Mechtild (mechtild) wrote,

Frodo in Caravaggio's 'Narcissus’, with jan-u-wine's "Unbroken”.


Warning: Long post, with many images, some quite large.

A year ago, scrolling through Caravaggio paintings, I saved files of his “Narcissus” as soon as I saw it. I was sure I’d want to make a manip of it one day. That day has come.

For this post, the discussion of the painting will come first, after which I will make a few reflections about Frodo in the finished manip. After the manip will come Jan-u-wine's poem, Unbroken, for which this manip was made. A "making of" section concludes the entry.


Introductory remarks.

Caravaggio's painting is one of the most well-known images of Narcissus in art. The myth of Narcissus survives in a few different versions. The synopses below come from the Narcissus entry in Wikipedia.

Pausanias tells a tale in which Narcissus falls in love with his twin sister. When she dies, he pines away, becoming engrossed in his reflection in the water by the reed beds, because it looks so much like her.

Pausanias tells another version that focuses on the more familiar theme of Narcissus: the story of a beautiful young man who spurns the love and desire of others, and dies as a result. Persons who held themselves aloof from love (and the common gene pool), were not looked on kindly by Aphrodite, or the Greeks. In that tale, Ameinias, one of the men in love with Narcissus, is rejected by the callous youth. Growing tired of his suitor’s affections, Narcissus sends him a gift of a sword. Ameinias kills himself with the sword, and, as he dies, calls down curses upon Narcissus. Later, Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in a spring, and, in desperation, kills himself with the sword.

In the Roman poet Ovid's version, Narcissus is the son of a river god who seduces a nymph. Worried about the child’s future, the nymph consults the seer, Tiresias. The child will live to an old age, the seer says, “as long as it does not look at itself”. As he grows up, many fall in love with the beautiful boy, but he rejects them all. The nymph Echo falls, too. She becomes so distraught, she withdraws into a lonely spot and fades until all that is left is her plaintive whisper. The goddess Nemesis hears the prayers of the rejected suitors and arranges for Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. At a pool in a reed bed, stooping to drink, he sees himself mirrored in the still water. He becomes so transfixed by the sight that he dies, unwilling to break the surface of the water to drink, since this would require destroying the image. As in Pausanias’ second version, a flower springs up in the reeds where Narcissus dies, after whom it is named.

I have not found a scholar who says which version of the myth Caravaggio was illustrating in his painting, but I am guessing that since there is no sword in the picture, it is the one in which Narcissus falls in love with his reflection and dies of thirst rather than break apart his image. Understood at a deeper level, it’s a profound myth.

~ Image from a Greek vase of Narcissus:


The source painting.

Caravaggio’s “Narcissus” (displayed at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica in Rome) was a challenge for me, not only because I had to put Frodo’s head and face into the painting twice, but because of odd aspects to the painting. The model appears to be Francesco “Cecco” Boneri, who appeared inThe Inspiration of St. Matthew, The Sacrifice of Isaac, and Love Victorious".

I hadn’t known it until doing the Caravaggio manips, but Caravaggio, unlike any of his contemporaries, did not apply paint to canvasses on which he had drawn preliminary sketches to guide his brush. X-rays of his canvases show no pencil work, just paint on canvas. He painted directly from life. The result is the characteristic vibrancy and immediacy of the likenesses, but also imperfections, especially in perspective. In “Narcissus”, the model’s head does not seem quite to match the neck in terms of fit. The head appears to be too small for the body, and the neck unnaturally long and stretched. Perhaps the modelling for the body was done at one time, and the head painted in later. Whatever the reason, the extra long, stretched neck increases, for me, an impression of yearning in Narcissus. The smallness of his head speaks of the smallness of his self-enclosed world, the whole painting moving about that small head with its slack, yet simultaneously entranced gaze. The open mouth conveys absorption, the mouth of someone so engrossed he is unaware his mouth has fallen open. With the myth in mind, the open mouth might betoken thirst. Perhaps it is both, the absorption in his image being the cause of the thirst.

A more striking anomaly in the picture is the difference between the two halves of the painting, top and bottom. The Narcissus looking back does not match the Narcissus above. The head is smaller still, darker, and almost ugly, as if its features had been smeared, giving it a bestial, unformed look. The clothes don’t quite match, either. I wondered if this was a technical fault, the result of Caravaggio not using preliminary sketches. No critic I read mentioned it.

