The Temple of Artemis in the Greek island of Corfu was built around 580 BCE and was unique in many aspects. It was the first and largest archaic temple made of stone. The temple’s grand size (ground plan 22.40 x 47.90m, and height at an estimated 6.10 m) surely provoked the admiration of all worshippers. It was also famous for the quality of its pedimental gigantic sculpture of the mythical Gorgon Medusa. Read more to find out what the Temple of Artemis has in common with Gorgon Medusa’s head.
The Temple Of Artemis
During the archaic period, temples were composed of ample columns carrying a ‘heavy’ pediment. The Temple of Artemis did not escape the rule. However, it reached a more balanced relationship between its architectural parts. This newfound balance was crucial for the development of the Doric order in the future.
As already mentioned, the Temple of Artemis was the first of its type made out of stone. This transition from lighter materials, like wood or clay, marked the beginning of a new architectural tradition in Greek architecture. Also, take note of the clean and simple analogies of the entablature (the horizontal part of the temple that rests on the columns).
Unfortunately, the eastern pediment of the Temple of Artemis did not survive. Nevertheless, we can admire the reconstructed western one at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu.
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The Pedimental Sculpture
The pediment is by far the most famous part of the Temple of Artemis. The Medusa – one of the three Gorgons, the other two being Stheno and Euryale – appears in the middle.
In general, the figures are smaller on the edges and grow in size the closer they get to the center. Medusa’s presence dominates the scene. The monumentality (ca 2.9 meters tall!) of the conception must have been a unique sight for the time.
Surrounding Medusa are her children. On the right is Chrysaor and on her left Pegasus (more on them below). Next to them are two large felines with frontal heads. On the far sides of the pediment, there are smaller sculptures of gods fighting titans.
The standing bearded figure on the right behind the feline is believed to be Zeus. He is depicted in 3/4 holding a thunderbolt and ready to strike his enemy. We don’t know who are the other smaller figures, as there are no definitive elements proving their identity beyond doubt.
The Medusa is not only the largest of the figures but also the most detailed one. She is carved in bold shapes with clear indications for her clothing and facial attributes.
The ornamentation is also quite impressive. Snakes extend from the Gorgon’s shoulders while others form a belt around her waist. There are also indications of wings just like other depictions of Medusa at the time, mainly found in pottery.
Medusa is the uncontested center of attention and the most ‘alive’ of all figures. It almost looks as if she stretches her head to take a better look at the worshipper approaching the temple.
Her legs and arms are bent in a pinwheel fashion to indicate that the figure is running. This is a conventional pose known as the Knielaufschema.
The scene depicted is anachronistic. Medusa’s offspring were not born until after her death but her mother and children appear alive next to each other. This means we are witnessing different scenes of the myth at once, which is a common trait in Greek art.
Who Was Medusa?
To better understand what the Medusa meant in antiquity, we have to read the myth of Perseus and Medusa.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Gaia (Earth) gave birth to Pontus (Sea) parthenogenetically. Together they produced Medusa’s parents, Phorkys and Keto (a word used to describe sea monsters or large sea animals). In turn, they had three daughters known as the Gorgons. Of them only Medusa was mortal. Surely this was the reason Perseus chose to kill her instead of her sisters.
In the canonical myth, Medusa becomes a monstrous being as a result of divine punishment. While she was still human, Poseidon raped her inside Athena’s temple. The Goddess, unable to exact revenge on an immortal for this sacrilege, directed her anger towards the victim. In an alternative version of the story, Athena cursed Medusa after she claimed to be more beautiful than the Goddess. Nevertheless, the punishment remains the same. Medusa becomes a monster with snakes for hair, a monster so hideous that turns whoever looks at her into stone.
Medusa’s death implicates two figures, the hero Perseus and Athena, who is still not satisfied with the Gorgon’s punishment. The story begins when Polydektes, the king of Seriphos, tricks Perseus into promising him Medusa’s head as a wedding gift.
After many adventures, Perseus finally finds Medusa sleeping with her sisters. Approaching silently and with the help of Athena, he successfully decapitates the monster. From the headless body jumped Medusa’s children; the winged horse Pegasus and Chrysaor. Later, Pegasus became the famous winged horse that the hero Bellerophon rode to slay the monstrous Chimera. Chrysaor is not attributed to anything particularly interesting except for being the father of Geryon. This last one was either three-headed or three-bodied, indicating that the number three run in the family’s genetics (remember the Gorgons and the Graie are all triplets).
