The Italian artist explains the Greek myth through his traditional play of light and shadow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Have you been to Notre Dame? A medieval cathedral in Paris, completed mostly in the 13th century.
At the front entrance to Notre Dame, there is a depiction of ‘the fall of man’. The dramatic moment at the garden of Eden where Eve eats the forbidden fruit and shares the fruit with Adam. Ashamed of their nakedness, both are expelled from the Garden of Eden.
We reach the climax of curiosity when we see their private parts are covered with a “plaster cast of fig leaves”.
According to Genesis 3:7 —
“And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.”
As soon as Christianity seeped into the European land in the 1st century AD, this doctrine was literally adopted by the artisans and sculptures and etched on the stone. As we entered the medieval period, Catholic churches started viewing nudity as “obscene and a sin.”
St. Augustine, the famous theologian and one of the Latin fathers of the Church believed that since eating the forbidden fruit, man lost control of his genitals and unwanted erection was apparently a sign of disobedience.
Thus, a fig leaf became synonymous with sin, sex, and censorship.
Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history
The Renisaance period led to the age of awareness.
There came a genius artist and sculptor who defied Christian beliefs and rekindled the birth of the ancient nude — Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. A nude proudly standing tall in the public place of Palazzo Vecchio.
Michelangelo portrayed David as a virtuous man and tried to show his inner beauty through his outer beauty. He took care of the tiniest of details and as we slide down, you might notice David’s small penis. Yes, there is a reason for his small penis. Michelangelo tried to imitate the classical statues.
An art historian explains how the small phalluses shown in Greek statues were seen as a symbol of restraint and control.
Soon Michelangelo’s virtuosity reached the Vatican and he was invited by Pope Julius II to design the Sistine Chapel.
Yet again, Michelangelo challenged the Catholic Church and painted the way he wanted.
Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, vociferated the fresco paintings to be suitable for ‘public baths and taverns’ and not a chapel.
Michelangelo was charged with blasphemy and crossing his limits.
These criticisms instigated the Catholic priests and in turn pressurized Pope Julius II to take action against Michelangelo’s nude sculptures. A campaign was launched to camouflage the private parts of these sculptures in Italy.
Thus began the Fig leaf Campaign — the biggest coverup in history.
Why a fig leaf as a coverup choice?
The coverup choice was a fig leaf and not a birch leaf or chestnut or mighty oak. Why?
Because the Garden of Eden had abundant fig trees. Scholars believe that the Garden of Eden was set in modern-day Iran.
Artworks that fell victim to this campaign
Michelangelo’s David is the most popular sculpture to be censored for nudity as per the church’s propaganda.
Michelangelo’s Christ The Redemer in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome also came under the papal authority and a permanent bronze girdle was placed which could never be removed. This was done after the statue became a victim of vandalization.
In some cases, the plaster and marble phalluses were even chiseled off.
Art historian Leo Steinberg pointed out in his 1983 book The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion that many beautiful antique statues were castrated in Rome by the order of Pope Paul IV.
The campaign didn’t spare paintings, either. Areas of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement deemed unethical were painted over twice in the 1500s, and then again in the 1700s, with little swaddles and loincloths added.
A Mannerist artist named Daniele da Volterra was charged with modifying Michelangelo’s frescos, which won him the derogatory nickname of “The Breeches Maker”.
The trend took in radar Masaccio’s paintings too. In the 1600s, an unknown artist covered his fresco The Expulsion with fig leaves.
And in between 1758 and 1759, Pope Clement XIII swathed even more sculptures in the Vatican’s collection with fig leaves.
The fig leaf phenomenon spread beyond Italy’s borders, too.
When the Grand Duke of Tuscany gifted a cast of Michelangelo’s David to Queen Victoria in 1857, a large leaf was promptly sculpted to censor nudity, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).
Fortunately, a detachable fig leaf was created so that it could hang over the figure without damaging it. Today, the sculpture stands completely nude in the V&A, while a small vitrine next to it houses the large fig leaf.
Bernini’s ingenious twist to the fig leaf campaign
As we traverse 17th-century art, painters like Lorenzo Bernini gave an ingenious and eroticized twist to the fig leaf. Bernini understood that the more we cover things up, the more we want to know what’s underneath.
So, he dexterously created the famous marble sculpture — The Rape of Proserpina. The sculpture portrays “no nudity” and exudes a slipping drape effect conveying the message of the abduction of Proserpina who was seized and taken to the underworld by Pluto.
In 19th century art, the 18ft statue of Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War was unveiled at the Hyde Park Corner on 18th June 1822.
The statue was made by Sir Richard Westmacott using 33 tonnes of bronze from cannons captured in Wellington’s campaigns in France. Originally, the statue was completely nude. But soon it caused outrage and so a small fig leaf had to be added soon after it was installed.
Over the last 40 years, a few of the paintings have been restored but still, nudity is considered taboo in the Catholic Church.
