Dialogue among Beauty, Truth and Ethics.
Psiche and Art in Sicily
From Caravaggio to Antonello
Antonio Grassi, Caterina Arcidiacono, Sandra Berivi
This work analyses, with a clinical vignette support, Caravaggio’s Sicilian path individuation dimensions, but also their impossibility to guide the painter towards his internal conflicts resolution. Personal disorders psychopathology dynamic illustration will be given through the great Renaissance artist Caravaggio’s works and life events analogical comparison and a close dialogue among Beauty, Truth and Ethics. Finally analytical psychology (with its basic concept: the process of individuation) therapeutic potentials will be comprehended. The presentation concludes with a well-known pictorial image by Antonello da Messina that pacifies and harmonizes Caravaggio’s irresolute interior contradiction.
This work analyses, with a briefly-described –clinical-vignette support, Caravaggio’s Sicilian path individuation dimensions, but at the same time their impossibility to guide the painter towards his internal conflicts resolution. A few years later a great Messina Sicilian painter’s pictorial image allows to grasp the inner contradiction resolution in the dialogue between beauty, ethics and harmony.
Two themes are shared by this work protagonists, namely the great Renaissance painter Caravaggio and an institutional psychotherapy borderline patient: The Violence Daemon and Christian Religious Imagery. Personal disorders psychopathology dynamic will be described. This will be attained through the great Renaissance artist Caravaggio’s works and life events analogical comparison and a close dialogue between Beauty, Truth and Ethics. Finally analytical psychology therapeutic potentials and its basic concept: the process of individuation will be comprehended.
The Violence Daemon in a Borderline Personality Disorder and antisocial traits and cocaine addiction patient.
The clinical vignette patient is about twenty-six years old. After some -months-long ASL(Local Health Company) outpatient structure psychotherapeutic path beginning , he had managed to stop cocaine consumption , to take care of his personal hygiene and his dressing and to start a lifeguard job at a bathhouse . Just before the summer break, immediately after leaving the therapist, he is fired from work, resumes cocaine massive use and, overwhelmed by psychomotor agitation, is sent to SPDC (Psychiatric Service of Diagnosis and Care) with a related delirious buffée: the ‘devil’ is waiting for him in a certain street to take possession of him. After summer break end, being discharged from the hospital, he goes back to the therapist looking shabby, barefoot, after total insomnia five nights. He tells that during the therapist’s absence period he had moved to the church where he had done cleaning work and from that place he had been sent away with all his belongings by the sacristan. He consequently kicked and damaged his father’s car, was involved in a fight with the police, called to contain his state of psychomotor agitation, and finally reported. He tells the therapist that he is the devil (he takes his threatening mimicry), shows a stone with which he got hurt and wields it like a weapon, ready to use it against the therapist – to whom he confesses the desire to hurt her – and against anyone who wants to lock him up again. He tells the therapist, weeping and with a sense of deep humiliation, of the hospitalization and the containment he suffered, and also of the experience of getting bodily needs on him. No one had understood that the devil wanted to take him and that he had to use Our Lady’s images to defend himself. Every time he felt the devil’s presence, he repeatedly said the Ave Maria, with which he managed to exorcise the diabolic possession. However, after the first therapy session the patient goes home and starts sleeping again. Slowly, in the following weeks the delirium and psychomotor agitation stop, with a return to normality. He contemporaneously gives up substances use which he has no more resumed since then.
In order to briefly examine the patient’s psychopathological and dynamic personality, it could be said that in this clinical case Kernberg’s personality disorders dimensional stratifications are the following :
– Narcissistic disorder, in cocaine use to reach omnipotent performance levels;
– Borderline disorder, in the father’s car damage, in the fight with the police, in the diabolical possession;
– Paranoid disorder in relation to the therapist, symbolized first by the priest who sends him away from the church, therapist’s absence possible derivation, and the SPDC (Psychiatric Diagnosis and Treatment Services) related derivative, which appears to him as a persecutor who wants to dominate, plagiarize, humiliate him , by forcing him to be bound, the setting, and in the urine, his uncontrolled and non-mentalized emotionality, and, ultimately, to kill him.
