Narcissus’ famed tale, as realized through Caravaggio, shows a harmony between the sensual and intellectual due to his masterful artistry. In consideration of its complexity, Caravaggio’s Narcissus will be addressed through two details which which reflect the reconciliation of sense and intellect: the stark, visual difference between Narcissus and his reflection, as well as Narcissus’ posturing over the pond which yields his reflection. In uncovering the significance behind these features, the audience would enjoy the artwork from a perspective marked by a more complex understanding of the warnings the artwork purports. That is, the danger in excessive self-love.
In assessing the difference between Narcissus and his reflection, it is first important to note the similarity between them: the pool does offer a mirror to Narcissus, and thus both figures are inherently similar. However, it is in this similitude through which the contrast between them is enhanced. Narcissus himself is painted with the pederastic, aesthetic standards of Greek mythology: he has a supple build, ivory skin, and feminine features as seen through his hair. In essence, Narcissus fulfills the beauty expectations of his time, and he executes these while maintaining a vibrancy to him. In stark contrast, his reflection is dimmer, with certain features becoming swallowed up by the water’s darkness. In noticing this, there is a contrast that can be extrapolated which exists within the same person: despite Narcissus’ lively, outer appearance, in reality he is a somber, pitiful being due to his self-obsession. Our senses allow us to see the contrast between Narcissus and his reflection: our knowledge of the myth allow us to know that this artwork attempts to visualize the tragic end of excessive self-love. In specific, this ‘end’ is the inevitable demise of becoming too pre-occupied by oneself: Narcissus does indeed die due to his narcissism.
In observing Narcissus’ physical positioning, one will see that his posturing might be abnormal. When enamored by one’s own reflection, one might visualize a narcissist simply laying bellow-down, cradling their head in their hands as they dreamily watch their own reflection. This however, is not the case in Caravaggio’s work: Narcissus is hunched over, kneeling, and with hands, flat on the ground, supporting a frame weighed down by egotism. By using one’s intellect to interpret the art in this way, one might see that Narcissus is in fact not enjoying his pulchritude: he is slaving over it. Narcissus’ act of adoring himself then stops becoming a romantic daydream, but a perilous trap that is equal parts alluring and consuming. This idea of self-love as an exhausting, self-destructive force then becomes a message that rises from the artwork. From this potential conclusion, it becomes easy to understand how art, by merging the sensual and intellectual, can yield insights into how one ought to live, how one ought to behave morally.