The fig leaves linger on at unexpected places.
Unarguably, the fig leaf campaign is the biggest coverup in history to censor art and nudity.
Adopt these habits to enhance your learning process.
A few days ago, I finished reading Leonardo da Vinci’s biography by Walter Isaacson. This book is easily the best 30 bucks I’ve spent in lockdown. Such an amazing read! My mind was absolutely blown.
I’m sure you know who Leonardo da Vinci is (or at least have heard his name before), but I’ll refresh your memory anyway: With expertise spanning virtually all fields known to man — arts, science, engineering, humanities — Leonardo is an Italian polymath who has been dubbed the “Renaissance Man.”
He is, arguably, history’s most creative genius.
How is it possible to become an expert in so many fields? And no, not in a “jack of all trades, master of none” kind of way, but to actually become a master of all those trades. The answer is intricate, of course, but if I were to boil it down into one thing, I’d say it’s this: Leonardo is a master of learning.
That is essentially the skill that makes polymaths like Leonardo shine so brilliantly: They have mastered the art of learning. I know, it’s a bit meta — but that’s exactly why it’s amazing. After all, once you’ve learned how to learn, you can replicate that process to whatever subject you want and ultimately become a master at it.
Here, I’ll outline seven habits that I’ve identified in Leonardo. While I encourage you to read the full book to get the whole picture, you can use these seven takeaways as a starting point.
1. Relentless curiosity
“Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” Leonardo wrote in his notebook.
Did you know that the tongue of the woodpecker can extend more than thrice the length of its bill? And when it’s not used, it retracts into the skull and wraps itself around the brain, thus becoming a cushion for when the bird does what it’s known for: Smashing its beak repeatedly against tree bark.
That’s amazing, isn’t it? Another one of Mother Nature’s magic.
But you don’t really care, do you? Me neither. Why should I know about a woodpecker’s tongue? It won’t affect my day in any way. In fact, I can go about my entire life without needing to know about it in the slightest.
But that’s the trait that defines geniuses like Leonardo: They’re ridiculously, painfully curious. They just ought to know everything. Every little object or occurrence piques their interest and leads them down an inquisitory rabbit hole. When they have a question, they have to answer it no matter what.
But weren’t we all like that when we were children? Everything we see fascinates us. We bother adults around us with questions they deem unnecessary and at times comical. Sadly, we lose that behavior as we grow up, once we’ve learned that the world isn’t as forgiving as we thought it to be.
But there are some like Leonardo, who maintained that childlike sense of wonder well into their last breath. And that relentless curiosity has made all the difference — it shaped them into peerless learners, able to process all sorts of raw data into extraordinary insights.
As Albert Einstein, another one of history’s greatest geniuses, once said:
“I have no special talents, I am just passionately curious.”
2. Sharp observation
Sherlock Holmes, another renowned (albeit fictional) polymath known for his deduction skills, once said to his friend John Watson:
“You see, but you do not observe.”
Geniuses don’t just see, they observe. Leonardo certainly embodies this habit of keen observation. He proves to be an incredibly acute observer, as shown through the woodpecker example before, and more:
He noticed how people’s facial expressions relate to their emotions
He watched how light bounces off different types of surfaces
He identified birds who flap their wings faster in their upswing, and others who are faster in their downswing
Furthermore, we know that Leonardo is a man who acts on his curiosity.
When something catches his eye, he doesn’t just think “Oh that’s cool,” and carry on. He actually tries to understand why and how it works—and ultimately, he emulates the findings into his creations, like his exceptionally realistic paintings and sophisticated mechanical devices.
Leonardo notices patterns where others didn’t even glance twice. In other words, geniuses like him see things unseen.
As said by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.”
3. Emphasis on experience
While Leonardo is famous for his extraordinary intellect, not many people know that he had barely any formal education. He went to an abacus school when he was young, and that was it.
A substantial part (if not all) of the brilliance we know him for is not the product of institutionalized learning — they’re the result of Leonardo’s own efforts. More specifically, his observations and experiments.
When it comes to learning, Leonardo puts a heavy emphasis on experience. He doubts people who like to cite experts but spend no independent effort on becoming experts themselves. He said:
“They will say that I, having no literary skill, cannot properly express that which I desire to treat of, but they do not know that my subjects are to be dealt with by experience rather than by words. And [experience] has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will cite her in all cases. Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: on experience, the mistress of their masters.”
To become a master at any trade, one has to actually experience that trade. Everyone can read books about engineering, for instance, but not everyone can become an engineer. They have to actually practice the craft.
Change “engineer” with any other profession and the lesson will still apply.
School can be a solid source of enlightenment, but no one can become a master unless they move beyond the classroom and into the real world.
4. Seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake
When you eat ice cream, do you eat it because of its nutritional value? I would say no, otherwise, you would’ve gone for a salad instead. One reason for that could be because we associate ice cream’s taste with “happiness” and salad’s nutrition with “usefulness.”