-Disperation, lived in protracted and continuous insomnia and in the self-injurious acts committed with the stone;
–Depression, from which the patient can exit through the containment and support provided by the psychotherapeutic relationship.
Patient’s unconscious communications decoded according to R. Langs’s clinical method:
In analytical terms, the event can be traced again by claiming that, through his unconscious communications, the patient managed to convey to the therapist the experience of having felt evicted from the therapy, just while he was working for the great interior cleanings (the Church).For this reason he had precipitated in the abandonment anxiety, to which he reacted maniacally through psychomotor agitation state and his mortal pain evacuation in violence against his father’s car (he indeed tried to break the institutional setting by means of threatening phone calls during the summer break) and against external intervention (police – the institutional setting – which prevented him from returning to therapy before the appointed time), which forced him to live his violence humiliating containment . Now, however, he can bring the stone into the session, that is, his violent rage, hoping that the therapist’s maternal-Marian attitude will be able to undo his aggression diabolical knot in pain to be entrusted and delivered to her consoling analytical embrace. In fact, the therapist manages to metabolize her patient’s violence fear without countertransference reactions, but with interpretations that correlate the patient’s separation and loss experience with his pain and anger. The patient then gives the stone to the therapist with a small Consecration prayer to the Virgin and the Holy Spirit, which he used as an instrument to appease his violence and exorcise the Devil who arouses it. During the following sessions the patient’s personality is restructured and his delirium melts gradually while the violent hate, caused by loss, turns, drop by drop, into tears of sorrow.
What does this young man’s psychotherapy tell us? It tells us that:
- Demonic and violent unconscious forces live inside us, so they can take possession of our psychic interiority as we are not really masters of ourselves. This happens in spite of Enlightenment vision of man, according to which the reason goddess would be the available numen to human conscience which would sanction her omnipotence and omniscience;
2) These forces often take the Devil’s appearance and their unleashing can manifest itself in psychotic and non-psychotic demonic possession states;
3) The only dimension that can untie and dissolve our inner Evil’s knot is the one studded with the (Soul)Anima archetype, which the patient identifies with Our Lady (Madonna): a virgin soul, not contaminated by man’s predatory drive;
4) Only the very deep and very high Anima’s level, not contaminated by the appropriation drive, inside of us can give rise to that Absolute Evil’s alternative represented by the Absolute Good: Christ;
5) These religious themes also recur in psychotherapy and require from the psychotherapist an affective not predatory attitude towards Evil’s acceptance in the relationship, to its transformation into death anxiety, despair, psychic pain, limit sense development, i.e. death and rebirth experience in human existence symbolic dimension.
The Violence Daemon in another borderline disorder with antisocial behaviour case: Caravaggio
Caravaggio’s personality was analysed through his paintings numerous psychoanalytic interpretations. As it is well known, the most obsolete psychoanalytic point of view on Caravaggio’s personality is Schneider’s (1976) According to him the underlying motif dominating all his behaviours is identified in the Oedipus castration complex , with particular reference to his intolerance and hostility towards authority figures. A similar interpretation is given by Lewis (1986), who claims that, throughout his life, the painter had to deal with his oedipal conflict and with castration anxiety , reaffirming his problematic attitude towards authoritative-paternal figures.
A transition period, also from a historical point of view, took place between the differential diagnostic criterion neurosis-psychosis domination phase and the subsequent one that will see the personality disorders spread exponentially (Kernberg, 1975, 1978). In that time Caravaggio’s personality psychodynamic interpretation was proposed by Resca (2001) , who believes he discovered the key to definitive Caravaggio’s ‘truths’ interpretation, i.e:
– the drive to give and receive death; the author’s pictorial representations are a sort of ‘premonitory dream’ followed by the represented violence acting out. (Resca, 2001: 73)
– the ubiquitous violence presence in his soul.
It is evident that this interpretation is influenced by the author’s purely Freudian approach. It hardly tries to explain why the paintings that celebrate give-and-receive-death drive dominion prefigure, according to him, nothing else that subsequent author’s behaviours in his personal life. However, the paintings that propose religious, meditative and introspection themes are not followed by the painter’s behavioural realization.
