Medusa, the infamous gorgon, was a source of inspiration for countless artists in many historical periods. Consequently, many artists have used a variety of techniques to reproduce Medusa’s hypnotic allure. Today, her gaze continues to captivate audiences in the form of optical illusion mosaics, statues, and drawings. Medusa’s head is immediately recognizable; the head-on confrontational look, the snakes instead of hair, the contorted expression, a gaze that appears to follow the perceiver…
All of these features are common in Medusa art. However, each artist has depicted Medusa in new and unusual ways to reflect the thoughts of society at that time.
1. Medusa’s Head Strikes From The Chariot
In the Ancient world, this fascinating ornament would be found as a decoration on a chariot in the 1st – 2nd centuries A.D. The provocative stare would decorate the chariot pole that connects the two wheels to the chariot. Imagine the effect; the wheel spinning in a rapid blur, whilst Medusa’s head, in the center, remains stoic and firm. A chaos of movement surrounds Medusa as her gaze steadily captures the attention of the audience; an extension of the command which the person in the chariot would be exuding.
Archaeologists believe that this Medusa ornament would probably adorn a ceremonial chariot rather than a racing chariot. Therefore, it is likely that the chariot would have carried an important individual who wished to radiate the same allure. Medusa’s head was a popular décor choice because of the remarkable myth about her.
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Medusa was cursed by Athena for desecrating her sacred temple, and the goddess turned her into a Gorgon. When Perseus the Greek hero came along and murdered her, he gave Medusa’s head to Athena as a tribute. Athena then took Medusa’s head and placed it on her shield, or in some versions her breastplate. Thus, Medusa’s head, slain, became the symbol of Athena’s victory.
When people chose to adorn their garments and items with Medusa’s head, they invoked the same triumph that Athena took in Medusa’s death. Although it is likely that this ornament would have been brightly painted to enhance the effect, the intent remains in its tarnished, aged state; the eyes of Medusa in this artwork appear brighter than the rest of the artifact, and so the gaze has been preserved.
2. Medusa: Tragedy At The Theatre
This piece of Medusa art was recently found in an ancient Odeon (theater) in Kibrya, Turkey, and it may date back to the 1st century A.D. From what has been uncovered by the restoration, we can see that this beautiful piece of Medusa art focuses on her eyes and expression. Medusa’s hair, and the outer shape of her face are a blur and they bleed into the distorted but colorful background.
This type of mosaic is uncommon and arresting, and the pattern combined with the vibrant color enhances the dynamic change from the face to its surroundings. It mirrors the power of Medusa’s gaze, a magnifying force that pulls in the audience to look at the source of power – the eyes – to which the viewer will be eternally transfixed. By centralizing Medusa’s eyes, her look of anguish and pain is enhanced, her misery shown by her pulled together eyebrows, and twisted neck. She epitomizes tragedy, a suitable theme for the theatre.
The Greeks had two main themes in theatre: tragedy and comedy. Medusa is a perfect subject for theatrical decoration because Medusa’s own myth is a tragedy. The god Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple which violated the sacredness of the temple. Athena was enraged at Poseidon but could not avenge herself on him because of his status as a god, therefore her wrath fell upon the undeserving victim: Medusa.
The mosaic’s style enhances the illustration of Medusa’s entrapment in a curse. She is filled with shock, and pain. Staring into Medusa’s eyes causes an illusionist trick as, while staring, the surrounding mosaic appears to pulsate slightly. Her anguished face sets the scene for the audience of the theater to empathically share in her tragedy.
3. Medusa In The Mirror
Bernini’s famous head of Medusa is magnificent to behold. Bernini crafted this sculpture, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Giovan Battista Marino’s poem about Medusa. The Metamorphoses is a collection of myths about the transition of beings from one state to another, and Medusa herself is transformed from a beautiful woman into a fearsome Gorgon, in one remarkable passage. Marino’s poem on the other hand, is to be read from the perspective of Medusa herself:
“I do not know if mortal chisel sculpted me thus, / or, in reflecting myself in a clear glass, /sight of myself made me such.”
(from La Galeria, 1630)
As a result, Medusa’s Head by Bernini is striking in its metaphorical ability to represent the sculptor’s ability to “petrify” those who admire his skill. The sculpture displays the moment that Medusa looks into an imaginary mirror and, with horror, turns herself to stone. Medusa in art illustrates not only the power of the Goddess Athena to change a human into a monster, but the power of the sculptor to turn stone into a lifelike masterpiece.
