In this painting Caravaggio recovers the legend about that extremely handsome youth that became absorbed by his own reflection on a pool. He felt such a strong admiration for his own image that he tried to kiss it. But he fell in the pool and drowned. However, the gods granted his transformation into the flower that bears his name, eternally inclined over the water so that he would be able to contemplate his image for eternity. Caravaggio’s painting shows a handsome youth intoxicated with love admiring his own reflection which is less clear and which is worn out by the passage of time. This means the eternal and the superficiality of physical beauty.
In this case, the image created entails an inversion of the roles of the two halves of the painting. On the one hand, the youth that contemplates himself on the pool has an aspect taken to a extreme situation as far as the passage of time is concerned. In place of his face we have a skull and his outfit is modern but old-fashioned. On the other hand, the nice image of the handsome youth is the one reflected on the pool.
Therefore, the character of “Narcissus“ with the skull-face symbolizes death, the ephemeral, the brevity of physical beauty, as brief as youth or life itself. The image refers to and criticizes the social reality we live in, a reality which fosters the obssession for physical appearance and a reality where many current male and female “Narcissus“ in love with themselves proliferate.
Thus, we symbolize the hypocrisy of beauty in contemporary society which is no more than a mask we wear in the form of expensive clothing, make-up, recent plastic surgery, etc…It is just the beautiful and idealized image of ourselves reflected by the mirror and intensified by the obssession for the external appearance that surrounds us and that does not respond to the current reality. It is also a satire of contemporary “Narcissus” who, in love with themselves, do not realize what they are really becoming or what they rea-lly are: (living dead with no more personal richness than their physical appearance, only concerned about their own look). However, contrary to what happened to Caravaggio‘s Narcissus, these modern “Narcissus” of the real world won’t probably be able to turn into a flower…