Seduction in the Male Form as Pathway to the Divine

Evocation of Michelangelo in Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia and Saint John the Baptist

by Caroline Harvey

picture representing divinity

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Baroque painter, shared more than his name with Michelangelo Buonarotti, the renowned sculptor and famed painter of the Sistine Ceiling. Like other artists of his time, Caravaggio studied Michelangelo’s work, ultimately creating an oeuvre strikingly similar to that of his namesake in terms of multiple depictions of the male nude. Michelangelo regarded the male nude as the utmost in human perfection, an idea which impressed itself upon Caravaggio, who never painted the female nude. This paper principally examines three works—Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede, a gift given to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, and Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia and Saint John the Baptist, all of which depict the male nude in the form of eroticized young boys. By separating these works from their homoerotic context, this paper places the two artists’ work within a Neoplatonic and Ficinian dialogue in which gazing upon the “perfection” of the male nude becomes the ultimate facilitator for contemplation upon the perfection of man’s creator, the Christian God.

In examining the collective works of both Michelangelo Buonarotti and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, scholars find two particularly male-dominated oeuvres in terms of depictions of the human body. While this similarity between the two seems, at first glance, coincidental, Caravaggio’s refusal to paint the female nude represents an evocation and expansion of Michelangelo’s insistence upon the superiority of the male body and form. Furthermore, this evocation of Michelangelo places Caravaggio’s works, namely Amor Vincit Omnia of 1602 and Saint John the Baptist of 1601, within the same Neoplatonic dialogue as Michelangelo’s drawing of the Rape of Ganymede, in which seduction in the beauty of the male form becomes a vehicle for contemplation upon and attainment of divine love.

 Fig. 1) Michelangelo, The Rape of Ganymede, 1532.

Fig. 1. Michelangelo, The Rape of Ganymede, 1532.

The mythological story surrounding Ganymede and Zeus has special import when studied in conjunction with the reasoning behind Michelangelo’s decision to draw it. In the Iliad, Homer describes Ganymede as the “loveliest born of the race of mortals”—a young, beautiful boy whose perfection prompts the love of Zeus. Zeus, in his obsession, transforms himself into an eagle and abducts Ganymede from Mount Ida, from whence they both ascend to Mount Olympus so that Ganymede “might be among the immortals.”[1] The perfection or “loveliness” of Ganymede, and Zeus’s subsequent love for the boy, is mirrored in the relationship between Michelangelo Buonarotti and Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman whose “incomparable beauty” sparked the artist’s affections upon their meeting in Rome in 1532.[2] After forming what would eventually become a lifelong bond between the two men, the aging Michelangelo sent a series of drawings to Tommaso in late 1532, which included a black chalk drawing of the Rape of Ganymede, among others (Fig.1).[3] Ostensibly, the drawings were intended as a study of form and practice for Tommaso’s studies, but the Rape of Ganymede drawing is also a metaphorical representation of Michelangelo’s personal feelings toward Tommaso himself.

Thought to have been lost, Michelangelo’s original drawing of the Rape of Ganymede is now in the collection at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum.[4] In a study of the formal elements of the drawing, a modern viewer may only see the overtly sexual themes of the myth. The young Ganymede, swept upwards by the eagle Zeus, is depicted in form as having a muscular, idealized, adult male body with prepubescent genitalia. Grasping Ganymede from behind, the eagle envelops Ganymede in a gesture that has been described as both “touchingly protective and aggressively thrusting.”[5] The two figures of boy and eagle ascend heavenward, with seemingly no protest from Ganymede, who surrenders limply to the abduction. The two also leave behind earthly objects, namely the boy’s staff and cap along with three dogs.

 Fig. 2) Michelangelo, study of a male nude, 1502-1506

Fig. 2. Michelangelo, study of a male nude, 1502-1506.

Fig. 3) Belvedere torso, c. 1st century B.C.

Fig. 3. Belvedere torso, c. 1st century B.C.

Fig. 4) Michelangelo, detail of Christ and the Virgin in The Last Judgment, 1534-41.

Fig. 4. Michelangelo, detail of Christ and the Virgin in The Last Judgment, 1534-41.

 Fig. 5) Michelangelo, Night, 1526-31.

Fig. 5. Michelangelo, Night, 1526-31.

