting is very much in a town, with brick walls and paved streets. And what’s just as unusual is the bearing of the angel Gabriel, who appears more concerned with the man kneeling next to him than with the Virgin Mary.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at the circumstances of the painting’s creation. The work was first made by the artist Carlo Crivelli for the town of Ascoli Piceno, in the Marche region of Italy. It was painted in celebration, since the citizens of the town had just been granted limited self-government by the Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV in 1482.

The news reached the town on 25 March, the traditional date of the Feast of the Annunciation, and every year after 1482 a procession was held through the streets of the town to celebrate the political and religious events in one. As in the painting, oriental carpets would be draped over the balconies as part of the celebrations. At the bottom of the painting is the inscription LIBERTAS ECCLESIASTICA, which was the title of the papal edict granting the city its freedom.

This would explain the municipal feel of the painting, which, the more you look at it, is brimming with townsfolk going about their business.

It goes without saying that nobody is there by chance. The man kneeling kneeling beside Gabriel is the local patron Saint Emidius, who holds in his hands a model of the town. On the bridge behind them, a man is given a letter to read by a messenger, referring to the Papal edict.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

In this detail, one sees the thematic cross-over, with two messages being delivered at the same time, one from the Papal messenger and the other from Gabriel.

A feast of symbols

The overall detailing in the painting is extraordinary. Every stone and brick is individually painted, along with the ornamental carvings of the pillars and archway. Textures — marble, wood, fabric — are all faithfully represented.

In one area of the painting, a peacock stands with its tail feathers showing resplendently — a symbol of immortality and Christ’s Resurrection, as according to ancient belief, it was thought a peacock’s flesh never decayed. Even the small wooden cage, which if you look closely contains a goldfinch, is meaningful. Often an attribute of Christ as a child, who in other works of art holds a goldfinch in his hand, the bird signifies the soul of man that flew away at his death.

Detail of The Annunciation By Carlo Crivelli
Peacock, oriental rug and a caged goldfinch. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice sometime around 1430. As this painting demonstrates, he was a fine technical painter, and was especially skilled at simulating marble architecture and other illusionistic effects: festoons of fruit and parchment cartellini. (A cartellino was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, as though attached to a wall, often with a nail or pin.)

Illusionistic fruit and veg. Detail of ‘The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius’ (1486) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on panel. National Gallery, London. Source Wikimedia Commons

The apple and cucumber towards the bottom of the painting were Crivelli’s demonstration of his skills as a painter, how he could make objects seem as if they were coming out of the painting. They also carry symbolism: the apple represents the forbidden fruit and associated fall of man. The cucumber — an unusual symbol in Christian art — is thought to refer to the promise of redemption through Christ’s resurrection.

Crivelli died in 1495 in Ascoli Piceno, the town for which he painted this picture. After his death, his reputation fell on hard-times, yet in the 19th century his paintings were seen afresh and admired, especially by the pre-Raphaelite painters of Britain, several of whom praised his work for its remarkable detailed naturalism.

This painting hangs in the National Gallery, London.

The Gods Are Flawed-As Are Humans

Exploring Titian’s ‘poesie’ collection — an interplay of greed, lust, anger, arrogance, and power

Danaë.

Titian was a prolific artist and an excellent storyteller. In addition to his remarkable artistic skills, he knew how to please his patrons. He commissioned paintings for Europe’s most powerful and wealthy patrons — the Medici, Emperor Charles V, Philip II of Spain, Francis I of France, and Pope Paul III.

Titian’s versatility is reflected in a wide range of subjects he covered in his long career. Portraiture, nudes, anatomy, classical, or religious images — you name it and Titian painted it.

When a portrait of a 21-year-old Prince Philip, son of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King of Spain, became a success, Prince Philip was added to Titian’s list of royal patrons.

Titian’s most ambitious project in his career was the “poesie” collection commissioned by Prince Philip. He created 6 mythological paintings in a span of ten years from about 1551 to 1562. The term poesie was used because he considered the paintings as “visual translations of poetry.”

Like poetry, the paintings touch our emotions and imagination through their rhythm of color, the language of symbols, and expressive subjects.

These paintings were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and other classical works. Prince Philip gave Titian the creative freedom to compose, interpret and innovate.

1. Danaë — greed and seduction

Danaë

This is the first painting in the poesie series. Danaë was the daughter of King Acrisius of Argos who was an heirless king. She was locked by her father to prevent her from ever having a son.

This was done because he believed in the prophecy by a fortune teller, Oracle, that his daughter’s son could be his successor. The only caveat was the newborn would kill his grandfather.

Eventually, Jupiter descended from Mount Olympus and seduced Danaë by showering rain of gold. Danaë was enticed and became pregnant. They had their child, Perseus, who is featured in another painting of the poesie series.

2. Venus and Adonis — unrequited love

Venus and Adonis

Titian painted Venus who tried to physically restrain Adonis, the beautiful hunter, to not go hunting. However, his fate was irrevocable. He was gored to death by a wild boar.

3. Diana and Actaeon — anger

Diana and Actaeon

This depicted the moment when Actaeon, the hunter, accidentally encountered Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, a princess wearing a crown with a crescent moon became infuriated and turned Actaeon into a stag. Unfortunately, Actaeon was torn to death by his own hounds.

4. Diana and Callisto — power and disguise

Diana and Callisto

In this painting too, Titian depicted the wrath of Diana. As soon as Diana knew about her hunting companion and nymph, Callisto’s pregnancy, she asked other nymphs to strip her and reveal her pregnancy.

Diana wanted to kill Callisto after knowing her rape by Jupiter (who changed Callisto into a bear). Jupiter immortalized Callisto by transforming her into the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear).

5. Perseus and Andromeda — revenge

Perseus and Andromeda

Andromeda was the beautiful daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia believed that their daughter is more beautiful than the sea nymphs. This claim offended Neptune, god of the sea and he sent a monster to destroy Cepheus’s kingdom. The monster tried to abduct Andromeda and she was chained to rocks.

The hero Perseus came to rescue her. He killed the monster and later married Andromeda.

6. Rape of Europa — abduction and rape

Rape of Europa

Jupiter disguised himself as a bull. Europa approached the bull and tried to tame her by putting flowers around its horns and jumping on the back. The bull (aka Jupiter) took her into the sea and carried her off.

Europa desperately gazed at her companions on the beach.

Conclusion

Titian’s handpicked stories in the poesie series exuded dramatic and intense moments; seduction, greed, lust, anger, arrogance, and power.

But the bigger question is — why did the Greek and Roman mythology let their Gods have flaws?

Because they didn’t see their Gods as all-powerful beings. Their concept of celestial beings was based on the fact that their Gods and Goddesses were similar to humans, the only distinguishable characteristics were that they were immortal, and they were infinitely more powerful.

The Jungian writer, Robert Johnson, believes that “When we dismantled Mount Olympus (home of the Greek Gods) we turned the gods into symptoms.” This is why it is interesting to see the Gods from this viewpoint — what do we have too much of and what are we missing? The Gods may provide a metaphorical clue….