On the contrary, the diagnosis here proposed inclines towards borderline and antisocial traits (1) Narcissistic personality disorder, whose comprehension will be proposed through analytical neuropsychological model (Grassi, 2012). In this framework the psyche is structured in two systems, the egoic psyche and the objective psyche, each with its own subconscious sub-system. The egoic psyche, related to the left hemisphere activation, on the conscious level is specialized in protection, safety, self-affirmation cognitive strategies and behavioural elaboration; the objective psyche, related to the right hemisphere activation, is instead , always on the conscious level, specialized in emotions, feeling, sensoriality, object ethics and spiritual experience elaboration, while , on the unconscious level, in body symbolic language , in symbolic-nature dreams production, in lapsus (slip) doing, missing acts, symbolic and symptomatic body language. Personality disorders occur whenever the egoic psyche functioning is excessively predominant over the objective psyche one , or even it is completely separated from it; in fact, in these patients egoic psyche unconscious, animated by the purely Freudian-brand drive (envy, jealousy, greed, domination, possession, control, exhibitionism, competitiveness, oedipal and pre- oedipal assassination), takes dominion over the entire personality to objective, conscious and unconscious psyche competences and correlated behaviours (emotions, feelings, truth and beauty sense, object ethics, symbolic dreams and associations language, religious experience) detriment and mortification. In the various forms of clinical psychopathology, egoic psyche absolute and one-sided self-assertion leads, on the one hand, to DSM-fully-described symptomatology development, while, on the other , to a more or less pervasive omnipotence, omniscience sense and Machiavellian-type moral relativism gradual growth.
1 Only in 2007 Narcissistic personality disorder (Fanara G. et al.) diagnosis was proposed for Caravaggio.
The split between these two systems, egoic psyche and objective psyche (when egoic psyche almost absolute behavioural domain is established) is believed to characterize Personality Disorders, obviously including the borderline disorder. In such cases the egoic Psyche, dominated by the instinctual system that animates its unconscious side, the so-called unconscious of the ego, takes over on behaviour by establishing splitting-defence-mechanism-based relational dynamics, both between drives and between self and object images. characterized by taking victim – executioner roles in relational life various circumstances.
The Great Artist’s personality and biography are wet with blood, crimes, murder and death received by equally murderous hands, and his arrogance is associated with a very acute character susceptibility up to induce him to antisocial-like uncontrolled reactions After relative studies a diagnosis similar to that assigned to the above mentioned patient can be formulated for the great artist. At the same time, his wonderful personal-violence-themes works aesthetic analysis is transposed not only on a collective-social, but also mythical-religious psychic level. So it is to be considered how all that moves in our personal unconscious microcosm is able to represent the forces, the systems, the instances, the personifications that animate and move the collective unconscious of the ‘Spirit of Time we inhabit’ (Jung, 2009, page 229).
Jungian analytical psychology can therefore propose a further perspective to understand both the patient’s and Caravaggio’s spiritual individuation project. In fact, through religious imaginary associative-symbolic themes Jungian analysis, a path can be discovered integrating the objective psyche into personality global functioning.
It could be delineated in the following stages:
-Rebirh (resurrection in religious terms) from repetition compulsion death to one’s own existence symbolic dimension;
– Revelation of one’s individuative project specific meaning (the Truth about oneself);
– Behavioral Redemption from compulsions to repeat drives (Ethics of being with);
– Realization of the authentic meaning of one’s individuality (psychological-spiritual transformation).
In fact, both the great artist’s behaviour and relative works, and the institutional psychotherapy patient’s actions and correlated images are believed to have the necessary requisites for antisocial features personality disorder diagnosis. There are also the elements for an individuative project, obviously failed in Caravaggio’s case, but perhaps with some chance of success for the patient as he can take advantage of a psychotherapeutic support that was completely unknown at the great artist’s time .
Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio
The Youth Works. Giuseppe Fornari (2014), professor of philosophy history at the University of Bergamo, perhaps inspired by Caravaggio’s extreme verism, proposes as the great author’s interpretative key that ‘The artist pursued reality , but that was the dramatic and metaphysical human search for God realized when human action becomes drama, irrevocable choice, openness to the inconceivable ‘(2014). In Caravaggio’s Truth assumption, Fornari shares Calvesi’s christological interpretation, already referring to Caravaggio’s early works : the Bacchus at the Uffizi (1596-1598), the Fruit Basket (1598-1599): According to this author the fruit evidently damaged reports flesh pleasures ephemeral nature and its final corruption. 2
2 Fornari writes: … an authentic vanitas metaphor, offers ‘a representation imbued with biblical and Christian reminiscences (Fornari, 2014: 43) ‘ It is enough to quote one from the prophet Amos’ visions book:
Here is what the Lord God showed me:
it was a ripe fruit basket.
