Caravaggio's Young Sick Bacchus: In the Guise of a Sick God
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Young Sick Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1593-1594)
This unusual and unsettling painting by Caravaggio challenges and subverts the traditional depiction of Bacchus, the God of Wine and Revelry.
Prior to this painting, Bacchus was usually depicted as healthy and in the act of mischief or light-hearted fun; he had come to be known as an icon of folly and indulgence. Here, however, he appears ill and in pain. And to make this painting even more unnerving, this sick God is modelled on Caravaggio himself.
Although he is depicted with his traditional attributes (grapes, and a wreath of vine leaves), there is something off about this painting. The wreath of vine leaves appears clumsy and heavy. The yellow green translucent grapes that Bacchus cradles to his chest accentuate and echo the pale yellow hue of his skin which stands out against the dark background. His eyes appear sickeningly yellow and his lips are extremely pale. Moreover, Bacchus’s neck is bent backwords in extreme fashion, and his grimace evokes a high degree of pain and suffering.
The still life rendering of two peaches and grapes in the painting’s foreground appear disjointed from this disturbing depiction of a very human God.
Shortly after moving to Rome, Caravaggio fell ill and spent six months in the hospital of Santa Maria della Consolazione. He was diagnosed with Acute Jaundice. The fact that he began work on this painting in the hospital has led art historians to argue that the painting is likely a self-portrait of Caravaggio at his time of illness and suffering in the guise of the God Bacchus. He likely chose Bacchus to reflect the fact Acute Jaundice was also a disease that plagued many alcoholics due to the Cirrhosis of their Liver, thus echoing Bacchus’ own lifestyle of overindulgence.
The direct gaze of this figure which confronts the viewer is startlingly intense and intimate, thus humanising the mythological God.
Visit the Borghese Gallery to admire this work of art; one of the most alluring and unsettling paintings of the Baroque period.