I have decided it had to be an intentional artistic choice. Surely an artist as good as Caravaggio at painting from live models could paint a good mirror image of the top half of his own painting. Thus, if Narcissus sees in the still surface of the water a rather small, mean, muddied version of himself, it is meant to be significant, if in a subtle way (I didn’t notice the discrepancy at first). I wonder: did Caravaggio mean the lower Narcissus to show us the youth’s real self, or is the lower image meant to show what Narcissus saw: someone little and ugly and mean? The second reason would explain why Narcissus does not look at his reflection like someone in love, however transfixed he is, but like someone not particularly happy with what he sees.

This is a very enigmatic painting to me. At first glance the impression is one of still tranquillity and, but the more I look at it, the more disturbing and provocative it is.

~ Caravaggio's "Narcissus", ca. 1597-99 (actual painting 110 x 92 cm, or 36.2 x 43.3 in.):


The finished manip.

Following from my remarks on “Narcissus”, above, I think this painting is an excellent one in which to feature Frodo, both aesthetically and in terms of meaning. It said in the myth, that the seer Teiresias told Narcissus’ mother that he would live to be old "as long as he never looked at himself". Or, as another translator said, "as long as he never knew himself."

Was it life-threatening for Frodo to look at, to know, himself? In so far as he experienced himself after the Quest negatively, it would seem so. Part of the reason Frodo had difficulty going back to “normal” life, in my opinion, was positive, not negative. He had seen and known greatness: great spirits, great minds great deeds. He had known great suffering and horror, true, but also great goodness and beauty. He had gone where no hobbit had gone before, not even Bilbo, and had been changed by the experience. The change was good: he had been made a bigger person, inside. But the change made him less of a fit, back home. The Shire’s provincial ways might have been a comfort once, living life amid what seemed safe, cosy and familiar. Upon his return, Frodo might have experienced the Shire differently. If he had found the smallness of his neighbours’ minds discouraging and the narrowness of their concerns exasperating before he left (cf. his remarks to Gandalf in “The Shadow of the Past”), how much more might he feel this way upon his return? Yet his gain in stature was a good thing, however it might have set him apart from folk around him.

But Frodo’s failure to adjust and thrive after the war had negative causes, too. Very negative causes. Tolkien said it better than I could in his well-known 1963 letter-draft to Eileen Elgar (#246), which is full of thoughts on Frodo. Although The Fellowship of the Ring was published in 1954, the final draft was submitted to Allen and Unwin in 1948. In 1963, he’d had time to give the matter plenty of thought. She’d asked about Frodo’s failure on Mt. Doom. Yes, he agreed, Frodo had ‘failed’ as a hero by not throwing the Ring in at the end. But, Tolkien said, his was not a moral failure. “The breaking of [Frodo’s] mind and will under demonic pressure after torment” was no more a moral failure than the breaking of his body, by a boulder falling on him or by being throttled by Gollum. In the excerpt below, Tolkien speaks of Frodo’s feelings just after the Ring was destroyed:

"[Frodo] appears at first to have had no sense of guilt; he was restored to sanity and peace. But then he thought he had given his life in sacrifice: he expected to die very soon. But he did not, and one can observe the disquiet growing in him. Arwen was the first to observe the signs, and gave him her jewel for comfort, and thought of a way of healing him.* Slowly he fades ‘out of the picture’, saying and doing less and less. I think it is clear on reflection to an attentive reader that when his dark times came upon him and he was conscious of being ‘wounded by knife sting and tooth and a long burden’ it was not only nightmare memories of past horrors that afflicted him, but also unreasoning self-reproach: he saw himself and all that he had done as a broken failure. ‘Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same, for I shall not be the same.’ That was actually a temptation out of the Dark, a last flicker of pride: desire to have returned as a ‘hero’, not content with being a mere instrument of good. And it was mixed with another temptation, blacker and yet (in a sense) more merited, for however that may be explained, he had not in fact cast away the Ring by a voluntary act: he was tempted to regret its destruction, and still to desire it. ‘It is gone for ever, and now all is dark and empty’, he said as he wakened from his sickness in 1420.

"‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf – not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him – if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.

* I have always wondered if it wasn’t what her mother, Celebrian, went through, unable to recover her joy in life in Middle-earth, finally sailing to the Undying Lands, that enable Arwen to see this in Frodo.