He asked, ‘What can you see Amos?’
I replied: ‘A ripe fruit basket’.
The Lord said to me:
‘The end has matured for my people, Israel:
I will not forgive them anymore ‘(Amos, 8,1-2)”
This way the incongruity , highlighted but not explained by Resca, is evident between violent behaviour premonition paintings and other paintings, especially with religious themes, which are not found in the author’s concrete life. However, his father’s death and his mother ‘s presence without adequate reverie function could better explain both the artist’s ego-actions ( dominant egoic psyche structured on Oedipus complex , linked- to- murder self-assertion, and the narcissus complex, others’ autoerotic and manipulative use) and his impossibility to integrate in his real life the sentimental components and the religious and ethical contents ,which, however, appear imperceptibly even in his early youth works, as Fornari (cit.) and Calvesi (quoted above) point out appropriately.
The Violence Cycle
Since Caravaggio was 26 the Violence Demon takes possession of his personality to make him a sort of ‘Antichrist’ (Resca, 2001: 12). The Violence Daemon Cycle (1597 – 1607) is inaugurated by the painting ‘The Medusa’s Head’ (1596-1597), preconfigured by the previous ‘Narcissus’ (1595-1596).
Narcissism, in Kemberg’s dimensional perspective , is actually based on all good and beautiful images of oneself assembly in one’s ego, which can thus indulge and admire oneself as in a water mirror (Narcissus) and on the projection of all the negative on others. The re-entry inside of the negative projected onto the others provokes, however, the immediate distortion of a beautiful image that looks monstrous (Medusa). Moreover all the intentions and the related violent and murderous drives, symbolized by snakes emerge from this monster. Such drives bifurcation into sadistic executioner-like or victim-like masochistic behaviours gives the concrete start to the violence cycle that finds its development in ‘David and Goliath’(1598-1599), in ‘St.Matthew’s Martyrdom ’ (1599-1600), in ‘Christ’s Capture’ (1603). Resca invites to see these works sequentially as he thinks they constitute a series, i.e. a group of representations indicating a ‘process procedure’ (Resca, 2001: 18). All these works common theme is in fact Caravaggio’s face depicted on the executioner’s side (see St. Matthew’s Martyrdom and the Capture of Christ) or on the victims’one (see David and Goliath).
At this point, however, it becomes necessary to make distinctions between Caravaggio’s self-representation in the various paintings as regards his identifications both with the victims and with the executioners. In the first ones , some seem to obey talion oedipal dynamics and therefore only concern a dynamic within the egoic psyche subconscious sub-system ; therefore, they are only his castration complex self-representation (see ‘The Sick Bacchus’ (1593) and the “Boy bitten by a lizard” (1595-1596))
Vice versa in ‘Medusa’ (1596-1597), the ‘David with Goliah’s Head’ and ‘Judith and Holofernes ’there are already characters and religious themes. The Medusa, is a monstrous head, bust-cut and snake -headed, admirable representation of the egoic psyche and its deadly power to paralyze anyone who looks at it, that is anyone who is fascinated by omnipotence and omniscience perspectives which it makes flicker to those who nurture oedipal, incestuous and / or power desires (also symbolized by Goliath and Holofernes, in the Jewish tradition). Medusa also well represents the ego system desperation when it is definitively cut off in all its potential domination and death strategies (the many snakes that animate Medusa’s head ). Perseus, her killer, mythical Greek hero, Zeus and Danae’s son (the primary god and a nymph’s son), is Objective Psyche Hellenic symbolic-religious dimensions personification.. Perseus, David and Judith are characters united by belonging to individual personality and Greek and Jewish spirituality symbolic religious components.
