Narcissus in Havana

Jorge Milanes Despaigne

Narcissus (Caravaggio).
Narcissus (Caravaggio).

The first time I heard of Narcissus was in that book The Alchemist, by the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho. But as the painting before me had nothing to do with the story of Coello’s pilgrim, I concluded that it had to do with intertextuality, which is why I inquired about the myth that accounts for the great beauty of this young man.

Among the versions that remain concerning the story of Narcissus, the most well-known is that by the poet Ovid. In it, the youth Adonis rejects the love of the nymph Eco, causing the goddess Nemesis to take out her revenge on the young man. Her retaliation consisted of making him fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water.

This is how Narcissus is portrayed in the Renaissance era painting by the famous Italian artist Caravaggio. The work is presently on display — along with others adhering to the chiaroscuro technique — at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana.

I went there to see the painting with a Mexican friend who has lived in Cuba for several years. At the entrance they immediately asked me whether he was a resident here (obviously so they could charge him the much higher tourist admission price). But he showed them his Cuban ID and he bought his ticket at the resident rate.

I had no idea that my invitation would wind up being an art class. As it turned out my friend was a true connoisseur of world art.

Thanks to him I better understood the significance of the smoothness Narcissus’ hair, the intention behind the delicacy of his hand and the feminine beauty of the body of this man in perfect physical shape, just like he was described in the Greek myth.

Standing there in front of this work by Caravaggio for a few minutes is to expose oneself to some of the most significant culture of all times. The light that illuminates this painting overcomes the dystopian relationship between humans and time, giving one the desire to bow down and say thank you…or hallelujah.