We continue our special month with Caravaggio and Bernini exhibition at the Kunsthistorishes Museum in Vienna, on view until January 20th, 2020. It's real must-see, don't miss it! And if you can't make it to Vienna, read us on Sundays this month. :)
This painting, now widely accepted as a work by Caravaggio despite some initial skepticism, is still not fully known and deserves some discussion. The celebrated myth of Narcissus, also included in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells of a young, handsome, and heartless huntsman who cruelly rejected all amorous advances. In retribution, the goddess Nemesis condemned him to forever endure the pain of unrequited love. He thereupon fell in love with his own reflection, glimpsed in a spring; unable to tear himself away, he eventually drowned in an attempt to seize his own image. In contrast to Caravaggio’s characteristically original approach, most representations make a great play of an outdoor pastoral setting replete with trees and plants.
Here, however, an unexpectedly dark backdrop anticipates Narcissus’s demise and Caravaggio captures the very moment at which the protagonist, overcome by the beauty of his own reflection, delicately caresses the surface of the water in a vain attempt to seduce his own image. The masterful portrayal perfectly captures the wonder of the protagonist and elicits the same feeling in the beholder by means of the almost perfect circle created by Narcissus and his inverted reflection, centered on the brightly lit knee.
Narcissus, a profane subject, falls within the Neoplatonic approach, widely popular in the early modern era, to pagan culture and literature. Indeed, the painting could have been appreciated as a reference to the celebrated Greek aphorism, know thyself, in which self-revelation is encouraged as a means of moving closer to God. Alternatively, it could have been Caravaggio's intention to warn against the vanity of egotism and physical beauty, and to exhort the beholders to pursue virtue by looking beyond themselves.
P.S. Narcissus has never stopped fascinating artists. Yayoi Kusama created Narcissus Garden in 1966. See this spectacular installation here. <3