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Psyche of an Artist > Caravaggio

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message 1: by Heather (last edited Jul 13, 2018 05:53AM) (new)

Heather | 8544 comments So the question in Quora was whether Caravaggio had Bipolar Disorder. I found this interesting article in PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts

Caravaggio and the Physiology of Schizophrenia by Ronnie Mather

"Caravaggio has long enjoyed a reputation as an anti-social and tempestuous individual. The following argues that Caravaggio was in fact suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. schizophrenic symptoms and delusions are the result of the projection of objective physiological processes occurring in discrete organs of the body, or at least body-systems, it interprets the changing nature of Caravaggio’s paintings as reflecting his own suffering in the eyes and throat. The latter’s predilection toward violence, and the portrayal of violence, is also interpreted in this light. It is argued that this accounts for his obsession with decapitation and raises the question about whether the revolution he initiated in painting around 1600 was itself the result of his coping with the illness.

" A very violent individual, he has been viewed as simply a product of his times or as enduring “borderline personality disorder” (Chessick, 2000: 2067)"
(I won't go into some of his violent history as I believe this is mostly common knowledge in this group)

...what is also clear is that Caravaggio’s contemporaries did find his attitude and behavior strange in the extreme...

All or most of what [his biographers] can tell us can be summed up by the following, one of the central criterion of schizophrenia, “…difficulties in performing activities of daily living such as preparing a meal or maintaining hygiene. The person may appear markedly disheveled, may dress in an unusual manner…....unpredictable and untriggered agitation” (DSM,IV:300). It seems to us fairly likely that Caravaggio was suffering from the paranoid subtype of schizophrenia and that increasingly his search for self-understanding came to be reflected in his art. Following Hibbard (1983:65), we would place this change around 1599 with Judith Beheading Holofernes. That this is Caravaggio’s own fantasy, rather than a depiction of a biblical event is witnessed by the fact that Judith has the demeanor and the countenance of an ideologically committed vegetarian being compelled to slice roast beef (very rare). The horror is all to the left, Judith is an afterthought, or, to be more accurate, an excuse."

Judith Beheading Holofernes

"Caravaggio’s schizophrenia probably began to emerge in his late teens or early twenties, and may account for his trouble with the law in Milan at age 20 or 21. But it does not erupt into his art, and himself fully, until the above (or, arguably, the Head of the Medusa) painted the year before, at age 26 or 27 (paranoid schizophrenia often has a later onset than the other subtypes). Decapitation, in the classical Freudian sense, is indicative of a fear of castration, and Caravaggio duly obliges, adorning the neck with snakes. However, it is the nature and degree of violence in Caravggio’s own art that is perhaps most decisive in understanding the nature of his condition.


Delusions are typically persecutory or grandiose, or both…features include anxiety, anger, aloofness, and argumentativeness…a superior and patronizing manner and either a stilted, formal quality or extreme intensity in interpersonal interactions. The persecutory themes may predispose the individual to suicidal behavior, and the combination of persecutory and grandiose delusions with anger may predispose the individual to violence” (DSM, IV, 313-14)"

“I suddenly understood with perfect clarity why and in what emotional situations murders are committed by schizophrenics…when the tension in the organs, especially in the diaphragmatic region and in the throat, becomes unbearably strong, the urge appears to cut one’s own stomach or throat…The murder occurs when the impulse is directed away from oneself towards something else” (Reich, 1945: 423-24).

"Clearly Caravaggio’s work does reflect an obsession with violence to the throat. Nothing really prepares his audience for the change around 1599. That impulse to violence would be directed outward at least in his art until the very end and his most celebrated artistic effort of all.

Below is one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, the Beheading of St John the Baptist. The saint’s throat is already cut, the executioner now moving to decapitation. The artist signs his name in John’s blood. We would argue that this painting bears direct relation to the painting of Judith. Both make reference to one of the fundamental terrors of paranoid schizophrenia, the so-called “draining fantasy” (Karon & Rosberg, 1958). Schizophrenics make constant reference to being “emptied out” or “hollow” and the draining of bodily fluids is a continuing theme in regard to their somatic delusions. The latter’s characterization of these is rather fanciful but the projection of bodily processes, and experiencing them as foreign, is real enough. John is being drained."

Beheading of St John the Baptist

"Caravaggio painted the Burial of St Lucy (1608) immediately after with the knife-wound to the throat of the female saint barely noticeable. That must have been difficult for the artist and there is clear physical evidence from X-rays that Caravaggio’s original depiction was a lot more brutal. The artist towards the end of his life can barely contain his predilection towards portraying sharp instrument trauma to the throat. This is reproduced below, the picture is badly damaged.

