Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Eyes of the Goddess: The Secret of Red Catherine

It all starts with this painting: Caterina Rossa  (Red Catherine) painted by the Neapolitan master Giovanni Ricca, probably around 1630. I saw it in Naples, a few months ago, and Caterina has been lingering in my mind ever since.

Now, when something makes this effect on you, it means that there is some meaning that you can't catch exactly, but it is there. So, I set Caterina's face as the screen background of my PC and I kept looking at it every day. I knew that, at some moment, Caterina would speak to me and tell me her secret. 

And she did. In part, the dark/white dichotomy of her face immediately hinted at the Moon Goddess. But there was more, it was not just a dark/white face that was staring at me. Penetrating that secret took longer, but I think that now I have it, although maybe not completely, yet. But something went through. 

The flash came a few days ago when I was visiting a museum that exhibited some medieval Madonnas. I looked at them, and the face of Red Catherina flashed in my mind; why that? And then I had it: the elongated eyes; a typical feature of Medieval Madonnas. Look at this one by Giotto. (ca. 1320, National Gallery, Washington D.C.) 

Not all Madonnas painted by Giotto have these elongated eyes, but several do and, in general, you can often find this kind of eyes in many Medieval paintings. Note also how  that these slant eyes are typical of female figures: male figures of saints and prophets normally have round eyes. 

It may well be that Giovanni Ricca was inspired by Giotto or by some other Medieval image when he painted her wife as such a richly symbolic figure. Yet, that leaves a question open. Why those elongated eyes in Medieval Art? Well, it turns out that they are a characteristic of Byzantine art, too, the main source of inspiration for Medieval Art. Also there, not all Madonnas have elongated eyes, but several do. Here is, as an example, the Theotokos of Vladimir, the much venerated Vladimirskaya, created by a byzantine medieval painter. 

So, there is a thread from Ricca, to Giotto, to the unknown author of the Vladimirskaya. But where is the thread leading us to? I toured ancient Roman and Greek art, but I didn't really find faces with elongated eyes. But, if we go further back, to Etruscan art, well, there is something. Here is the sarcophagus of the spouses, (Villa Giulia, Rome)

Look at how the woman has elongated, nearly elvish eyes. Also, the man has somewhat elongated eyes, but much less. Did that Etruscan guy marry a girl from China? Not very likely. That's not supposed to be a realistic portrait; it is an iconographic convention that had some meaning for the ancient Etruscans, although nowadays it escapes us. And here, too, women have elongated eyes, but not men.  

If we keep going backward in time, we may get to something even more interesting: here is the Venus or Lady of Brassempouy, the Lady in the Hood, from Aquitaine, is a fragmentary figurine made from a tusk or mammoth ivory from the Upper Palaeolithic and about 25,000 years old, possibly the earliest representation of a human face we have.

Did the people of 25,000 years ago have the epicanthic fold that we often define as "slant eyes"? Perhaps. They lived during an ice age and the epicanthic fold is supposed to be an adaptation to cold wind and snow. So, could it be that when Giovanni Ricca painted Red Catherine he was influenced by an iconographic element that originated during the last ice age? Maybe; but I think there is more. Much more. 

Now, take a look at this, one of the female figurines found in Ubaid, in Mesopotamia, that go back to 7000 years ago. 

Now, these are slant eyes! And if you look at the few male figurines found in Ubaid, they have different eyes, not round, but not so elongated, either. So, the conclusion is that the Goddess has slant eyes because those are the eyes of a snake. The goddess is a snake.

What that means still escapes me, but it casts the Biblical legend of Eden in a completely different light. Eve and the serpent, actually, were the same person. It was the Moon Goddess that disappeared from human consciousness for millennia, but that somehow resurfaced in the face of a Neapolitan woman named "Caterina Rossa" who lived during the 17th century and who was so splendidly painted by her husband, Giovanni Ricca. 


  1. As much as I appreciate your writing on the subjects of: Ecology and Science Mr. Bardi. Your work in: Art, History and Mythology is simply stunning. Thank you!

  2. Hi Ugo,
    Very nice post. I was immediately reminded of the ancient snake/goddess figurines from Knossos, as well as of Wadjet, the Egyptian solar cobra deity. Also, I really admire the way you take the time to sit with a work of art long enough to allow it to speak to you--I don't think that's something we do enough of these days.
    All the best,