These decapitations , do not seem to belong to the oedipal castration complex system. They refer to the more complex dynamic complexity of the conscious and unconscious human personality and to the inherent tension caused by omnipotense sense in constant conflict with one’s own caducity and limitation sense recognition and with the other’s existence ethical acceptance. As it is evident, already at a young age Caravaggio faces, within himself, the fight between Good and Evil, between the drive world and the inner symbolic universe, between Ego-centered egoism and ascetic self-reflection.
The Maltese prefiguration of the Sicilian introversive-religious process by Caravaggio (July1607- July1608)
After committing the absolutely higher level crime, the assassination, Caravaggio wants to avoid being in feared, and unconsciously pursued, retaliation victim role according to revenge and talion law.So he flees from Rome and takes refuge in Malta where he establishes a very intense personal relationship with Alof de Wignacourt, who was the Knights of Malta’s local supreme authority. With a projective identification, typical of his personality disorder, he projects on the Great Master the idealized image of a character capable of containing and sustaining Sword and religiosity, that attitude to reverie that is able to turn violence (the sword), through christian love (prayer), into pain and meaning, that is, truth (the most significant painting of this projective identification is the ‘The Great Master’s Portrait ‘ (1608), in the Pitti Palace in Florence, who carries a Sword and a Rosary on the waist, another significant painting is the ‘Great Master as St. Jerome’ (1608) ).
Precisely on the basis of this relationship the painter agrees to live penitentially a monastic existence, punctuated by prefixed times and rules, in the acolytes’convent.
This existential containment forces him, to find ,within himself , no longer divided in roles acted in social interactions, the two victim and executioner characters , admirably represented in the painting of the ‘John the Baptist’s Beheading’ (1608).
He is, in fact, both the executioner, the beheading author , when he puts his signature in the Baptist’s flowing blood and the Baptist who witnesses salvation. Unfortunately, the borderline Michelangelo Merisi does not stand up to the desperation generated by the tension of opposites, when they are not acted in external relations as victim-executioner roles, but held together within themselves. He does not stand monastic life rigorous setting and thus he develops, as Langs would say, a strong claustrophobic anxiety caused by such a ‘secure frame’. His libertarian omnipotence drive leads him to escape. Also Langs, prefigures this twofold-faceted-death drive in two basic man’s anxieties : death anxiety of being a passive persecution object and death anxiety of being an active subject of persecution (Langs, 1996) . According to Resca (2001) the dialectical alternation of both the two anxieties and the two death instincts concretely acted, are the most evident manifestation of a compulsion to repeat the predatory omnipotence to which man does not want or fails to renounce.In this repetition compulsion giving and receiving death represent an escape from the authentic death awareness and from the third death anxiety conscious experience : one’s life end . Caravaggio cannot stand up to the dramatic tension caused by the opposites inner reunion, i.e. he does not tolerate despair. Alof de Wignacourt did not show real willingness to contain and emotionally support his despair as he was too busy with his narcissistic glory needs and with a self-centered use of Caravaggio’s pictorial skills. So, also because of his borderline structured fragile personality, the painter falls into the instinctual division. For this reason he behaves in such a way as to activate in Alof de Wignacourt the role of executioner and to take back his role of persecuted victim . ‘Persecuted by the Furies, escaping from his friends who he himself turned into enemies” (Berenson in Fornari,2014:121-122), he goes away from Malta prison-monastery-monastic life and moves to Sicily.
Sicily: Land of Transcendence, the greatest Caravaggio’s missed opportunity (1608-1609)
In Sicily Caravaggio meets Fra Bonaventura Secusio, a Franciscan friar from Caltagirone, a land of art and craftsmanship, in the period in which the latter is appointed Messina bishop . He establishes with the friar a very intense emotional relationship , analoguously to the previous one with Alof de Wignacourt. Just as borderline personality disorder people do.( those who work with such disorders know well). The friar takes Caravaggio under his protection, but his authentic Marian spiritual attitude and the consequent ability to accept the great painter’s persecutory-victimistic requests seem to determine a 360 ° change not only of the author’s artistic production but, coherently with the very close relationship between art and life in Caravaggio, also of the man’s inner transformations . Therefore motives and contents imbued with a strong religious sense appear, aimed at representing the artist’s new inner journey . The latter manages to follow a spiritual asceticism itinerary in a climate of complete freedom, not limited neither by prison nor by Malta monastic life , but contained and sustained by this friar’s reverie capacity on the painter’s chaotic pulsatile explosiveness . The artist’s introversive journey begins precisely with his first Sicilian painting, ‘ Saint Lucia’s Burial’ (1608-1609), with which he denounces to himself his self-reflective consciousness death, the light of his symbolic consciousness.