The idealization with which Michelangelo treats the body of Ganymede is obviously not new, it is simply a reflection of his deep appreciation of the “perfection” of the male form. The Renaissance’s humanist school of thought engendered this idea, which is most succinctly posited by the philosopher Protagoras’s most famous claim that “man is the measure of all things.”[20] Michelangelo’s extensive study of the male figure can be seen in his countless drawings and in the figures of the Last Judgment, in which Michelangelo calls upon anatomical realism and classical sculpture to present an idealized male form in the body of Christ (Figs. 2-4). It must be understood that Michelangelo’s preoccupation with human perfection was sought almost solely in the male form, not its female counterpart. In fact, Michelangelo’s paintings, drawings, and sculptures of women seem only to be the chiseled and muscular bodies of men, in which their female gender is identified only on a base anatomical level. This problem can most notably be seen in Michelangelo’s sculpture of Night, in which the female allegory of dusk is identified in gender only by rather awkwardly attached breasts (Fig. 5). Most importantly, Michelangelo’s heroic Christ in The Last Judgment is a visual representation of the elevation of male body over that of a female. Christ’s body ripples with exaggerated musculature, and he is the image of divine action. The viewer is at once drawn in by Christ’s idealized, heavenly beauty and simultaneously reminded of the sacrifice of his physical body, inciting devotion and piety within the viewer. Notably, Christ’s power is contrasted by the Virgin, who is seated to his right in a pose of relative quiescence. These two figures signal something essential—the acquisition of divine love and redemption is realized through the action and perfection of Christ’s male body, not the passive female figure of the Virgin.

Michelangelo’s extensive study of the male form and the heroic, hyper idealized form as active savior in the Last Judgment support the notion that the figures in the Rape of Ganymede drawing signify more than Michelangelo’s homoerotic desire towards Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Yes, the Ganymede drawing can and should be seen as a metaphorical representation of Michelangelo’s personal feelings toward Tommaso, as the subject matter and drawing are both overtly homoerotic. However, in terms of Neoplatonic thought, Michelangelo’s drawing would have also been seen as a depiction of man’s attainment of, and surrender to, divine love.[6] Just as Zeus was seduced by Ganymede’s exquisite beauty, so too is the viewer of Michelangelo’s Ganymede, whose perfect male body draws the viewer into contemplation upon the perfection of man’s creator, the Christian God. Marsilio Ficino, in his Opera Omnia of 1576, explains that in the presence of ideal physical beauty, “the Soul is inflamed by a divine splendor…and secretly lifted up by it as by a hook in order to become God.”[7] Michelangelo himself describes this upward ascension to the divine in a sonnet supposedly written for Cavalieri, in which he writes, “I with your beautiful eyes see gentle light…Having no feathers, / on your wings my flight,/ By your keen wits forever drawn toward Heaven.”[8] If Cavalieri’s beauty prompted within Michelangelo a yearning “toward Heaven,” the idealized body of Ganymede and the upward flight of the two principal figures create the same effect within the viewer. By presenting himself as a platonically chaste lover of Cavalieri’s beauty, Michelangelo affirms the Protagorean notion of the superiority of man while simultaneously reinforcing the later Ficinian notion that earthly love and beauty facilitate a pathway to attainment of the divine.

Before analyzing the ways in which Caravaggio’s art evokes Michelangelo’s presentation of the male nude as pathway to the divine, the reader must first understand the religious climate in which Caravaggio spent his formative years. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in 1571, and he spent his adolescence and teenage years between the town of Caravaggio and Milan, where he was apprenticed to the painter Simone Peterzano between the years of 1584 and 1588.[9] The religious scene in Milan during Caravaggio’s youth was dominated by Carlo Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan, who was one of the principal reformers of the Church during the late sixteenth century. Borromeo’s influence in Milan was certainly widespread and totalizing, but two texts—Borromeo’s own Instructiones of 1577 and a confessor’s manual entitled Methodus confessionis – pronounce upon religious problems associated with women and “the gaze.” In his Instructiones, Borromeo meticulously denoted requirements for ecclesiastical architecture, including physical barriers that functioned to separate men and women in church.[10] This prevented the sexes from seeing each other, an action that Borromeo regarded as a harbinger for sexual sin. This idea that the eye, or sight, can incite sin within the beholder is further expounded upon in the Methodus confessionis, a confessor’s manual that Borromeo widely recommended to clergy members in Milan. Parts of the manual expressed the idea that while vision was the “superior” sense, it was also the most dangerous. Vision’s ability to “incite man to many sins when unrestrained by the force of reason” constituted a barrier to “reverence of God and the salvation of the Soul.” It also listed “visual” sinners, namely those “who cast impudent glances at a woman they desire.”[11] Borromeo’s Instructiones and the Methodus confessionis both present women, more specifically the act of looking at women, as a point of incitation for sin—ultimately distancing man from God and eventual salvation of the Soul. Whether Caravaggio read Borromeo’s Instructiones or the Methodus confessionis is unknowable and frankly unlikely. More importantly, these texts paint a picture of the Borromean Milan that inevitably shaped Caravaggio’s youth and his future—a Milan in which great care was taken to separate the sexes in order to avoid that altogether dangerous problem of looking.