Burial of St Lucy (1608)

"Indeed Cassell (1977) has demonstrated that the very presence of sharp objects and mention of anatomical parts of the body is sufficient to flood the mind of the schizophrenic with violent fantasies. The following is one of the most famous paintings in art, one of three versions of the story. The severed head is a self-portrait by Caravaggio himself. Legend has it that Caravaggio painted this in 1609-10 as a plea for a pardon in regard to the murder of Tomassoni so that he himself would not have to take the risk. But that this was his primary motivation is unlikely given his obsession with John, headed and beheaded. There is also compelling evidence to suggest that he began the painting the year after the murder itself (the National Gallery in London gives the dates 1606-10 but 1607 may be the best guess). This picture has probably been the source of a thousand comments on the fear of castration, usually from the psychoanalytic perspective, but it is a real fearful fantasy associated with schizophrenia (Martin & Gattaz,1991)"

David with the Head of Goliath

"Clearly, Caravaggio has committed suicide, 10-13% of all schizophrenics do (Hunt et al, 2006). But he has seen the end coming for a long time and the terror of Judith has been replaced by the sort of empathy displayed by David – Caravaggio’s fundamental schizophrenic terror was decapitation – and there is clear evidence that this is still a fundamental terror of modern schizophrenics"

"The above surely constitutes the epitome of self-understanding through art in the western tradition. Note the position of the sword right next to the genitalia, David is in real danger of doing himself some serious damage. The eyes of the severed head are those of a man who has seen too much, they speak of exhausted terror."

message 2: by Mark (new)

Mark André I like the St Lucy very much! It looks very Rembrandtian!

message 3: by Heather (new)

Heather | 8544 comments I like it, too. I’ve never seen that one before. Too bad it says the painting is badly damaged that we can’t see the details.

message 4: by Mark (new)

Mark André I think the the vague mistiness is part of what I like. That and all the gold light! - )

message 5: by Heather (new)

Heather | 8544 comments Mark wrote: "I think the the vague mistiness is part of what I like. That and all the gold light! - )"

I wonder, though, if the "vague mistiness" could be due to the damage to the painting.

message 6: by Mark (last edited Jul 13, 2018 11:32AM) (new)

Mark André I'm sorry. That's what I though I was referring to: the damage. Since i've only seen it in this state, I consider it a feature. Not knowing any other view. The bright gold contrasted with the shadows is quite bold! - )

message 7: by Ed (new)

Ed Smiley | 871 comments I don't know whether he was actually a fully delusional schizophrenic, but he did really seem very touchy and liable to take offense that seems to connect up with paranoid delusions.

I wonder if this connected up with his religious painting. He was living in a time when any mental illness would have been given a spiritual interpretation. I see in his use of himself as model for the victim--he depicts his own beheading, possibly an effort to atone, as his violence would have been seen by himself as sin only, not in the modern context as an illness. He also seems to have a tremendous sympathy for the outcast and the downtrodden, the poor in spirit.

message 8: by Heather (last edited Jul 13, 2018 11:58AM) (new)

Heather | 8544 comments Ed wrote: "I wonder if this connected up with his religious painting. He was living in a time when any mental illness would have been given a spiritual interpretation. I see in his use of himself as model for the victim..."

Ed! I've missed you! Thank you for your comment, knowing of his life and personality helps us understand what has been written about him in the above article.

In fact, there was so much more in that article that I didn't post. It was regarding The Conversion of St. Paul and The Calling of Matthew. He doesn't put the light on Matthew or Christ, and the article has an explanation for this.

One thing about the article for which I don't have too much support, is the Freudian attributes in paranoid schizophrenics as Freud isn't one to which I give a lot of credence.

message 9: by Heather (new)

Heather | 8544 comments I will say that I agree with something Ellen stated in the other thread in this folder, that it seems unlikely that Caravaggio was Bipolar. And I don't know as much about his life as she does. But I do know a bit about psychology and of what I know about his life, he doesn't fit many or any of the symptoms of Bipolar Disorder.

message 10: by Mark (new)

Mark André I do so like the light in the St Lucy: First the tall pointy mitre? and then the three foreheads of the mutes, the third especially. I like this picture! - )

message 11: by Ellen (new)

Ellen | 116 comments Ed wrote: "I don't know whether he was actually a fully delusional schizophrenic, but he did really seem very touchy and liable to take offense that seems to connect up with paranoid delusions.

I wonder if t..."

I'd reject schizophrenia. Touchy, absolutely. He had many reasons to feel he had been treated badly in terms of family and social hierarchy. Then there was is religious focus on the teachings of Charles Borrommeo, which I mentioned before.

Paranoid? As the old saying goes, just because yer paranoid, it doesn't mean people aren't out to get you. C spent most of his adult life running from the law and almost certain execution. He carried a sword illegally. He killed a man. (Rome police have ALWAYS kept such excellent records!). He was broke. He needed work but fought incessantly with patrons. In the end he had a few wealthy and powerful protectors who provided succor but a dissolute life did him harm they could not prevent.

