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The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

The Head of Medusa (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1617-1618, oil on canvas)

Here is a dark Baroque masterpiece.  Using a polished shield as a mirror, Perseus has just severed the dreadful head of Medusa, a gorgon capable of turning anyone who sees her into stone.  Medusa’s head was subsequently used by Perseus as a weapon to slay the sea monster sent to devour Andromeda–but the weapon proved too dangerous for him to keep so he gave the head to Athena, goddess of victory and wisdom.  She set it on her shield (or sometimes her breastplate) and the Gorgoneion thus became a symbol of divine protection and luck as well as a charm for warding off evil.

Through the artist’s imagination, we are allowed to see what Perseus is not: the horrible head of the demigoddess with her countenance contorted in mortal outrage.  Despite her death, the many serpents which make up her hair remain alive and infuriated.  One even bites her forehead in pique. Where her blood pours on the ground, serpents and worms spring to life.  Spiders, scorpions and lizards appear in order to abet the general creepy horror of the scene (as do the stormy clouds and desolate landscape.

Detail

Detail

Rubens was the master of using color and motion to express the sensual and the grotesque.  The full dynamism of his style is evident in this grisly tableau which simultaneously evokes the drama of earlier Medusa paintings by Da Vinci & Carravagio while also bringing some of the detail and imagination of Flemish still life composition to play.

In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair.  Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete).  The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence.  Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon).  My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:

And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.

In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone.  The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading.  When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.

Ancient Electrum belt buckle in the form of a gorgoneion

A Gorgoneion decoration on an Attic ceramic vessel from approximately 490 BC

Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture.  Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.

Hellenic Gorgoneion ornament

Gorgoneion from the House of Mosaics in Eretria (4th c. B.C.)

Roman Gorgon Mosaic from the first century AD

In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil.  The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.

Gorgoneion mosaic found in Pompeii's House of the Centenary

Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world.  Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rodela de la Medusa de Carlos V (Filippo y Francesco Negroli, Milán, 1541)

Carved Gorgon's head at Versailles

Gorgoneion (Thomas Regnaudin, ca. 1660, Carved wood)

Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image.  The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.

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