Fig. 6) Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia, 1602

Fig. 6. Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia, 1602.

Fig. 7) Michelangelo, Genius of Victory, 1532-4

Fig. 7. Michelangelo, Genius of Victory, 1532-4.

Rejection of such “visual” sin might be seen during examination of the entirety of artworks attributed to Caravaggio, as no rendering of the female nude can be found. There are, however, multiple depictions of the male nude. One such painting, Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia, was commissioned in Rome by Vincenzo Giustiniani and painted in 1602 (Fig. 6).[12] Prior to this, Caravaggio had been in the employment of the Cardinal del Monte, a man with an extensive art collection which purportedly included a copy of Michelangelo’s drawing of the Rape of Ganymede, which Caravaggio probably would have seen and studied.[13] In Amor Vincit Omnia, Caravaggio combines Michelangelo’s figures of Ganymede and eagle into one body—the Cupid. The Cupid’s pose, in which he props himself up by his left knee, is also a quotation of the figure in Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory, done in 1534 as part of a design for the tomb of Pope Julius II (Fig.7). Like Michelangelo’s Ganymede, the Cupid is depicted with adult male musculature combined with prepubescent genitalia. However, Caravaggio’s Cupid is much more naturalistic than the Ganymede—the viewer senses the realness of the model’s body and the flesh and blood from which he is made. Although he is less idealized than Michelangelo’s Ganymede, the Cupid is still beautiful, and he invites the viewer to revel in this beauty with him by way of a solicitous, ecstatic smile and direct gaze. This seemingly homoerotic solicitation of the viewer can also be seen in Caravaggio’s earlier works, such as the Boy with a Basket of Fruit and the Uffizi Bacchus, which have prompted a long line of scholarly debate upon Caravaggio’s sexual orientation (Figs. 8-9).[14]

Fig. 8) Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593.

Fig. 8. Caravaggio, Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593.

Fig. 9) Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595.

Fig. 9. Caravaggio, Bacchus, 1595.

Leaving behind the debate surrounding whether or not Caravaggio was homosexual, it can still be said that the young male figure in Amor Vincit Omnia is overtly sexualized and purposefully seductive. By painting the Cupid as a beautiful, eroticized young boy, Caravaggio evokes Michelangelo in agreement that the male body represents the utmost in perfection. Additionally, the viewer can also see Caravaggio capitalizing on the Borromean fear of the seductive nature of women and of the eye as erogenous zone. Here, the object of the viewer’s gaze is no woman, but a boy, whose perfect body and inviting expression incite within the viewer an intense desire to look and see. This desire, or “love,” for the beauty of the boy is sensually “conquering” and enveloping. The painting then becomes, like Michelangelo’s Ganymede, a depiction of surrender to specifically male physical beauty, which in turn allows the viewer to see the perfection of man’s creator, reaffirming the Ficinian idea that rapture in earthly love and exquisite physical beauty aid in one’s attainment of the divine.

Fig. 10) Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist, 1602.

Fig. 10. Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist, 1602.

 Fig. 11) Michelangelo, Ignudo, 1534-4.

Fig. 11. Michelangelo, Ignudo, 1534-4.