When I look at this manip, with Frodo gazing sadly at his dark reflection, what I see is his negative dwelling on his self-perceived failures, a vivid picture of him being subject to the “unreasoning self-reproach” Tolkien mentioned. Like Narcissus in the myth, he seems more and more unable to take his eyes from a vision of himself as a marred failure, unable to complete his task himself, and unable to stop regretting the loss of the Ring, the instrument of his torment. The more he looks, the more he feels bad, and the more he feels bad, the more he looks.

The original painting is meant to show Narcissus looking at his reflection on the surface of the water. But the way Caravaggio painted it, with the mirror image in the bottom half of the painting clearly not matching the top half, the impression is that he is looking not at his reflection on the water, but through it, at another, submerged self. As I noted above, the face of Narcissus in the water is not a mirror-image, but a smaller, darker, more bestial version of the face above. In the manip, Frodo’s face in the reflection is made from the same image as the one above, but to finesse it into the painting I had to make it smaller and darker, which brought up red undertones lurking in the original. When I look at the finished manip, it looks almost as though Frodo is looking at himself in hell. He might as well be looking into the river Styx at a submerged Hades, or seeing his own sorrowful face in the Dead Marshes, like those fallen warriors of long ago. “All dead, all rotten”. The words of Gollum echo.

Which is where Jan’s poem comes in. As dark as I see this piece, I did choose and make this manip with jan-u-wine’s poem, “Unbroken”, in mind. And I see her poem as a hopeful poem. So that I won’t give too much about the poem away before you read it, I’ll post my last remarks below the poem.


Frodo in Narcissus, with “Paint: Dry Brush” effect (reduced to 40% of full size):

Frodo in Narcissus, with “Eggshell Crackle” effect (reduced to 40% of full size):

Detail of Frodo’s face from “Dry Brush” version, at half size:

Detail of Frodo’s face from “Eggshell Crackle” version, at half size:

~ Full-size versions:

The file I worked from for this manip is so large (2024 x 2454 pixels, 14.2 MB) it is too big for Photobucket, so I can’t give it to you with a link. If anyone would like a copy for the purposes of making a print (the bigger the file the better quality the print), or just staring at, please email me. My email address is on my User Info page. I can send the file to you as an attachment.

To get an idea of the manip’s real size, I made the long, narrow image directly below from a full-size crop of the image, cut to Photobucket’s size limit. Click here to this detail shot at full size.. Be sure to open it up all the way, using Photobucket’s little button for full-size.

Detail, showing Frodo gazing at his reflection (about half-size):


~ by jan-u-wine

What is it like,
I wonder,
to have memory
peaceful and complete
within one's mind....

like the still eye of the Anduin,


like the unbroken links of a fine chain.....

Oh, yes,

found it.

I imagine
(if, in fact, you thought of it at all)

you thought
it lost,


like everything

by rock
flowing like the Sea
in its anger.

Its mark is here,
about my neck,
and it



it resonates
with cold desire
if I touch it.

That is but the ghostly remainder
of it:

the fractured reality
like silver'd water,
within my hand.

I have not bothered
to wash
the blood from it.

It was made by the Elves,
you know,
and so,
even though it threaded
it itself survived,
shielded by grave beauty.

It is beautiful still,


winking back at the Sun,

broken length
from the small sanctuary of my hand.

It has no purpose

no purpose

No one save me would know
if it were to find
its resting place
among the pale lilies
that stay upon the river-bottom.

No one save me would regret
that a thing of such careful design
had met
such a careless end.


It is long hours
since I visited the dark bank of the river.

I let it run out,
through that empty space
which mars my hand.

I watched it
shining still,
within the night
of the river bottom.

Nothing lies
within my hand

nothing sings
within the shuttered
of my mind.

but muted
like music
I once might have known,
with half-held memory.

As it was in the beginning,
so it is at the end:


there is.....


And it is for that
I weep,
for all the things
I cannot ever
explain to you
(and all the things
you know
without the explaining).

Those things grieve me even more.

Every bit of my life,
whether large,
or small,
has all meant naught.....

it has all burnt away,
to a broken chain
of forgotten beauty,
lying beneath slanting silt.


have I been

You must not heed
when I've just

It is not me speaking,

it is just


they will pass,
as all things must.

Do you think
they will let us
start for Home

I should so like
to see the Hill
in the soft fire
of Fall.


About Jan’s poem.

