When you look at him, what do you see? A god? A human? Something in between?
The day was a sunny mid-afternoon in Rome, spent sightseeing and wandering the halls of the Galleria Borghese. I had seen many beautiful things that day—sculptures, ancient crumbling buildings, lovely frescoes— all testaments to human creativity and vision, glimpses into another time. Incredible things. But somehow, walking through that gallery, this was the painting that made me stop. I was captivated. The work was different from all the rest. It depicted the god Bacchus, but not as a glowing, all-powerful deity. It showed him As something else—a weary god tired and worn out by his revelry. Vulnerable. I quickly read about the painting and its story. It was titled Young, Sick Bacchus by the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an Italian painter who painted during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The painting fascinated me. Perhaps it was the painting’s story. The legend was that Caravaggio painted the work when he himself was very sick, using himself as the model, capturing his own suffering in the ink, his mortality displayed on the canvas for all to see. Beside the images of all-powerful, immortal Greek gods unfamiliar with human suffering and death this painting seemed out of place.
I thought about Caravaggio, about his sickness and about the process of creating this work. It must have hurt, it must have been excruciating, to create a work of this magnitude. There have been many times in my life when I’ve put down my creative projects because of illness, sometimes it’s unavoidable. But I’m grateful Caravaggio persevered. And hundreds of years later, the work still speaks to us. It is complicated. And thought-provoking. Human. It makes me want to know more. Bacchus, I want to ask him, why are you tired? Why are you feeling ill? Do Greek gods really get sick? Do they gasp, actually get hungover?
A picture really can tell 1,000 words. As a writer, I think we all strive for this level of complexity in our characters. To write and create this deeply from our experiences, and to invest so much of our own vulnerability into our work. When you don’t feel well it can feel impossible to create. It’s powerful when someone gives you this window into their inner suffering, connect with you across distance and time with the emotion infused into the work.
When I got home I bought a copy of the painting. It reminds me of perseverance. And vulnerability. And mystery. The mystery of humanity. Of the way we perceive ourselves, in the way we create images. Of the way we see immortality. And sickness. And life after hardship. This most of all. I hung the painting up by my wine collection. Somehow, I have a feeling that sick or not, that’s where he would most want to be.