Many of us have a similar association with playing and learning. Playing equals happy, and learning equals useful. We only learn when we think it’ll help in our career, or when we need a good grade to pass a class in university. Or, worse yet, only to look smart in front of others and garner their praise.
But why does it have to be like that? What if you indulge your curiosity like you indulge your appetite? What if you learn whatever you want to, not just what’s useful or what’s demanded of you?
As we see in Leonardo’s observation on the woodpecker’s tongue, a piece of practically useless knowledge can also be a source of joy. Sometimes, seeking knowledge for its own sake is enough. Maybe you’ll find a use for it later, but even if you don’t, at least you’ve enjoyed the process. That’s already a win.
When you associate knowledge itself with happiness, not just usefulness, it becomes almost impossible to stop learning — you’ll crave it like ice cream.
5. Purposeful procrastination
This one might sound weird at first. After all, do I need to tell you to procrastinate? If you’re like me, you already procrastinate so much it’s become a problem. If anything, you want to get rid of this habit, not adopt it. But Leonardo can give us a different perspective.
He once said:
“Men of lofty genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work least, for their minds are occupied with their ideas and the perfection of their conceptions, to which they afterward give form.”
Sometimes, when Leonardo is struck by inspiration, he doesn’t immediately act on it. Instead, he dwells on that inspiration and lets it shapeshift and evolve. Once he knows for sure what form he can give it, only then he started creating.
When painting The Last Supper, for example, sometimes he stares at the canvas for an entire hour, makes a single stroke, and that’s it. He leaves and continues another day. But now we see how magnificent that painting is.
If you do it purposefully, procrastination can be a powerful tool.
Think of it like this: A steak that’s marinated for 30 minutes, and another that’s marinated for an entire day — which one do you think tastes better? Honestly, it depends, but you’ll have a better chance with the second one, simply because the seasoning has more time to seep into the meat.
Creativity is kind of like that. When an idea comes to you, sometimes you shouldn’t act on it right away. Let it marinate in your mind. Play around with it, imagine what strange things can you do with it. If you do it right, the resulting idea will be far more interesting than its initial form.
6. Timely perfectionism
Still related to the previous point, this one is also a bit controversial. Isn’t perfectionism bad for learning?
“Real artists ship,” Steve Jobs famously said. What matters more than creating one immaculate art is creating a hundred good-enough ones, because the process will teach you many important lessons. But he underwent a long process before he arrived at that conclusion.
Jobs used to be a perfectionist, not wanting to release a device unless its motherboard looks beautiful — a motherboard, mind you, not a screen or a logo. Who sees a motherboard? Almost no one. You have to crack the device open to see it, after all. But Jobs wanted every aspect to be perfect, even the ones not visible from the outside.
Leonardo is the same. To him, an artwork is not finished until it’s perfect. That’s why he often leaves his work unfinished. “Finished but imperfect” is not in his vocabulary, so he’d rather they stay unfinished forever. Examples of this are TheBattle of Anghiariand Adoration of the Magi, which are both paintings that Leonardo left unfinished until his passing.
Often, perfectionism runs contrary to improvement. Your obsession with perfection can hinder you from making mistakes and reflecting on the lessons. The main goal in learning is to do your best even if it’s imperfect, improve in the process, then move on to the next work and do better with it.
Yes, that’s true. But learning is not a static process.
There will be times when your goal is to create the best work — not “the best you can possibly make,” but “the best, period.” And during those moments, there is no greater virtue than perfectionism.
7. Connecting everything to everything else
This is my favorite quote from Leonardo:
“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses — especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Perhaps, the biggest fallacy of modern education is that we’ve put knowledge into separate boxes when it’s supposed to be a unified entity.
Science, art, history, philosophy — they’re all supposed to work in tandem. They inform and expand on each other. They fill each other’s gaps. After all, they have the same purpose: To help us make sense of the universe.
By separating knowledge into silos, we’re breaking the universe into fragments, and this way we will never understand it in its entirety.
Geniuses like Leonardo, however, know that a fragmentary approach is incorrect. There is a science to art, just as there’s an art to science. Everything is connected to everything else — and we should learn to see that connection.
To recap, here are the takeaways I’ve learned from Leonardo’s biography:
Be relentlessly curious
Don’t just see, observe
Don’t just study, experience
Seek knowledge for its own sake
Be perfectionistic when you need to
Connect everything to everything else
I have tried implementing these seven habits in my own life (that’s habit no. 3: Experience!) and I honestly think they’re worth a shot.
Some of them already come naturally anyway, like no. 4 — I learn because I enjoy it, I’ve always been like that. Maybe you already identify with one (or more) of these habits as well? Good, then you won’t be starting from zero.
Lastly, a tiny note: I’m not a historian. While I did my due diligence when writing this piece, I encourage you to do your own. Although even if we dismiss the historical accuracy and remove Leonardo’s name from this article, these seven habits can still be useful to adopt.