In Medusa’s myth, there is no record of Medusa herself turning to stone. Bernini and other artists have created intriguing ‘what if?’ storylines through their continuation of the Medusa myth in artwork adaptations. Medusa has continued to inspire the creative arts and introspective artists throughout history.
4. Medusa: Victim Or Monster?
This piece of Medusa art is an etching by Alexander Runciman, and the effect of the medium blurs the image into a hazy picture from the myth. In this artwork, Medusa’s head is not the focus, but part of a dynamic, illustrating violence and vulnerability. Medusa’s head is tipped back, exposing the throat, which Perseus’ sword is moments away from fatally striking. The overemphasis on Perseus’ physique in contrast to the vulnerable sleeping form of Medusa further indicates the imbalance of power. Perseus’ form is active and upright, easily defensible, whereas Medusa has her arms splayed open, chest exposed, and lays unprotected.
What is especially interesting is that the snakes are sleeping, and her gaze is turned away; Medusa’s head is small and not at all confrontational unlike in other artworks. Medusa’s eyes are closed — her weapon, or her curse, is a gaze that turns people to stone, and so in this artwork, her means of defense has been nullified. Without the power of her curse behind her, she is just a sleeping woman. Perhaps this artwork should make the perceiver think what sort of hero is applauded for killing a sleeping woman? It conveys Medusa as a victim of a curse and of male violence.
5. Medusa In Art: Pastel Petrification
This piece of Medusa art by Franz Von Stuck was created with pastels on paper. Von Stuck followed the popular Art Nouveau and Symbolism movement of his time. These art styles favored the representation of the mystical and the dreamlike, with an emphasis on fluid shapes and lines. In this painting, the snakes surrounding Medusa’s pale visage form a sinuous flow of darkness.
In contrast to the reptilian darkness, the bright eyes of Medusa blaze out. The paleness and intensity of the face and eyes give Medusa a hypnotic, glowing gaze. This is in keeping with the dream-like art that Symbolism encouraged. Greek Mythology was a popular subject for artists in the Symbolism movement. Instead of portraying realistic and natural images, Symbolists drew on ideas that featured the curious and the strange.
Medusa art captured the emotion of fear, anguish, and terror as well as sadness and melancholy; a suitable study for the Symbolist. Franz Von Stuck’s Medusa art has the effect of making the viewer feel uneasy rather than sympathetic. In this depiction, Medusa appears to be the willful master of her new power to turn the viewer into stone.
Medusa truly has become a monster in her acceptance of her curse.
6. Medusa: Present Day In Stone
In light of the #MeToo movement, this statue by Luciano Garbati has generated much attention. This is a highly revisionist work that flips the narrative of the Medusa myth.
Whilst in the myth, Perseus slays the unsuspecting Medusa in her sleep, and uses Medusa’s head as a trophy, in this piece of Medusa art, the roles are reversed. Medusa stands triumphant with the slain head of Perseus in her hand, with a determined look that many have taken to symbolize “women’s rage” against oppression. Instead of solely featuring Medusa’s head, this artwork reunited the decapitated head with the body.
This unusual piece of Medusa art gives Medusa back her entire form and the power that comes with her body, rather than depicting her at the moment of her defeat, represented by a dismembered head. Instead of being a trophy, and subject to eternal torment as an ornament, this Medusa iterates the call for change and pushes for new perspectives in society, to not treat women as monsters or trophies. The statue was placed in a park outside the New York County Criminal Court, where many cases are tried concerning violence against women.
Medusa’s Head In Art And Literature
Carol Ann Duffy, the English poet Laureate, wrote the poem Medusa. Her poem highlights a similar theme of violence against women, and the pattern of victim-blaming that has been uncovered.
The final lines of the poem are as follows:
“And here you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue
and your girls, your girls.
Wasn’t I beautiful
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?
Look at me now.”
Medusa, for the crimes of Poseidon, was punished with the curse of being transformed into a Gorgon. She was blamed unjustly for the violent actions of a man, and the poem by Duffy and the Statue by Garbati highlight the effect of continued violence against a woman who was initially good, but due to repeated circumstances, turned into a vengeful monster.
The last line of the poem “look at me now” is a double entendre. Is Medusa commanding the audience to look at her so that she can angrily inflict her petrifying gaze? Or is Medusa’s final line in the poem a cry of despair for her life as it once was before the violence? The imposing stare of Garbati’s statue elucidates the same power of confrontation, demanding the perceiver to look.