Narcissus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, circa 1597-1599
“The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology begins with the story of Echo. Echo was a beautiful nymph who lived in the woods and often accompanied the goddess Artemis on her chase for deer and other wildlife. Echo’s shortfall was that she loved to talk and one day when goddess Hera was looking for her husband in the woods, Echo tried to stall her by continually speaking with her. When Hera found out that Echo was successful in making sure that Hera didn’t catch her husband amusing himself with the other nymphs in the woods, Hera placed a curse on Echo. This curse did not allow Echo to say anything except to repeat what she had heard.
Echo was in the woods one day when she saw Narcissus and immediately felt how much she loved him. Narcissus heard her but could not see her and when he asked, “Who’s here?” all Echo could reply was “here.” Coming out so Narcissus could see her and return her love, she was shocked when Narcissus rejected her. She fled into the mountains, scorned by him. Narcissus was quite famous for rejecting the many nymphs that wanted to show him love. He was a beautiful young man and had been since he was just a child.
Narcissus was walking in the woods one day when he came by a pond that had water so clear it could have been crystal. The water was free of debris and no one ever came by to disturb the peaceful waters. Narcissus bent down to take a drink from the beautiful pond and saw his own reflection looking back at him. He instantly became mesmerized by it and sat for some time staring into his own beautiful face. He continually tried to reach down and embrace the image that he saw in the water, and he also tried to bend down and kiss the image. As soon as he touched it however, it fled from him. Narcissus became happy just to be able to stare at the beautiful creature and he forgot of all need for food and drink as he sat beside the pond, staring at his own reflection.
Narcissus pined away by the side of the pond and eventually died there. When the elders had prepared a funeral for him and went to gather the body however, it could not be found. But in the exact same place that Narcissus had sat for all that time, grew a beautiful flower that we know today as Narcissus.”
Several adaptions of the myth have survived, another classic version states that Narcissus, so enamoured with his reflection, drowns as he tries to get himself a drink of water. Which is the version most matching the depiction by Caravaggio above, if one notices Narcissus’ hand cupping the water before he is distracted by his image. Signature Caravaggio light play, the scene captured right before the action, as is his preferred style. Excellent shadow play to emphasise the conceited world of Narcissus – himself.