Caravaggio - Narcissus

by Alexandra Tuschka


Shortly after his birth, the beautiful Narcissus was prophesied that he would only live long if he "did not recognize himself. A blatant contradiction to the other ideology of the time, because it was not for nothing that the oracle of Delphi said "Know thyself". The youth who rejected and spurned all suitors and admirers was punished for it: when he saw his reflection in the water one day, he fell in love and pined for himself so much that his body perished. Not without that the oracle should come true. Shortly before, Narcissus says: Oh, that's me!

Typical of Caravaggio, the painting captivates us with strong contrasts of light and dark, which intensifies the intimacy of the scene, so that it seems almost competent and meditative. The brightly lit knee comes abruptly towards us. Narcissus does not care. He contemplates his reflection devoutly. Caravaggio allows this image almost half of the picture space. The surface shimmers like water, but this lake is so still here that it almost seems like a mirror, allowing a slick reflection. Nevertheless, this one is a bit more faded. The reflection of Narcissus was a welcome subject for painters to show off their skills. 


Only the hands give us a hint that a liquid is actually meant, because while the right one is still on dry land, the left one is already immersed. It is possible that Caravaggio is not referring to the version in Ovid's Metamorphoses, but to another tradition, according to which Narcissus fell into the lake and drowned there. Does this Narcissus also lose his balance in a moment? Does he immediately want to lean forward and give his image a kiss? 


An interesting aspect is also the nesting of reality. For who claims that we see Narcissus here? Much more likely we see the image of a model who stood for Narcissus in Caravaggio's studio. Thus already this Narcissus is only an image of the reality and the equal mirror image is an image of this image. Only good that this one does not hold a mirror in the hand, because otherwise we would still be sitting here tomorrow! 


Caravaggio - Narcissus

Oil on canvas, 1594-1596, 110 × 92 cm, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome

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