Meeting this Truth represents for Caravaggio the annunciation (see the Annunciation-1609) of a possible rebirth to symbolic life dimension, as possible detachment from sadomasochistic drive compulsion to repeat (see ‘Madonna del Parto’( -1609, admirable Christian religiosity and pagan naturalism synthesis ) and then as the fulfillment of a possible spiritual rebirth (see “the Nativity” for the Oratory of San Lorenzo -1608-1609).
His spiritual rebirth then finds its highest expression in the ‘ Lazarus’ Resurrection ” (1609):
Lazarus, dead to sin, is resurrected by Christ’s saving and creative hand like Michelangelo’s hand in Adam’s creation in Sistine Chapel. An impressive artistic intuition and perfect synthesis between Beauty, i.e. Art, Truth and Ethics, is represented by the placement of the author’s head in his self-portrait insertion within the painting. He depicts himself no longer among the persecutors or the victims, but at the center, with his head perhaps twice represented both in Lazarus’s resurrection support and under Christ’s hand who calls his ‘Lazarus’back to life , reanimating him from the ‘cross’ represented by the dead’s open arms , symbol of the desperate and desperating tension of being suspended between Good and Evil (The two Ladrons).
But Fra Bonaventura Secusio’s moving from Messina to Catania, which took place on July 5, 1609, represents for Michelangelo Merisi a new existential trauma, this time of catastrophic significance in the sense of both ascetic and existential individual. The loss of his protector, although not necessarily definitive or total (it was an intra-insular moving), results in the author’s introversion process and mystical asceticism collapse , due to his still weak capacity to support by himself a spiritual asceticism path .It follows a new escape not only from Sicily’s physical territory but also from this land’s symbolic meaning , so he falls into persecutor-persecuted – dynamics victim role , prefigured in the ‘St. Orsola’s Martyrdom’ ( 1609-1610), and in the ‘Salome with the Baptist’s Head ‘ (1609).
Therefore, according to a psychoanalitic interpretation these two last paintings could also be interpreted as the symbolic representation of the death that Caravaggio inflicts on his religious soul (St. Orsola), and on his spirituality (the Baptist) surrendering to power unbridled ambition and to a personal narcissistic- power – always- devoted sensuality.(Salomé and the Huns’ King). But that real- life borderline- acted dynamic will lead him to be a victim. His death was probably caused by assassins sent by his persecutor, Alof de Wignacourt.
His mystical asceticism introversive process , admirably represented in the paintings of: ‘St. Francis Penitente’ (1606), ‘Saint Francis in Meditation’ (1606) and ‘Saint Jerome in Meditation on Death’(1605-1606) undergoes a sudden collapse. It was begun by Caravaggio’s unconscious since 1605 through the meditative-figurative confrontation with death and with the consequent religious limit sense.
The lack, even if only feared, of the reference point represented by Frate Bonaventura Secusio causes the collapse of Caravaggio’s sacred mind, in favor of his secular layman’s mind, which makes him fall into his instinctual division ravine He also goes away from Sicily, the land of his possible transcendence, to bring his life back to a level of concrete death splitting in the two opposing persecutors / victims , embodying himself the victim role in death suffered from other’s hands.
Finally, this analysis would be unfinished ,just as the artist’s transcendental spiritual path if ‘The Announced Virgin’by Antonello da Messina (Palermo, National Museum) was not examined.This artistic work in Sicily, as the Land of Transcendence, is at the same time a religious symbol of Beauty and the last step of the asceticism to the Divine.
This painting sums up Beauty (Mary’s face ), Truth (the book on a lectern) and Ethics (the celestial mantle and the hand that protrudes nearly as her virginity protection-border from whatever drive and predatory seduction).In it religious synthesis higher level can be identified. That was Caravaggio’s missed opportunity and is perhaps the above mentioned patient’s most wished occasion .
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