Even those whose knowledge of classical myths is sketchy know the terrifying power of Medusa. Formerly a beautiful young woman, she was transformed into a monster with live snakes instead of hair, and but a glance at her face and you became a stone statue.
Ovid’s rather late account of her tragic story maintains that she had been ravishingly beautiful, and through no fault of her own, had been raped by Poseidon the sea god in Minerva’s temple. For her enforced role in that crime, while Poseidon – as gods always do – went scot free, Minerva transformed Medusa into that hideous and dangerous monster.
In this and the next article, I look at paintings of Medusa. Tomorrow I will tell the story of her death and the power of her severed head; today I look at paintings of what she had become as a result of Minerva’s vindictiveness. To add (fatal) injury to insult, these most commonly show her head after Perseus had cleaved it from her body. I hope that none of them turns you to stone.
Quite rightly, the most famous image of her head is probably Caravaggio’s Medusa from about 1597, which was actually his second version, now in the Uffizi in Florence; the first is slightly smaller and in a private collection. Unusually for Caravaggio, this was painted on a tondo. He follows traditional lines, with ample blood and abundant snakes, and captures the open-mouthed horror in her face.
In using a tondo like this, Caravaggio refers also to the image of the head of Medusa which appears on Minerva’s Aegis, the round shield which is one of her attributes. The artist’s vivid realism gives depth, making this appear to be a painted relief not a flat canvas.
Shortly afterwards, in about 1617, the young and flourishing Rubens painted his remarkable The Head of Medusa. This shows her head when Perseus had placed it on a bed of seaweed, after he had rescued Andromeda (as told in the next article). Rubens shows an exuberant mass of snakes, even a lizard and a scorpion, more of which appear to be forming in the blood exuding from her neck.
At one time, it was thought that Leonardo da Vinci had painted this version of Medusa, now attributed to an unknown artist in the period 1600-50, also in the Uffizi. This too shows the head resting on the beach after the rescue of Andromeda, and I wonder whether this was painted after sight of Rubens’ version, or the other way around.
Medusa’s head then went into hiding for a couple of centuries, it seems, until nineteenth century artists started to explore the concept of the femme very fatale.
Arnold Böcklin’s Medusa from about 1878 gives us a glimpse into the abyss of her inner grief.
Also noteworthy is Carlos Schwabe’s watercolour Medusa from 1895, with its feline eyes and that characteristic wide-mouthed look of utter horror. This is one of the first close portraits in which she is very much still alive, too.
Fernand Khnopff had read more widely and was faithful to other sources of classical myth, in his wonderful pastel painting of Sleeping Medusa from 1896. Described as winged, the artist shows Medusa as a huge aquiline creature with a human head.
By the turn of the century, Medusa had become quite a popular figure in paintings, including Franz von Stuck’s very busy narrative work of the Wild Hunt from 1899. Among its many figures is Medusa with her scalpful of snakes. The Wild Hunt is, of course, part of northern European mythology, an interesting place in which to find Medusa.
The great Polish artist Jacek Malczewski made Medusa a recurrent theme in his work. Above is his Medusa from 1900, in which the snakes adorning her hair curl and sweep in symmetry, amid more natural locks. In the portrait below, from two years later, he pairs his sculptor friend Tadeusz Błotnicki with a dangerously seductive Medusa.
The other richer source of images of Medusa are the many portraits of Minerva bearing her Aegis.
One of Fra Bartolomeo’s few secular works to have survived is this full-length portrait of Minerva from the 1510s. She has her standard attributes of spear, armour, and unusual helmet, and the artist has shown her Aegis in a unique form. This shield bearing the image of Medusa’s head is here made from a semi-transparent material which today we might relate to holography.
Among other examples, my favourite is Gustav Klimt’s Pallas Athena from 1898, one of the first of his paintings in which he incorporated gold. The goddess may appear very modern, but Klimt keeps to tradition by showing her attributes, including a spear, helmet, and the Aegis here emblazoned over her upper chest.
Medusa also makes a guest appearance in Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Dante and Virgil arrive at the gates of Dis, the Furies call on Medusa to turn Dante to stone by the sight of her face. Virgil makes Dante turn to look away from them, and close his eyes tightly, as shown in this section of Joseph Anton Koch’s huge fresco in the Casa Massimo in Rome.
In tomorrow’s concluding article, I will show paintings of Perseus and Medusa.