I'm not saying he didn't have issues we might define as "mental illness today." Just saying that any effort to make him less complicated as an individual, an artist or a member of his social world, does disservice to him and his art.

message 12: by Ellen (new)

Ellen | 116 comments Heather wrote: "I will say that I agree with something Ellen stated in the other thread in this folder, that it seems unlikely that Caravaggio was Bipolar. And I don't know as much about his life as she does. But ..."

Apart from my art historical knowledge of C, I totally agree. I have had friends and family members who suffered from bipolar disorder. And I have done modest reading in that context. He just doesn't fit the diagnosis.

message 13: by Heather (new)

Heather | 8544 comments Interesting that you would post here now Ellen! I have been reading numerous articles just now, regarding more information on Caravaggio. Using today’s diagnoses, from his early life he could have PTSD for all we know! I am NOT diagnosing that, but In his day their views of psychology were different, including the opinions of his contemporaries who left some record from knowing him and his personality.

He had it tough from boyhood, lived in poverty most of his life among other impoverished beggars who did revert to stealing for survival.

Yes, he had a temper, but there are people in every day life who have anger issues that don’t necessarily have a mental illness.

His change in painting could be attributed to many things. I read one article that said he felt guilt, was a humble, and a religious man. He did the religious works because he was Christian, but he also, as in using his own reflection while painting the head of Goliath, may have had remorse and saw himself in a negative manner.

None of this points to psychopathy or any other sort of psychotic mental state like schizophrenia .

I was trying to find different articles with pros and cons to actually putting any diagnosis on him due to behavior, painting and mannerisms. I read a lot, learned a lot about him, but didn’t really find what I was looking for.

message 14: by Ellen (new)

Ellen | 116 comments C is just a fascinating artist. On every level. And so many people, scholars, artists, have come up with sometimes crazy sometimes compelling arguments that "explain" his art.

Not sure what you mean by "his change in painting." I find him the most consistent of artists, in style, ideas, and subjects. He was largely self-taught. He did not draw and painted always from the model and all prima. His belief in material reality was unwavering.

Not a Baroque specialist or even a Caravaggio partisan but he's just darned interesting.

Another book which was fun if not entirely persuasive in its argument was The Lost Painting : The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece(2005) by Jonathan Harr. Do you know it?

message 15: by Heather (new)

Heather | 8544 comments By change in painting I only allude to the increasing darkness and chiaroscuro he added to his later religious works.

His initial art didn’t have the black backgrounds or the light on only the center subject with everything in the surrounding darker. But he became more like that toward the end of his life.

message 16: by Ellen (new)

Ellen | 116 comments Some of that, rather a lot is bitumen in the pigments that darkened over time. It is also true that because he was untrained, he really had a poor grasp of perspective and linear organizational structure. By creating limited/obscured/darkish backgrounds, he didn't have to cope with details outside his skill set. That's part of it.

Part of it was what sells. Caravaggio's tenebrism inspired a school of followers called "Caravaggists" and there was a competition to create theatrical lighting effects. It is true that in some of his works, the spotlighting is used more dramatically.

Yet one also has to consider the meaning of light itself, how it represents the spirit, the essence of God, as well as being a means for focusing the viewer's attention on the key parts of action. Artists like Caravaggio and Rembrandt creating lighting effects that look absolutely natural--but cannot be replicated no matter how many lamps and candles are used. Part of the painter's magic, I think!

message 17: by Mark (new)

Mark André I love composition: downward tending slope from right to left: across the heads then the shoulders and back of the shoveler. A most entertaining work. Yes! painter's magic! - )

message 18: by Heather (new)

Heather | 8544 comments Just as an example, and maybe you don't see it as an extreme 'change' in painting, but his works prior to about 1599 had some background, or other color in them, but especially when he began doing his religious scenes, the chiaroscuro and black background was prominent in most or all of them.

Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto


And I also noticed that he went from painting mythical themes, which were mostly in this 'lighter' painting period (of course the above Narcissus is an exception to his lighter, mythical work) to religious themes and I don't know if it is coincidental, but it seems that is when his style overall became darker. (Exceptions existent) These seemed to be around the turn of the century.

message 19: by Ellen (new)

Ellen | 116 comments You may be right. But I'm inclined to look at a number of issues starting with bitumen and varnish discoloration. I don't see this as a change as much as I see it as a reasonably variation based on C's sense of what a particular picture needed.

Also, he died very very young. His first major commissions did not come in until after 1600 and he was dead in 1610. His earliest painting is dated about 1592.

Again, you may be right, but I don't see the backgrounds getting so much dark and the subjects being pushed aggressively forward in the picture plane. There is so little anterior space that painting it as shadow--and again, I refer to is problems with perspective--simply makes practical sense as well as aesthetic sense.

message 20: by Mark (new)

Mark André I like this too! Great Caravaggio Show! Very Vermeer like with the emphasis on depicting light on different surfaces. Cool picture. The other one gets, at first, a mixed review: I like Jupiter and I like the Moon. But Neptune, blah; and is Pluto's face a skull? - )

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