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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Caravaggio’s Paintings In the Churches of Rome

Where to see the Baroque artist’s masterpieces in their original locations

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Not all art was made to be bought and sold. Some works of art were made for specific locations, where they were designed to live for decades and centuries. Such artworks are especially interesting because they occupy a very real space, and therefore, can be read within an architectural and social setting.

One such case is the art of Caravaggio, who made some of his best work for several churches in Rome, works that still hang in their original locations.

Caravaggio had an important relationship with the city of Rome: he moved there from Milan in 1592, and over the next 14 years, established his considerable reputation with a number of prominent commissions. These works were on public view and were made to communicate directly with church-goers of the 17th century.

It is worth remembering that the electric lighting that now illuminates these paintings creates a different sort of scene than in Caravaggio’s day. In the early 17th century, the minimal natural light from the church windows and doorways would have been supplemented by the flickering light of oil lamps and candle flame.

San Luigi dei Francesi

One of the first major commissions Caravaggio received was in 1599, to decorate a chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, a church not far from the Piazza Navona. The chapel was dedicated to St Matthew, and Caravaggio initially painted two scenes from the saint’s life: The Calling of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, both completed in around 1600.

There was also a third painting, commissioned after Caravaggio had completed the first pair and the patron was happy. The first version of Saint Matthew and the Angel was rejected, and subsequently removed from the church — it was later destroyed during WWII — but the second version was accepted. Otherwise known as The Inspiration of Saint Matthew, the painting still hangs in the church today, and is for me one of the great paintings of the Baroque period.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

The image of St Matthew gives us the apostle in the act of writing. Matthew is the traditional author of the first gospel, and so paintings often show him in a study or at a writing desk. As one of the evangelists, he is usually accompanied by his traditional attribute, a winged figure resembling an angel.

Detail of ’The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’ (1602) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

Caravaggio’s painting follows this model: the angel can be seen dictating or providing inspiration as Matthew writes.

Caravaggio also does a great deal more with the subject. He provides a setting that is both abstract and ambiguous (set against a dark background) whilst at the same time building up a scene full of real textures, fabrics and expressions. Despite having no definite setting, there is nothing other-worldly about the image; rather, it is close-at-hand and tangible.

Matthew and the angel are in an intimate exchange. And the gentle curve that moves through composition of the painting, from the sweeping lines of the angel’s robes through Matthews body and his outstretched leg, gives the work a perfect internal unity.

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew (1602) by Caravaggio in the Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome

S. Maria del Popolo

At around the same time, Caravaggio was asked to work on paintings for the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, a church on the northern side of Piazza del Popolo.

Two works can be found in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica: The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601) and The Conversion of St Paul (1601).

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter is an especially arresting painting. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles and one of the closest to Christ. He was the brother of Andrew and a fisherman of Galilee. After Christ’s crucifixion, Peter led the apostles in spreading the word of the gospel, and in Rome established one of the first Christian communities.

His own crucifixion came at the hands of the Roman Emperor Nero in A.D. 64. At Peter’s request, he was crucified upside down as he didn’t believe he was worthy enough to be killed in the same manner as Jesus.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Caravaggio’s depiction is notable for several reasons. The physicality of the moment is remarkably vivid: one need only examine the three workers who are raising the cross, each of them occupied by a different task, to understand that this is no idealised account, but a cruel act of real men on another human being. One man hoists a rope; another bears the weight of the wooden structure in his hand; the third stoops to press his back into the cross to help raise it, also holding a shovel in his hand to dig the hole for the stake.

All three workers are are shown with the marks of toil and industry. Their feet are blackened with dust and their hands and arms pulse with raised veins.

Detail of ‘The Crucifixion of Saint Peter’ (1601) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Peter himself is shown in a state of distress combined with disbelief, as he his hoisted backwards on the cross. The very moment depicted emphasises his vulnerability: he is an old man in a loin cloth, frightened by the prospect of his last few moments alive. It was Caravaggio’s ability to bring out the psychological drama of a scene, and to make it so graphically present, that won him many admirers — and critics too.

The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (1601) by Caravaggio, in the Cerasi Chapel of the Basilica. Oil on canvas. Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome

Basilica di Sant’Agostino

Caravaggio’s realistic style draw criticism because he was so willing to forgo idealisation, even when the scenes were traditional subjects of veneration.

There is no better example of this than the Madonna di Loreto (Pilgrim’s Madonna), completed around 1605 for the Basilica di Sant’Agostino, a Renaissance church near Piazza Navona. The painting is located in the Cavalletti Chapel of the church and shows the the Madonna and Child being visited by two pilgrims, who kneel in prayer before them.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome

Caravaggio has painted Mary in a naturalistic pose, that of a mother bearing the weight of her child on her hip. It is a much less glorified posture — clearly drawn from real life — than the Renaissance tradition had previously established, with Mary tending to hold the child as he were weightless.

Mary is stood in a simple doorway on a stone step; the wall beside her is cracked and flaking. All of the figures have bear feet. The only suggestion that this is a sacred scene is the faint elliptical halo above Mary’s head.

Later critics would claim that Caravaggio made a disrespectful and indecent treatment of the subject. And yet, it remained a popular image for the church-goers, perhaps because the rustic details gives the painting something of a pastoral quality, raising the act of faith as displayed by the destitute pilgrims to the level of pure devotion.

Madonna di Loreto (c.1604–1606) by Caravaggio. Oil on canvas. Basilica of Sant’ Agostino, Rome