Reuniting With the Divine: ‘Sacred Love and Profane Love’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
March 21, 2021 Updated: March 21, 2021

As the profane runs rampant, there is little left that is sacred. Sacred love has been turned on its head, and people today often value vice instead of virtue. Love, however, used to be sacred.

The controversial painting “Sacred Love and Profane Love” by Giovanni Baglione might give us insight into the sacrality of love.

full size image of Baglione's Sacred Love and Profane Love
“Sacred and Profane Love,” 1602, by Giovanni Baglione. Oil on canvas; 94.5 in by 56.3 inches. National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome. (Public Domain)

Baglione’s Feud With Caravaggio 

Unfortunately, Baglione’s painting “Sacred Love and Profane Love” is mired in controversy. Baglione and the painter Caravaggio were enemies. Caravaggio wrote defamatory poems about Baglione and criticized his ability to paint. Baglione took him to court over it in 1603. 

An engraving of painter Giovanni Baglione,1625, by Ottavio Leoni. (Public Domain)

Baglione painted two versions of “Sacred Love and Profane Love.” The version above was painted in response to Caravaggio’s painting “Love Victorious.” In “Sacred Love and Profane Love,” Baglione painted Caravaggio as the Devil, and visually accused Caravaggio of sodomy, an accusation that caused Caravaggio to leave the city. 

Ottavio_Leoni,_portrait of Caravaggio
A chalk portrait of the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. (Public Domain)

“Sacred Love and Profane Love” depicts the Devil consorting with Cupid (Profane Love) at the bottom of the composition. The Devil looks back at us as if he is startled. Profane Love holds an arrow in one hand and a bow in his other. He looks up at the angelic representation of Sacred Love that looms over him.

Sacred Love is represented standing upright, between the Devil and the child, wearing ornate armor and with an otherworldly arrow in his right hand. In contrast to Profane Love’s ordinary, childlike appearance, Sacred Love is depicted with an idealized and calm face.

In the tenebristic fashion of this time, all of the figures are positioned against a background of darkness, which heightens their three-dimensionality and helps us focus on their interaction.

The Sacred and Profane

Baglione’s intentions may not have been pure when he painted this, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t extract meaning from the painting that may inspire our hearts and minds toward goodness. Maybe from a close look at this work, we can gather a deeper understanding of the opposing elements of sacred and profane.

The use of the word “love” denotes, at least in part, a desire or caring for something. Thus, these two contrasting representations of love may be symbolic for what we care about or desire.

The depiction of Cupid in consort with the Devil is very telling. The Roman god Cupid is often associated with using his arrow to instill lascivious desires in gods and humans alike. The Devil is often associated with tempting humans away from God and toward worldly pleasures. 

The rendezvous between the Devil and Cupid suggests that Profane Love represents a desire for base and even evil pleasures that keep humans separated from the divine.   

Sacred Love, however, stands over them both. The Devil and Cupid are painted in the lower register of the composition, but Sacred Love transcends them both, suggesting that Sacred Love transcends, rises above, the desires and cares characteristic of Profane Love. 

Sacred Love wears armor, which suggests that he is protected from the temptations that Profane Love represents. He, however, also has a weapon of his own: his arrow.

If the sacred and profane are true opposites, and here the profane arrow would be used to separate humans from the divine, the sacred arrow must be used to reconnect humans to the divine. Sacred Love is love—a deep desire and care—for the divine.

The positioning of the figures suggests that Sacred Love has come to separate Cupid from the Devil. He stands between Cupid and the Devil and positions his arrow at Cupid’s heart. A prick from his arrow would elevate (that is, save) Cupid from the Devil’s influence and reunite Cupid with his divine nature.

The positioning of the figures reiterates the power of Sacred Love: Our righteous thoughts, when powered by a transcendent love of the divine, will overpower, overwhelm, and subdue all base and evil desires even when their power seems great or their number many.  

How might we identify the ways in which we hide profane thoughts, speech, and acts so that we might transcend them and reconnect with the divine through sacred love? How can we strengthen the righteousness in our hearts and minds so that we may subdue the evil in our lives?

The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).