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.

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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.

Why the Vatican Censored Michelangelo’s David

Sin, sex and censorship

Notre Dame’s Front Entrance. Depiction of the Fall of Man

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

Michelangelo’s David

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?

Fig Leaf

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

Christ The Redemer and David

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”.

Masaccio The Explusion. Before and after restoration

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

Bernini’s The Rape of Proserpina

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.

Final thoughts

Achilles in Hyde Park is covered with a fig leaf

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.

Michelangelo’s Women-Men’s Breasts

So in the first part of this post, I’ve argued that Michelangelo’s women had access to female models, and that his use of male models for female figures wasn’t unusual. The other thing that is often mentioned in class is that Michelangelo was gay and thus somehow had an inbuilt distaste, or even inability, to portray women’s bodies accurately. Now, without getting too closely into the fluidity of sexual identities in the Renaissance/early modern period (if you’re interested, a great starting point is the essays in Judith Brown and Robert Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy), I don’t think it’s possible in this period that a person’s sexuality can be taken as a straightforward explanation for his or her artistic choices. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t explain why this type of image should be popular with a broader audience.

There are two easier explanations:
1)  androgynous bodies were thought to be beautiful in the Renaissance,
2) artistic nudes weren’t meant to be realistic.

The boundaries between male and female were conceived differently in renaissance culture than they are today.  Thomas Laqueur has argued in relation to renaissance anatomical practice that at this time there was “only one canonical body and that body was male”. Although people have objected to what Laqueur has called the “one-sex model”, it seems to have been a highly influential way of understanding sexual difference in the renaissance. The idea was that the normative human body was male, and that women’s bodies were simply imperfect versions of men’s. For this reason, in  early anatomical books, the bodies used to demonstrate human physiology are always male unless the female reproductive system is specifically being studied

Women, after all, were related to Eve who was created from Adam’s rib. Leone Ebreo in his Dialogues of Love (written from the 1490s but first published in 1535) explains that when God created Adam, he was a complete human, containing both male and female parts; Eve was created from his rib whilst he was sleeping, as women represent the imperfect, passive and corporeal aspect of men – who are representative of the intellectual and spiritual tendencies of humans.

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist, 1513-16, Paris, Louvre

No wonder then, that for some in the renaissance, the most beautiful women were those who looked the most like that perfect original form. Like is attracted to like, Marsilio Ficino explained: “Women truly easily capture men, and even more those women who bear a masculine character. And even more easily, men catch men, as they are more like men than are women”. Ficino’s follower, Mario Equicola, claimed in 1525 that “the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect”. This was shown to comic effect in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, where he tells a story of a dinner party where he brought his young and beautiful model, Diego, dressed up as a woman, and Diego was declared the most beautiful of all the ladies. There are plenty of images of feminine-looking young men in the Renaissance that show the interest in male androgyny too – many of Leonardo da Vinci’s male figures look feminine (hence the non-controversy about John the Evangelist “really” being Mary Magdalen that Dan Brown talked about in the Da Vinci code).

There are good reasons, therefore, beyond convenience, why renaissance artists might study a male r model as the basis for their female figures. What we need to do when looking at this type of renaissance nude is to disassociate ourselves from expectations of naturalism and to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful.