“Narcissus”, Caravaggio, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini. Although lit from above by the same numinous light found in other works of Caravaggio, here the fair Narcissus looks away from it and gazes downwards at his reflection in the dark waters of a still pool. He is enthralled by his own reflection. Unable to embrace it, he will die soon in despair. In Ovid’s version of the ancient tale he is transformed into the flower. Perhaps, the floral pattern on the brocade which he wears is a hint of this transformation, but Caravaggio’s Narcissus kneels on barren ground and the water which holds his gaze is as dark as the River Styx. His posture is very odd. We might see a modern day runner stretching or someone doing in yoga or pilates! But quite deliberately, the light catches his knee cap, so much so, that we can’t ignore it. In Dante’s Purgatorio, there is mention of the pool of Narcissus when the poet reaches the terrace of pride. There the proud have a similar posture, with their knees near their chests as they are made to carry stones on their back and are crouched low. In the retelling of his ancient story, pride is one of the vices associated with Narcissus. But notice too, that the reflection as shown is impossible in our world. But in Stygian darkness, it locks Narcissus into a fatal embrace with his his image and this is surely the point and highly relevant to our time and culture. Some date this work to Caravaggio’s last year when he returned to Naples. The theme of death fits with his other late works. It is known that in those late years he also painted a young St John the Baptist beside a pool and drinking from a fountain. The young saint stretches across with an open mouth to drink from a jet of flowing water. He leans on his arms. Taken together with this “Narcissus” and set against the unfolding tragedy of Caravaggio’s last years, there is surely a contrast between dark deadly waters and the flowing waters which well up in us and bring us to eternal life. In retrospect the contrast is surely transformed: becoming choice for the viewer.
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