The use of a seductive, Ganymede-like boy to facilitate religious devotion culminates most clearly in another of Caravaggio’s paintings—his Saint John the Baptist done for the Mattei Family in 1599 or 1601 (Fig. 10).[15] The painting depicts a young, effeminate boy as the Baptist, whose legs are splayed in an openly erotic and inviting pose taken from one of Michelangelo’s Ignudi on the Sistine Ceiling (Fig. 11). The Baptist reaches his right arm around the painting’s only other figure, a ram, in a gesture of affection. As in Amor Vincit Omnia, the viewer is drawn in by his or her desire to watch or see, which is heightened by the reciprocal and alluring gaze of the Baptist. Given that the ram is not traditionally considered to be one of Saint John the Baptist’s attributes, the subject matter of the painting has been debated. However, if we take the painting as a religious image, we may be more fully inclined to understand the ways in which seduction in the form of male physical beauty leads to the attainment of divine love. Caravaggio’s Baptist gestures towards the ram—a sacrificial animal. In terms of Christian typology, the sacrificial ram can be seen as a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice upon the cross, an event which signaled God’s love for humanity and the redemption of sins.[16] Caravaggio uses the beauty of the male body as a literal pathway towards divine love, as the Baptist physically embraces the ram in his own attainment of the love of God. The Neoplatonic dialogue within which Michelangelo placed his drawing of the Rape of Ganymede appears here, too. The Baptist’s physical beauty and inviting gaze draw the viewer into a meditation upon the perfection of God as creator of man. Furthermore, the Baptist becomes a model for the viewer, who must similarly reach toward Christ in honor of his bodily sacrifice—the ultimate testament of God’s divine love for humanity.

Caravaggio’s use of eroticized male nudes as invocation points for religious devotion evokes and acknowledges Michelangelo’s preoccupation with the perfection of the male body. As such, it is important to remember that Michelangelo regarded love for women as solely sexual and morally baseless, suggesting that the female nude allows no room for contemplation upon God’s perfection as creator.[17] In a sonnet expressing his love for Cavalieri’s beauty, Michelangelo describes how God “shows himself nowhere more” to him than “through some veil, mortal and lovely,” which he then refers to as God’s mirror.”[18] This notion that one can “see” God then becomes possible only in the physical perfection of the male body, an idea which is affirmed by Christ’s birth free from Original Sin, reiterating the Christian notion that the only perfect being to inhabit the earth came in the form of a man.[19] Caravaggio takes on this idea of seduction in male beauty in his Amor Vincit Omnia and Saint John. This is not to say that Caravaggio rejected women outright, as Michelangelo did, or was even homosexual. Perhaps the current line of scholarly debate upon Caravaggio’s sexual orientation might benefit from an examination of the idea that Caravaggio’s refusal to paint the female nude does not indicate his homosexuality, but rather that it suggests the ultimate and purposeful Neoplatonic evocation of Michelangelo, equating his male dominated oeuvre with that of his namesake. Additionally, by capitalizing on the Borromean fear of the eye as erogenous zone, Caravaggio makes these two paintings principally about the act of looking, pointing towards seduction in the beauty of the male form as the most direct pathway to an attainment of God’s divine love. By doing so, and by quoting figural poses from Michelangelo’s work, Caravaggio places his Amor Vincit Omnia and Saint John within the same Neoplatonic dialogue as Michelangelo’s Rape of Ganymede, making the Cupid and the Baptist into those “mortal and lovely” male bodies that Michelangelo regarded as “[God’s] mirror.”

[1] Homer, The Iliad. Tr. Richard Lattimore. (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962). Book XX, lines 233-35. 410.

[2] Condivi, Asciano. The Life of Michelangelo. Tr. A.S. Wohl. ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976. 144); Condivi’s writing on Varchi’s lectures in Florence regarding Michelangelo’s love poems is quoted by Louis Crompton in Homosexuality & Civilization, (Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 276, in which he discusses Varchi’s description of Cavalieri’s “incomparable beauty”, which, according to Varchi, both triggered and justified Michelangelo’s Platonic love.

[3] Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti pintori, scultori, ed architettori… ,1550/1568, ed. Gaetano Milanesi, 9 vols. (Florence, 1865-79), 7:271; Vasari’s records of the drawings Michelangelo sent to Cavalieri are referenced by David Saslow in Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society. (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1986)17, in which he explains that the Ganymede drawing was part of a series of four including Tityos, the Fall of Pahethon, and a Children’s Bacchanal. Saslow also references Il carteggio di Michelangelo, ed. Giovanni Poggi, Paola Barocchi, and Renzo Ristori, 4 vols. (Florence, 1965-79) 4:CMX, in the discussion of the drawing’s date, which he argues could be anywhere from late 1532 to early 1533.

[4] Marcella Marongiu, Il Mito Di Ganimede Prima e Dopo Michelangelo. (Firenze : Mandragora,, 2002.) 74. The drawing acquired by Harvard in 1955 was at first thought to have been a copy, but in 1975 Michael Hirst established it as the original done by Michelangelo. This catalogue dates the drawing from 1532.