The interesting thing with Medusa’s head is that it retains its abilities even after death. In varying versions of the myth, Perseus uses it to eliminate his opponents and escape a series of hopeless encounters.
In the end, the head is given to Athena who places it on her aegis. That is where it is almost always depicted in ancient art. The goddess of wisdom has triumphed over her sworn enemy and has appropriated her powers.
Coming back to the Medusa of Corfu, we can note that her head is round but much more elegant than the ones found in pottery of the time. However, it is still not realistically depicted.
It is clear that the artist had the aptitude of mimicking nature. This is evident in other figures of the complex. Strangely enough, he/she does not choose the path of realism when making Medusa’s head. It seems that it must remain unnatural and dehumanized. Medusa is a beast with powers beyond those of the human world and the sculpture seeks to embody this ideal.
From Gorgoneia To The Gorgon Of Corfu
Gorgoneion is a term that refers to the Medusa’s head and face, often used as a decorative motif in architecture and art in general. According to Stephen Wilk (Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, 2000) the Gorgoneia preceded the myth. Wilk argues that Medusa’s head was a mask on which later artists added a body. This means that gorgoneia also preceded all depictions of Medusa with a body. To back this claim, Wilk looked, among others, at the Temple of Artemis. There, he noticed Medusa’s large, unnatural head placed on a body that could easily belong to another figure.
This representation of the Medusa is certainly intentional and follows conventions that dictated the monster’s appearance. In the art of the period, it was not important to realistically attribute Medusa. What mattered the most was creating a recognizable figure with the ability to instantly trigger fear.
Medusa’s symbolism and representation changed only in the Hellenistic period. Then, from a symbol of horror, she became a symbol of dangerous beauty. This opened up her artistic representation and allowed for more realistic approaches to her image. This new imagery made its way to Roman art, then to the Renaissance, and from there to Hollywood.
The Temple Of Artemis And The Symbolism Of Medusa’s Head
The use of Medusa’s head and eyes as decorative symbols on public and private architecture clearly illustrates their apotropaic function; I.e. they were there to protect the occupants from evil spirits.
However, in the case of the Temple of Artemis, the Medusa serves something more than a simple apotropaic function. She is there to awe and inspire. For the superstitious Greeks, the gaze of the Medusa was always a powerful symbol of terrifying divine power. In front of a gigantic Gorgon staring from the top of the Temple of Artemis, the god-fearing worshipper would be “petrified.”
As Osborne (Archaic and Classical Greek Art, 1998) wrote:
“In this pediment we are not being told the story of Perseus and the Gorgon, but presented with the Gorgon’s power: here again, the worshipper is prepared by architectural sculpture for the awesome epiphany of the gods.”
Worth noting is that the Medusa in antiquity was also a symbol of the Other. Like most half-man, half-animal beings, she was the Other as found in nature. A symbol of the raw force of nature that can conquer us with a simple look.
Medusa was also the Other of a deeply oppressive patriarchal society, a woman. She can even be viewed as the most extreme Other of this hierarchal system; a powerful woman, deadly and chaotic. The myth of the Medusa itself is a strong reminder of the irrationality of the divine. A power in front of which the mortal remains completely powerless. Medusa’s punishment forces us to confront the truth that the natural boundaries, which in Greek mythology stem from divine laws, cannot be overstepped, even unintentionally.
Suggested Further Reading
Apollodorus, Biblioteca, Book 2: translated by Frazer, J.G. 1990. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Belson, J. 1981. The Gorgoneion in Greek Architecture. Ph.D. diss., Bryn Mawr College.
Glennon, M. 2000. “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm
Leeming, D. 2013. Medusa: In the Mirror of Time. London: Reaction Books.
Osborne, R. 1998. Archaic and Classical Greek Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 69-85
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Books IV and V: translated by Pope, A.; Dryden, J.; Garth, S.; Croxall. S.; Addison, J. et al. 2016. South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Tsiafakis, D. 2004. “ΠΕΛΩΡΑ”: Fabulous Creatures and/or Demons of Death? In Padgett, J.M. The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art. New Haven and London: Princeton University Art Museum.
Wilk, S. 2000. Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.