Caravaggio’s Narcissus

(By the way, you can click all images for a full-size view and/or description.)

As has been established in my practise and on this blog, I will discuss Narkissos here. Not merely because His mythos are of Boeotian origin and this blog is entitled “Of Thespiae”, but because the reverence I pay Him is, as my shrine suggests, closely entwined with my Eros worship.

There are literally dozens of versions of the story of Narkissos from ancient Greece. Literally. There are more fragments elsewhere on theoi.com and elsewhere on the web, this I assure you. And the many versions mean many things to many people, such as this interesting article I found on WitchVox some time ago showcases. Of course, the only traits that all of these versions really share is that Narkissos’ “doom” lies in noticing His refection in the spring, and that He somehow became fated to this “undoing”, in one way or another.

Now, I could go on about what the Narkissos mythos mean to me, but I honestly feel that it should be obvious in my own version of His story. Instead, I’m going to rave about this painting.

I was in love with Caravaggio’s Narcissus (high-resolution version on ArtRenewal.org) before I even knew who did it, much less anything about who did it. It wasn’t just the extreme “photorealism” that Caravaggio is often credited with bringing into favour, or even the striking use of light and shadows that even the best photographers of today mimic. Don’t get me wrong, these are all very important points that add to the appeal of this painting to me, but I’m not one who typically gets caught up in the details (at least not when I’m enjoying something — when I’m creating something, on the other hand, oi theoi…), I prefer to see the whole picture and enjoy it for what it is, what it represents, and, at most, regard the details as these perfectly-fitted pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that one has sealed with Puzzle Saver and lifted before a window to check for cracks — if any piece proves an imperfect fit, light would shine through and amplify that imperfection.

But, since this is Caravaggio, no imperfections are apparent in such a way to prove such an amplified distraction from the picture.

One of the traits of this painting, and the majority of Caravaggio’s others, is that he not only drew from Christian and Graeco-Roman mythology for his subjects, but he gave the subjects modern relevance but having his models use their own clothing, or in cases such as Amor Vincit Omnia (“Love Conquers All”, commonly known as “Amour Victorious”, in English), a nude, surrounded by modern accoutrements. Considered another “radical” element to Caravaggio’s style, at the time, it’s so apparent to me, in in the twilight of the year 2009 (nearly four hundred years after Caravaggio’s death in 1610) why he made this choice. If these are tales to for all times, then what’s the relevance of recreating an image of a time that we are not a part of? In a fitting tribute to the painter, film-maker Derek Jarman treated his biopic, Caravaggio similarly, carefully blending modern and 17th Century elements to sets and props and costuming, even framing shots to be reminiscent of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro lighting technique.

This piece first piqued my interest, by my memory, when I was maybe eleven or twelve. At first because my hair-colour was similar to the model’s, and a teacher thought that we had similar faces. I was familiar with the Narkissos story that appears in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (which is based on Ovid’s) from about the age of eight, and later, the version relayed by Edith Hamilton in Mythology (similarly based on Ovid’s). It really stood out to me that Caravaggio placed nothing else recognisable in the painting save for Narkissos Himself, and even took care to see that the reflection was fragmented (with the crown of His head lopped off). No other prominent figures from the Narkissos mythos are present, no Goddesses, no Nymphai, Ekho or otherwise, no spurned youth; the canvas is completely consumed by Narkissos and His reflection. His expression is interpreted by many as one of melancholy and seem as foreshadowing of Narkissos’ tragedy; but I see in Narkissos, a look of peace, and in His reflection a look of foreboding — as if the boy Himself has realised His fate and has come to terms with it. He knows His place in Boeotian myth.

The Moirai, The Fates, are important to my theology and how I understand The Divine and my religion. I’ll write more on that at a later time.

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