[5] Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance. 19.

[6] Crompton. Homosexuality & Civilization. 274. Crompton discusses that although drawings of subjects like the Rape of Ganymede could be taken as solely sexual, they could also be interpreted in terms of Neoplatonic thought as representations of Christian love for God.

[7] Marsilio Ficino, Opera Omnia, (Basel, 1576), 306, in P. Kristeller, The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, trans, by Virginia Conant. (New York, Columbia University Press), 1943, 267. Saslow quotes Conant’s translation of Opera Omnia in Ganymede in the Renaissance, 25, when he explains the nature of platonic love and its associations with divinity.

[8] Michelangelo Buonarroti, trans. Creighton Gilbert, ed. Robert N. Linscott. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo. (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1980) no. 89, as quoted in Saslow’s Ganymede in the Renaissance, 26.

[9] Graham-Dixon, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, 53. Graham-Dixon lists the years that Caravaggio spent in Milan as 1571-92 and presents a translation of Caravaggio’s apprenticeship contract with Peterzano, signed in 1584.

[10]Ibid. 27. In his description of Borromeo’s directives for church architecture in the Instructiones, Graham-Dixon references Cecilia Volker, ‘Borromeo’s Influence on Sacred Art and Architecture’ in John Headley and John Tomaro (eds), San Carlo Borromeo: Catholic Reform and Ecclesiastical Politics in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century. Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988, 178.

[11] Methodus confessionis,hoc est: Ars, sive, ratio,et brevis quaedam via confitendi…(Venetiis, s.a. [sec. XVI]), c. 124r. These passages from the Methodis confessionis are quoted in Wietse de Boer, The Conquest of the Soul : Confession, Discipline, and Public Order in Counter-Reformation Milan. Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought: V. 84. (Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2001), 113, in his discussion of Carlo Borromeo’s influence in sixteenth-century Milan along with further information on Borromeo’s sermons pertaining to the sense of sight.

[12] John Gash, Caravaggio.( London : Jupiter), 1980. 77.

[13] Reed, Christopher. Art and Homosexuality : A History of Ideas. New York : Oxford University Press, 2011. 56.

[14] For further insight into the debate surrounding Caravaggio’s supposed homosexuality see Posner, Donald. “Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works.” Art Quarterly 34, no. 3 (January 1971): 301–24.

[15] Gash, Caravaggio, 63. While the original ownership of this painting has been debated, Gash refers to and agrees with Denis Mahon’s attribution of patronage to Ciriaco Mattei. The painting was eventually bequeathed to the Cardinal del Monte and appears in his inventory of 1627.

[16] Gilbert, Creighton. Caravaggio and His Two Cardinals. (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press) 1995, 14. Gilbert discusses the debate surrounding the identification of the painting as a depiction of Saint John the Baptist according to Herwarth Röttgen, Il Caravaggio : Ricerche e Interpretazioni. Biblioteca Di Storia Dell’arte ; 9. Roma : Bulzoni, 1974. Gilbert also references O. Ferrari, “Sul tema del presagio della passione e su altri connessi, principalmente nell’eta della riforma catolica, “ Storia dell’arte 61, 1987, 201-204, in his description of the typological references that would have applied to the sacrificial ram in the sixteenth century.

[17] Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 275. Michelangelo’s disregard for women can be found in one of his sonnets, which Crompton quotes – “This love for what I speak of reaches higher;/ Woman’s too much unlike; no heart by rights/ Ought to grow hot for her, if wise and male;/ One draws to Heaven, and to earth the other”, translated by Gilbert in the aforementioned Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo, where it is listed as no. 258.

[18] Michelangelo Buonarotti trans. Gilbert, Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo, no.104, as quoted by Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization, 274.

[19] The scriptural basis for Christ’s perfection can be found in 1 John 3:5,“You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”

[20] Trinkaus, Charles. “Protagoras in the Renaissance: An Exploration.” In Philosophy and Humanism: Renaissance Essays in Honor of Paul Oskar Kristeller. (New York, Columbia University Press, 1976). 194.

Caroline Harvey, a native of Sandersville, Georgia, is currently a senior in the University of Georgia’s Art History program. In addition to her research on Baroque art, Caroline’s interests span a wide range- from the art of Tudor England to science fiction television’s influence upon contemporary art. In future, she hopes to continue her studies at the graduate level.

Citation style: Chicago

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