Great Paintings: Sacred Love and Profane Love by Giovanni Baglione

Sacred Love and Profane Love
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today is Valentine’s day, the day most often associated with love in the Western world. Although Valentine’s day usually focuses on the idea of Romantic love, today I want to share a painting that explores a different sort of love.

Sacred Love and Profane Love is the masterpiece of Italian artist Giovanni Baglione (who is best known in modern times as the artist who took Caravaggio to court for libel). In this piece, Baglione explores two different types of love: the sacred and the profane.

By the seventeenth century, sacred love had long been a topic of philosophical and theological discussion. The ideas of the Greek philosophers were rediscovered in Europe in the fifteenth century, leading Christian scholars and theologians to examine the idea of Platonic love and agape, a concept usually used to describe the love between human beings and God. Sacred love was generally seen to be a pure sort of love: selfless, charitable, and unconditional. This sort of love had nothing to do with romantic or sexual love. Thinkers of the time considered this earthly sort of love to be inferior or profane when separated from the higher virtues of sacred love.

Baglione explores this contrast in Sacred Love and Profane Love. In Baglione’s piece, sacred love is portrayed as a winged, angelic figure, while profane love is represented by Cupid and the devil. Here, we see sacred love interpreting these two figures, who were evidently engaged in some sort of tryst. The angelic figure separates Cupid, who is on the right, from the devil on the left, who gazes out at the viewer with an ugly grimace. Cupid, who is a symbol of earlier, pagan times in this painting, seems much more human and bears a calmer expression. The angelic figure reaches down toward him, suggesting that he may be capable of redemption under the guidance of Christian virtue.

Simply put, Sacred Love and Profane Love is a moralistic painting. It celebrates the triumph of virtue over vice, a common theme in Western art.

Most art historians believe that Sacred Love and Profane Love is a direct response to Caravaggio’s piece Amor Vincit Omnia, which tackles a similar subject. While Baglione was clearly influenced by Caravaggio’s style, the two artists had a contentious relationship. In Sacred Love and Profane Love, the devil wears Caravaggio’s face. This obvious portrait signals Baglione’s personal dislike of Caravaggio, and we know from historical records that Baglione brought suit against Caravaggio for libel the following year. Baglione alleged that Caravaggio circulated rude poems about him; Caravaggio responded to this accusation by testifying that “I don’t know any painter who thinks Giovanni Baglione is a good painter.” Caravaggio lost the suit and spent two weeks in prison as a result.

The rivalry between Caravaggio and Baglione remains one of the most famous feuds in the history of art, and, while it has independent artistic value, Sacred Love and Profane Love is one of the most tangible symbols of this conflict. While it is undoubtedly an excellent and well-executed exploration of the philosophies surrounding love, the painting is also a reminder of one of the most interesting eras in art history, something that makes it dear to the heart of every art historian.

Originally published at on February 14, 2021.




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Maria Cristina

Maria Cristina

Music, Art, and Pop Culture

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