I chose Caravaggio’s Narcissus for “Unbroken” because it showed the subject gazing into the water, which I thought would convey the image of Frodo standing, stooping, or sitting by the Anduin to secretly drop in his chain, wishing it away, yet mourning the loss that letting it go made all the more real. But the more I have worked on the manip, the more profound I have found the connection between them and the poem.

What I love so much about Jan’s poem, whether she intended it this way or not, is the way he is not like Narcissus. He may be drawn into a negative picture of himself, but not enough to let himself die, unable to disturb the image on the water in order to drink and live. In the poem, when Frodo lets the chain fall from his grasp his feelings are undeniably bleak:

Nothing lies
within my hand

nothing sings
within the shuttered
of my mind.



there is.....


Yet Jan’s poem makes me think—all the more from looking at the manip and knowing the story of the myth behind it—that in this small significant act, Frodo shows that he is able to break through the image of his negative self-perception. By letting go of the chain, the chain that bore the object that almost dragged him into death (of more than the body), the chain must enter the water. In the act of letting go he must break the surface of the water and destroy the image. I find Frodo dropping the chain in the Anduin a deeply hopeful act, even if he feels terrible doing it. I see the hope right in Frodo’s own words, in the poem. He’s speaking about the chain, of course: “It was made by the Elves, you know,” he begins. But what he goes on to say could be said of himself, if he but knew it:

and so,
even though it threaded
it itself survived,
shielded by grave beauty.

It is beautiful still

Frodo, like the chain, "threaded evil". He was "shielded by grave beauty". And, in spite of all the evil he bore, he survived, and was "beautiful still".

One day in the Undying Lands, learning of his ‘littleness and greatness’ in the order of things, thinking back on the sight of the chain dropping into the deep, “winking back at the Sun”, he’ll see that what he did that day was just the first of many acts of letting go. He’ll let go of hearth and home and friends and kin, sailing across the wide Sea. And finally, he will let go, link by link, in act by act, of “the broken length” that is himself. Spilling from the “small sanctuary” that is his hand—the agent of action—he will see the broken length of himself settle...

shining still
within the night
of the river bottom

...which, finally, is the depth of heart and mind of God. Or, if you prefer, Eru.

When Frodo looks and sees himself at last—his full self—unlike Narcisssus, he will not die, but live.


Behind the Manip:

For those who like this sort of thing, I made the manip in my usual way, although, with double faces, it was a bit more laborious.

After choosing a face and supplemental hair elements, I tweaked the painting for better contrast and sharpness, then began to apply the elements in layers, tweaking each in turn for a match in colour and brightness, until I got them into final position. I then saved the moveable png document to a jpg, for the final blending process. Using primarily the clone tool at various settings I did the brushwork for blending the face into the painting, erasing bad bits of hair and drawing in more, correcting collars and diminishing the cuts on his face. I decided to keep the dirt, which heightened the sense of pathos to me.

After all the tweaking and finessing was finished, using the selection tools, I applied filters to better match the photographic elements to the painting. I did many versions, liking many of the effects very much (all of them applied moderately). But, for the sake of posting, I forced myself to choose two. “Eggshell crackle” enhances the watery mood nicely, with its soft dappled bits of light. “Painting: Dry Brush” accentuates the chiaroscuro, which accentuates the drama.

~ Draft mock-up of face selection, with hair layers in place:

~ Screencap for face:

~ Hair for front “droop effect”:

~ Source for most of the top and back hair, also some front hair:

~ Mechtild


Other Caravaggio manips:

~ Caravaggio: 'The Cardsharps', plus jan-u-wine's "The Wager", 1-21-08.

~ Caravaggio: 'Bacchus', 12/19/06.

~ Caravaggio's 'The Lute Player' (includes the most about Caravaggio), 10/30/06.

~ Caravaggio's 'The Fortune Teller', 4/14/06.

Other Tables of Links:

~ Frodo Art Travesty LJ entries (entries that present selected manips, which may feature notes on the paintings and manip techniques, as well as essays or poems).

~ Album of all Frodo Art Travesties (a gallery of images only—be sure to enlarge images after opening).

~ All entries featuring jan-u-wine's poems.

Tags: art, art history, caravaggio, frodo art travesties, jan-u-wine

Recent Posts from This Journal

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →
← Ctrl ← Alt
Ctrl → Alt →

Recent Posts from This Journal