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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Promenade en Gondole

The Allure of Evil in Art

The victim, the witness and the perpetrator

Evil and art have a long history. For almost as long as we have existed, we have externalised the things we fear most. The Ancient Egyptians made reliefs of Apophis, the snake god of chaos and darkness continually trying to consume Ra, the Sun god. The Aztecs evoked the feared Tezcatlipoca, the ‘smoking mirror’ in their art. Christians for millennia have depicted the devil haunting the margins of numerous books and manuscripts.

Over the centuries though, the relationship between art and evil has remained in constant flux. Far from being a simple visceral reminder of our greatest fears, evil in art is often used to say more about the observer than the art itself, as I shall go on to demonstrate. I’ve broken evil down into three categories, which I believe broadly cover evil in art, the role it plays and its relation to the viewer.

We, as observers and consumers of art, are either its victims, witnesses, or perpetrators.

Victim

I’ll start with what I think is the rarest form of evil in art — that which makes the viewer the victim of evil. It takes a special confronting kind of art to achieve this effect. We must not only be addressed by the piece but overcome by it. For me, there is no greater example of this than Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619.

Peter Paul Rubens ‘Two Satyrs’, 1619

The first thing we are drawn to in the painting is the eyes. The satyr is staring directly at us, cheeks flushed, with a wicked grin. Presumably, he has been drinking like his fellow satyr in the background. Satyrs are half-men, half-beast in Greek and Roman mythology and are the attendants of Bacchus (Dionysus). They are distinct from similar creatures like fauns and centaurs and their primary focus is to entertain Bacchus and drink with their wild, indulgent god. They also have a reputation for debauchery, particularly sexual depravity, and are sometimes represented as being permanently erect. Combined with their wild lust, they make for an uncomfortable figure in mythology.

Rubens achieves something disturbing in this painting. Then as now, the context behind the art is important. Understanding this painting means understanding the nature of satyrs. To have one staring at you, grinning, with lust in his eyes is chilling to the core. We are victimised by the evil at play here, our own vulnerability seemingly reflected at us in the satyr’s ever-widening grin.

Witness

To be a witness to evil is to be a part of it. We are affected by the things we see and moved to action. Artists for millennia have played on our need to act and encouraged us to judge the subjects of their work. It’s no wonder then that being a witness to evil in art is the most common expression of the relationship between evil and art.

A great deal of religious art revolves around this premise. We are encouraged to judge the crucifiers and sympathise with Christ. It is a simple and sometimes passive relationship, meant to inspire contemplation of the suffering. But a huge amount of art play with us as witnesses on a different level.

A masterful example of this is William Bouguereau’s, ‘Dante and Virgil’, 1850. Deep in the bowels of Inferno, in a region known as the Malebolge (Rottenpockets), Dante, Virgil and a demon witness two men fighting with one another. Capocchio, a heretic, is bitten by the fraudster Gianni Schicchi. The violence here is visceral and shocking. To the bottom right a man lays crippled in pain and emerging from a glowing pit behind him are several other groups battling one another. Dante and Virgil are clearly sickened by what they see, but the demon revels in it. He is a creature of evil that delights in evil.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850

Bouguereau has given us an interesting dynamic here, offering us two different choices. We know that these two men have been condemned to Hell for their crimes. We are not asked to judge whether they are guilty because we already know they are. What Bouguereau is subtly implying here has more to do with us as viewers of the art than the figures in it.

Put simply, he asks whether you are horrified by the animal barbarity of the men’s fate, or revel in it as the demon does. Bouguereau seems to suggest that you’re doing the latter. Of all the characters in the painting, the demon is the only one really looking out at you. His smile is almost conspiratorial, and his horrific features invite us to contemplate our own inner thoughts on how punishment and retribution must be exacted.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1599

This kind of intimate relationship between subject and witness is different from what we find in many other paintings where we witness evil acts. For example, Caravaggio’s, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, 1558–1602, is powerful and shocking, but the focus is mostly on Judith. The brilliant light, her determined face and firm grip of the blade all seem to me to suggest a commitment and reassure the viewer that although this is a horrific, ‘evil’ act, it is right.

Picasso’s, ‘Guernica’, 1937, offers a different relationship too. We see the trauma of Nazi and Fascist Italy’s bombing campaign on the town of Guernica at the request of the Spanish nationalists. Surrealism here offers us nothing less than a world falling apart. Buildings burn, swords are broken, and men and animals lie in pieces. This is a painting of war on an industrial scale and Picasso overwhelms us with it. We are still witnesses here, but Picasso suggests that our judgement is meaningless. Our voices are drowned out by the falling of Fascist bombs, the lick of flames and the screams of the dying.

Perpetrator

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, we can be perpetrators of evil in art. This is where the true ‘allure of evil’ comes in. While Bouguereau’s demon asks us to think about ourselves, art where we take part in the evil, however subtly, asks no such thing of us.

In Europe, this type of art most commonly depicts Satan. The change from monstrous abomination to the complicated anti-hero Satan has become today is mostly the result of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton depicts a rebellious bad boy fighting against the establishment. His Satan is a far cry from the epitome of evil in we find in Christianity. Artists are quickly drawn to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of the devil/Satan/Lucifer should be considered in pre and post-Milton terms, especially where art is concerned.

William Blake, Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels, 1808

William Blake’s, ‘Satan Arousing the Rebel Angels’, 1808 is a testament to this. Here Satan is powerful and beautiful, a moving figure giving a rousing speech. We are encouraged to sympathise with him. Likewise, Thomas Stothard’s, ‘Satan Summoning His Legions,’ (c. 1790), presents us with a gilled figure, summoning an army. He appears almost imperial, a worthy challenger to the Almighty. We know that the figure in these paintings is meant to be emblematic of evil, and yet he is seductive and alluring. He seems passionate, a revolutionary and rebel, someone we could follow. The artists’ triumph here is to make us forget that evil is evil and draw us closer to darkness than we would ever have dared go ourselves.

These are the first steps toward where we are today with TV shows like Lucifer and Supernatural, where the devil is charming, and his diabolical nature extends no further than his wicked grinEvil is no longer evil. It is sexy, passionate and inviting. Our crime is being tempted by it. We are co-conspirators and would-be rebels. Our inner minds betray us as we feel the pull to figures like Satan.

Conclusion

As art continues to evolve so will our relationship with evil. New mediums, materials and artists will revolutionise the field, but their goals will remain the same. To bring forth the things that torment our nightmares and to reflect back at us those parts of ourselves we would rather remain hidden.