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.
12 Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him. 13Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; 14but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
19 Know this, my beloved brethren. Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, 20for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God. 21Therefore put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; 24for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.
26 If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.