How Medusa Inspired Artists, From the Renaissance to Neoclassicism

July 27, 2019

The Greek mythology is abundant of various creatures possessing certain powers and embodying the good or the evil sides typical for humans. The horrifying creature that has been inspiring artists throughout the history is undoubtedly Medusa, a winged, snake-haired woman who turns any person looking at her face into stone.

There are various versions of the myth, but the most common ones describe her as the sister of Stheno and Euryale, and the child to Phorcys and Ceto, chthonic monsters from an archaic world. Allegedly she lived and died on an island named Sarpedon, somewhere near Cisthene.

King Polydectes of Seriphus sent the celebrated hero Perseus to bring him Medusa’s head in a challenge, because the king wanted to marry Perseus's mother. The hero was supported by the gods with a mirrored shield from Athena, golden, winged sandals from Hermes, a sword from Hephaestus and Hades's invisible helmet.

Medusa was the only Gorgon sister who was mortal, so Perseus was able to behead her while looking at the reflection from the mirrored shield given by Athena. In the moment of the attack, Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, and when Perseus cut her throat, the winged horse Pegasus, and the giant Chrysaor came from her body. Perseus carried Medusa’s head as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield.

In the iconic antique writing Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid describes Medusa as initially extraordinarily beautiful maiden whose hair was turned in snakes by raging Athena after Poseidon raped her in the goddess's temple.

This theme was quite popular during Classical antiquity; the Greek vase-painters and relief carvers depicted Medusa and her sisters as monsters, while the fifth-century sculptors and vase-painters of depicted her simultaneously as being beautiful and terrifying.

After the ancient philosophy and mythology became revived during the Renaissance period, this particular motif gained back its glory, meaning that a number of artists explored the Medusa myth all the way up to the early 19th century and the arrival of Neoclassicism.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Scroll down to read about five outstanding pieces of art we selected for you which present Medusa in different formats throughout history.

Featured image: The Medusa's head central to a mosaic floor in a tepidarium of the Roman era. Museum of Sousse, Tunisia. Image creative commons.

Benvenuto Cellini - Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1554

Perseus with the Head of Medusa was made by Benvenuto Cellini in between 1545 and 1554. The famous bronze sculpture is located in the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence and is positioned on a square base covered with relief panels illustrating Perseus and Andromeda myth.

The piece was commissioned by the second Florentine Duke, Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, and was part of his political agenda including other sculptures in the piazza such as Michelangelo's David, Donatello's Judith and Holofernes, and Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus.

The central theme is the mythological story of Perseus beheading Medusa. Namely, the hero is depicted semi-naked (with only a sash and winged sandals on), standing over the female body with her serpent head in his raised hand, while the blood drops from her severed neck. Although the work functions as an allegorical signifier of the Medici power in correlation with other sculptures, Cellini managed to inscribe himself within the work on the backside of Perseus' helmet.

Featured image: Benvenuto Cellini - Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1554. Image via Flickr.

Caravaggio - Medusa, 1597

The iconic Medusa was painted by the prolific master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1597. Namely, he painted two versions of the work - the first one in 1596, known as Murtula (named after poet Gaspare Murtola)  belongs to a private collector, while the second version known as just Medusa made in 1597, slightly bigger than the first, is held in the Florentine Uffizi Museum.

Medusa was commissioned as a commemoration shield by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, to be gifted to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de' Medici. Interestingly so, Caravaggio skillfully painted his own head instead of hers, and therefore gained the immunity to her dreadful gaze. Due to its grim and ghoulish atmosphere, the painting apparently reflects Caravaggio's fascination with realism and violence.

Here it is important to mention that during the 1590s, the painter became sort of a celebrity in Rome, but during the time he painted the two versions Caravaggio and his partner Prospero Orsi were involved as witnesses in a murder which happened near San Luigi de' Francesi.

Featured image: Caravaggio - Medusa, 1597. Oil on canvas, 60 cm × 55 cm (24 in × 22 in). Uffizi, Florence. Image creative commons.

Peter Paul Rubens - The Head of Medusa, 1617-1618

This beautiful, yet disturbing depiction of the ancient Medusa monster was produced by the famous Flemish grandmaster Peter Paul Rubens in 1617-18. In 1818, Joseph I. Earl von Nimptsch gifted the painting to the Franciscan Museum. There are two versions of Rubens’ Medusa; one is held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (initially owned by the Duke of Buckingham), while the second one is held at the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic.

Rubens depicted Medusa’s decapitated head in a peculiar combination of still life and landscape. The female head appears to be fallen down on the ground; her horrific face is eyes wide open while some of the intertwined snakes struggle and bite another the others give birth, and the drops of Medusa's blood are transformed in tiny vipers. Other insects and lizards appear in the foreground.

Featured image: Peter Paul Rubens - The Head of Medusa, circa 1617-1618. Oil on canvas, 68.5 cm (26.9 in) x 118 cm (46.4 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image creative commons.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Medusa, c. 1638-1648

The beautiful and bewildering marble sculpture of Medusa was made by one of the greatest sculptors and innovators of the 17th century - Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The precise production dates are unknown, but the scholars agree it was executed during the 1640s. The first document mentions the work in 1731, when it was presented to the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, and today Medusa is held at the Capitoline Museums.

Bernini’s Medusa is certainly unlike the aforementioned representations of the mythical creature. Namely, this Medusa is not portrayed as a defeated figure, but rather as a living monster which suggests this work was Bernini’s humorous take on the classical myth – producing a stone version of a living creature that turns people to stone.

There aren’t any particular details regarding the creation of Medusa, yet certain features of her face and the overall voluptuousness reveal the decision of the great sculpture to interpret the myth according to his own vision regardless of the cannon.

Featured image: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Medusa, c. 1638-1648. Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. Image creative commons.

Antonio Canova - Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804-06

Perseus Triumphant, sometimes called Perseus with the Head of Medusa, was created by the celebrated representative of Neo-Classicism, the sculptor Antonio Canova. It was commissioned by tribune Onorato Duveyriez, and it features the Greek hero Perseus after slaughtering the Gorgon Medusa.

The context behind the work reveals various political interests. Namely, in 1796 while conducting his Italian Campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte took the Apollo Belvedere to Paris. Since this sculpture was taken away, Pope Pius VII acquired Perseus Triumphant by Canova's and placed it onto Apollo's pedestal. The statue became saluted, and after Apollo was returned, Perseus remained as a companion piece.

This particular version was purchased from the sculptor by the Polish countess Valeria Tarnowska. It is a slightly more sophisticated work due to its refined ornamental details and an overall lyrical effect. The curiosity is that Medusa's head was largely inspired by that of the antique Medusa.

Perseus with the head of Medusa is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Featured image: Antonio Canova - Perseus with the head of Medusa, 1804-06. Image creative commons.