Narcissus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Narcissus, 1597–99, Oil on canvas, 113.3 x 94 cm, Palazzo Barberini, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome, inv. 1569, Artexplorer / Alamy Stock Photo

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The Circle of Self

Commentary by

According to Greek legend, the beautiful young man Narcissus was so captivated by his own reflection that he could not tear himself away from it, and died of thirst and starvation by the water’s edge. Caravaggio’s painting conveys this stasis in the rigid, awkward position of Narcissus’s arms, and in the circular form of the composition: Narcissus isn’t going anywhere. This form resonates with the insatiable—but ultimately sterile—circle of desire, sin, and death described in the Letter of James: ‘desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings death’ (1:15).

This is an image of the human condition without God. ‘Lured and enticed by his own desire’ (1:14), a person becomes solipsistic, self-enclosed. The folds and doublings within Caravaggio’s painting—the reflection of Narcissus in the water, and the way the figure is uncomfortably bent double, folded over himself—echo the repeated references to duplicity, self-deception, in the passage (vv.16, 22, 26). The whole image is bisected horizontally by the line dividing land and water; despite his self-absorption, Narcissus remains divided from himself.

Caravaggio’s use of darkness and light also amplify this existential moment, frozen in time. Narcissus is illuminated ‘from above’—his physical ‘endowments’ are, after all, gifts from the ‘Father of lights’ (v.17)—yet he has turned away from this light, and looks down into near-darkness. This motionless human figure almost parodies the unchangeable nature of God. While for the author of James’s letter ‘those who love [God]’ (v.12) are ‘doers of the word’ (v.22)—active people who go readily to those in need, and who grow inwardly in faith and virtue—Narcissus is transfixed, arrested by his own shallow image, unable to carry out the works of love that the text cites as the signs of responsiveness to God’s word.