Jupiter and Io and Boy Bitten by a Lizard have some superficial similarities; both make liberal use of darkness, both use a limited palette, both highlight their central figure in light, both have the human form as their central material element, and both show the human body at a particular moment in the emotional life of the body’s inhabitants; both the boy and Io are in motion, which the painter froze, in anticipation of photography. And yet, the movement that the paintings cause in the viewer is diametrically opposed.
In Correggio’s Jupiter and Io, we see a woman in a loving embrace with a cloud which has taken human form, or a spirit who has taken cloud/human form, or is even now changing shape. Because of the name of the painting we know that the cloud/spirit is the notoriously unfaithful god Jupiter. Io is slightly blushed; she appears to be in an ecstatic swoon; perhaps he is kissing her neck; her mouth is slightly open and curved into a smile, her eyes are closed, on hand curved around the god’s arm; the other is extended, perhaps feeling the same misty tendrils that fall from the cloud and caress her hips.
She has her back to the viewer; she is naked. Her neck is bent backwards, the curve of it is in relief against Jupiter’s cloud-form. Her toes are curled and rounded, like her legs; she is possibly straddling him, or partly. His eyes appear to be closed; he is absorbed in her embrace. In fact the two are entirely absorbed in each other. The colors are dark; the painting appears to be in Payne’s Grey, White and maybe some Umbers or Sepia colors, except for some pinkish tones in the woman’s skin. There are a few leaves which appear more brown than green: is it Fall? , are the leaves dead?
The god’s arm, which encircles her waist, looks like a bear’s paw; it’s huge compared to her arm. The cloud, which comprises the god’s body, is very dark on the bottom and lighter on the top; where his face appears from the cloud is wonderful. If you know the story, you know that the god is hiding in the cloud: but you would gather that from the painting as well: his face has taken shape only for the kiss; otherwise he is entirely camouflaged. Her back rests against something in a huge pot; she sits on a white sheet, or perhaps it’s her dress which has fallen away during the course of their lovemaking.
The pot is earthy toned. Io is set solidly in the center of the painting; the cloud-form of Jupiter appears to be swooping down towards her. It appears as though the cloud might be huge; the colors in the whole painting appear darkened, maybe even wet. The cloud-form could be a rain cloud, nearly ready to drop. Just as Io is set solidly in the center, so does the light shine mainly upon her; her figure is quite light compared to Jupiter’s: on her left leg and foot, her forehead and along the rim of her left arm. And the folds of the white cloth under her body, the light is even bright.
Where Io sits is in intense darkness; darker than the darkest part of Jupiter’s cloud; the only illumination there is Io herself. Io and Jupiter engages touch, where wisps of cloud caress Io’s body; it feels like fog on skin on a foggy day; the colors evoke perhaps Fall, and/or rain and Io’s environment is dark and almost cold, or even brittle, but the warmth and rosiness of Io’s body suggest that that warmth and rosiness are just for her, because of her emotional warmth towards Jupiter; if the viewer were suddenly cast in the scene, the surroundings don’t seem welcoming or idyllic enough to inspire nudity.
But the sense of touch is all that is engaged; not in a reductive sense but in an absorptive sense: neither Io or Jupiter have their eyes open, they are wholly lost in a world of emotion and touch. Io and Jupiter appear to be perfectly in tune in a moment of mutual absorption; her rosy cheeks suggest happiness and so the scene is both sensual and cozy. The viewer reaction can expect to be elicited by the intimacy expressed in the painting; the moment is intensely private; so the viewer might have the feeling that they should avert their eyes and move on; that they shouldn’t interrupt or even witness such an intimate moment.
Jupiter in cloud-form evokes the ecstatic nature of the experience: that is ec-static, or out of stability; where the experience transports the lover out of the known, even out of the material, realm. The cloud-form may indicate either illusion, in that a cloud is only a temporary association of water droplets; or it may indicate the Spirit; or a whisper of nature energy. What leaps out initially from Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten By Lizard is the utterly betrayed look on the boy’s face.
His brow is deeply furrowed, his mouth is slightly open in protest, his eyes are blackened in pain. Caravaggio’s shapes are so sensually drawn that the boy’s flesh looks real. His hands are contorted in fear and pain. Anybody who has been around a child who has hurt themselves for the first time remembers the betrayal in their voices as they cry; as though a beloved mother suddenly spit out a sarcastic word: they can’t believe that their lovely world can be painful. A child is usually as old as this one appears to be by the time they get over it.
The next thing that leaps out is the rose over the boy’s ear. It isn’t at all clear what the rose is initially; it has the effect of elongating the ear so that the boy almost looks elvish. Caravaggio is also working with a limited palette; the focus, via light, placement and impact is the boy’s face, all else recedes. The rose suggests that moments before the child was playing, had stuck a rose behind his ear in a moment of whimsy, is reaching back to look at another pretty thing and then.
Also perhaps implied in the rose is that a beautiful thing can have a hidden threat. Caravaggio caught the boy in the tension of the moment after his spirit has recoiled and before his body has, so that he is hanging in that moment. He’s only just been bitten—NOW; and in the next split-second, his body will have begun the movement up and backward. The boy’s focus is located between shock and fear; in this painting the viewer’s sight is engaged.
We, too, are shocked, and first we have to absorb our concern for the boy before we begin to look at the rest of the scene to determine what has caused this; and even then, our gaze keeps flitting back to his face. Boy Bitten By Lizard and Jupiter and Io both have themes of the hidden, perhaps the darkness in the background is intended to hide the hidden; one is that which hides on purpose, one is that which reveals itself: Jupiter hiding from his wife in Jupiter and Io, the snake hiding in Eden in Boy Bitten.
Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten By Lizard engages our sight, whereas Correggio’s Jupiter and Io engages our sense of touch. But the difference in between them is that in Boy Bitten by Lizard we are drawn into the scene, pulled forward as immediately as though an actual child needed our help, that is the help of an actual adult; it’s our natural impulse to move forward, toward the boy. The opposite is so for Jupiter and Io.
We have to remind ourselves that Jupiter and Io is a painting that is meant to be looked at, else the intimacy and privacy of the scene shame us into looking away; not because it is sexual, or pornographic, and we don’t want to be a voyeur, but because it is so intensely private that we don’t want to intrude, or even worse, interfere, and be responsible for stopping it. In front of Jupiter and Io then we draw back. Or the god and the nymph might turn their gaze towards us, and then? Disappear.