posted message: After a long wait, my essay comparing Caravaggio's Victorious Cupid with Raphael's portrayal of Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, and a Holy Child -
Caravaggio's Cupid as Victor represents the Roman god Cupid, the god of desire, affection, and erotic love. Painted in Rome in approximately 1601 for Vincenzo Giustinianni, the painting is now located at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, Germany. The painting, oil on canvas, is approximately 61 ½ inches long by 44 ½ inches wide.
The work depicts a naked boy of about twelve with dark feathery wings. The boy is front and center. He has no pubic hair, but does have a curly mane of hair framing red cheeks. His head is tilted, and he appears to be laughing, a playful, almost mocking smile on his lips, teeth showing. In his right hand he holds two arrows, while his left arm is mostly hidden behind him. One foot is firmly planted on the floor while his other leg kneels against what looks like a bed or table with loose sheets or covers. The background is mostly dark, lightening somewhat to the center right as well as the area around the floor. The child's body is brightly illuminated. On the bed near the child's left leg appears to be a crown with a pole through it. On the floor are stringed instruments, along with a book filled with musical notation, a compass and square, body armor with leaves (perhaps laurel), a regular notebook with a quill, and some kind of globe with star-like objects painted on it. The body armor, though mostly dark, shines brightly from the shoulder-piece.
The painting appears to be composed of clear lines. Curves are emphasized in the wings, musical instruments, globes, and the contours of the child's body. In contrast, the arrows and geometrical instruments are composed of straight lines. The child's pose puts him almost in the shape of an X by the splaying of the legs and the wings sprouting from the shoulders. A strong light source seems to flow from the upper left of the painting, creating a strong contrast between the brightness of the child's pinkish body and his darker surroundings. The effect, along with the placement of one leg on the floor with the other kneeling up on the bed/table, is almost to thrust the child out from the center of the picture. Chiaroscuro gives the child a sense of dimensionality and aliveness, almost playfulness. Aside from the brightly emphasized flesh of the child, shades of warm brown predominate, though in the lower left we see the shiny black of the armor.
The child seems to be located more toward the right of the painting, leaving open space and the objects on the floor to the left. His leg on the table seems to throw the child a little off balance. Cupid stands happily above the objects representing music, math/science, literature, and war. His playful eroticism is victorious over all these principles.
Raphael's Mary with the Child, John the Baptist, and a Holy Boy is self-explanatory in terms of subject matter. The holy boy appears to be a young saint according to Catholic tradition. Each figure carries a halo over the head. The painting was made in 1505, possibly in Florence, for the Dukes of Terranuova. This painting is also located at the Gemaldegalerie. As the painting is placed there, the viewer looks at it from straight ahead. It was painted in oil on poplar wood and is circular, approximately 34 inches in diameter.
Centering the painting is a naked and haloed infant – the baby Jesus. He is all baby fat. He has curly blondish hair and is grasping one end of a narrow scroll with the word AGNIUS showing on it, perhaps referring to Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), a biblical metaphor for Christ. The child is turned to his right and looking at an older child (John the Baptist) with deeply contemplative eyes. Jesus sits on the lap of the Virgin Mary, who seems to frame the infant. She is in a red dress with a dark collar of intricately embroidered design. An M is embroidered into the middle of the collar. Her hair is light brown and covered with a sheer veil. Over her dress is a deep blue cloak, covering her left arm and the right side of her lap. The child lies diagonally across her from upper left of the painting toward lower right. Mary looks down at Jesus with a slight, approving smile and a loving, contemplative look to her eyes. On the lower left of the painting is the child John the Baptist. He looks up adoringly at the baby Jesus and grasps the other end of scroll that Jesus holds. His light brown-haired head is haloed, and he appears to be wearing an animal skin/fur. This is partly covered by a silky-looking pink wrap. He holds a thin, metallic cross. On the lower right is another child, younger than John but older than Jesus. He, too, has a halo and leans his arm on Mary's lap. His look is somewhat contemplative, but less adoring and more just observing, objective. They all appear to be sitting in a well-manicured brown yard. In the distant background, we see surrounding landscape. To Mary's right we see a distant walled town, with high towers, going up a green hill. In front of the town are trees/hedges. To the left of Mary in the far background is a more pastoral scene, with trees, green hills, and a rock outcropping. Above all this is a blue sky with widespread white clouds.
The painting is characterized by clear, distinct lines. With the figures, curves are emphasized, particularly in the chubby bodies of the children. In the town in the background, straight lines and rectangles dominate. In contrast, the painting itself is in the shape of a circle. In addition, the immediate background looks like a circular yard. There is not much darkness seen in the painting, except in the deep brown of the encircling yard. The light source seems very diffuse, coming perhaps from the left and in front. The primary colors are bright and decorative. Most striking are the red and deep blue of Mary's clothes. The flesh-tones of the children are also emphasized. Secondary colors include a range of earth tones.
The background, with its rising hills, rocks, and buildings in perspective, emphasizes the figures in front. The painting seems to capture a pose, with little movement suggested, except perhaps in the gentle movements of the infant Jesus. The figures are balanced in the foreground, with Mary framing the infant and a young child on each side. Mary and Jesus are most emphasized, almost as one unit.
In comparing the Caravaggio painting with Raphael's work, the distinctions between the two stand out most. Caravaggio uses the distinctive Baroque tool of chiaroscuro to emphasize the figure of Cupid. One gets the sense that the child is beginning to come down from the painting. The contrast of light and dark plays a strong role, in contrast to Raphael's painting where bright and deep colors characterize the figures against a diffusely lighted pastoral background. The figures in each work are very different in their poses, their facial expressions, and their sense of movement. Cupid carries a roguish look on his face, full of life, delight, looking like he is ready to descend into our presence. There is no modesty to the naked child. He is real, as are his reactions. Raphael's figures, by contrast, are largely contemplative, expressing deep spiritual awareness. Idealized adoration and awareness of holiness is pictured.
In addition, the world as we know it is merely a background to Mary, Jesus, and the saintly children. Their's is a different, separate world where holy perfection reigns. Caravaggio's Cupid, however, stands astride the world in the form of its music, art, literature, mathematics, and warfare. He is in our world, dominant, victorious. The great contrast, in general, between the two is Raphael's portrayal of dignified and solemnly holy figures versus the lively, playful, erotic Eros.