Art

The Beauty and Horror of Medusa, an Enduring Symbol of Women’s Power

Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores how the snake-haired Gorgon transformed from a hideous monster into a beautiful femme fatale.

Chariot pole finial with the head of Medusa (detail) (Roman, Imperial, 1st–2nd century CE), bronze, silver, and copper, height: 7 1/4 inches, width: 7 inches; diameter: 4 1/4 inches (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogers Fund, 1918)

The earliest portrayals of Medusa show a grotesque part human, part animal creature with wings and boar-like tusks. By the fifth century BCE, that figure from Greek myth began to morph into an alluring seductress, shaped by the idealization of the body in Greek art. Her writhing hair of serpents became wild curls, with maybe a couple of serpents beneath her chin to hint at her more bestial origins.

Today Medusa, with her snake hair and stare that turns people to stone, endures as an allegorical figure of fatal beauty, or a ready image for superimposing the face of a detested woman in power. For more often than not, she’s depicted just as a severed head — a visual that even has its own name, the Gorgoneion — sculpted, painted, or carved being held aloft by her slayer Perseus.

Bronze greave (shin guard) for the left leg with Medusa head (Greek, 4th century BCE), bronze, width: 4 7/8 inches; length: 15 3/4inches (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan P. Rosen, 1991)

Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art draws on around 60 works from the Manhattan museum’s collections to explore the transformation of Medusa and other classical female hybrid creatures, from sphinxes to sirens to Scylla, a sailor-eating sea creature with twelve legs and six necks who makes an appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. On a 570 BCE terracotta stand, Medusa is comically hideous, and fully bearded, sticking out her tongue between two tusks. Meanwhile, a rotation of 1990s Versace fashions presents Medusa as a modern luxury logo.

“Medusa, in effect, became the archetypal femme fatale: a conflation of femininity, erotic desire, violence, and death,” writes Kiki Karoglou, associate curator in the Met’s Department of Greek and Roman Art and organizer of Dangerous Beauty, in an issue of the Met’s quarterly Bulletin on the show. “Beauty, like monstrosity, enthralls, and female beauty in particular was perceived — and, to a certain extent, is still perceived — to be both enchanting and dangerous, or even fatal.”

The story of Medusa shifted over time along with her visage. In Greek mythology, she is one of the Gorgon sisters (derived from the Greek gorgós for “dreadful”), and Perseus uses a reflective bronze shield to defeat her. He then employs her head and its stony glare as a weapon, a tool he subsequently gives to the goddess Athena who wore it on her armor. In a later version, as told by the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa is a beautiful human woman, who is turned into a monster by Athena as punishment after she is raped by Poseidon (woe to mortal women in mythology). A 450–440 BCE red figure pelike container is among the earliest depictions of Medusa as an innocent maiden, with Perseus creeping up on the sleeping Gorgon. The Classical period of Greek art — from 480 to 323 BCE — further associated beauty with danger when Medusa, the sirens, sphinxes, and Scylla all got a little hotter, losing some scales and wings as their bodies were more and more humanized.

Installation view of Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Terracotta pelike (jar) with Perseus beheading the sleeping Medusa, attributed to Polygnotos (Greek, 450–440 BCE), terracotta, height: 18 13/16 inches, diameter: 13 1/2 inches (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1945)

Madeleine Glennon in a 2017 essay on “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art” for the Met notes that “Classical and Hellenistic images of Medusa are more human, but she retains a sense of the unknown through specific supernatural details such as wings and snakes. These later images may have lost the gaping mouth, sharp teeth, and beard, but they preserve the most striking quality of the Gorgon: the piercing and unflinching outward gaze.”

On a chariot-pole finial from 1st-2nd century Rome, Medusa is almost angelic with her flowing hair (and a pair of snakes peeking through her tresses), yet her penetrating eyes of inlaid silver recall her petrifying gaze. On funerary urns or armor, she was a talisman of protection, those eyes symbolically warding off evil. Even into the 19th century, as the romanticization continued, her eyes did not close. An early 1800s plaster cast from the studio of Antonio Canova shows preparation for the marble statue that now presides over the Met’s European Sculpture Court. In it, a nude Perseus proudly presents the dead Gorgon’s head in one hand, grasping some of the hair that writhes with a few subtle serpents. Her expression is one of surprised, but unblinking, sorrow.

Studio of Antonio Canova, “Head of Medusa” (Rome, 1806-07), plaster cast with modern metal rod (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1967)

Dangerous Beauty boldly mingles objects from across centuries in the compact exhibition. While the wild red locks of Edvard Munch’s 1902 lithograph “The Sin (Woman with Red Hair and Green Eyes),” or Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” (1867) with the Pre-Raphaelite subject brushing her long hair, are more of a stretch in the narrative, they reinforce the ongoing artistic portrayal of women as dangerous through their looks or power. In her 2017 book Women & Power: A Manifesto, classicist Mary Beard explores how the image of Medusa is used to skewer women in contemporary politics, from Angela Merkel to Hillary Clinton (with Trump as Perseus in a popular manifestation). “There have been all kinds of well-known feminist attempts over the last fifty years or more to reclaim Medusa for female power (‘Laugh with Medusa’, as the title of one recent collection of essays almost put it) — not to mention the use of her as the Versace logo — but it’s made not a blind bit of difference to the way she has been used in attacks on female politicians,” writes Beard.

A soundscape in the exhibition composed by Austin Fisher (which you can also hear on the Met’s site) is alternately serene and cacophonous, reflecting how Medusa is pulled back and forth between these seemingly opposed forms. Her story always starts in these objects when her power is possessed, her head severed and turned into a weapon, whether she’s a damsel in distress or a monster. Returning to those startling early images of Medusa, with her bared teeth and frightful snake hair, there’s a narrative here on how transforming her into something benignly ornamental was another level of control. Still no matter her form — or decapitation — her gaze is never averted, looking directly at the viewer as an assertion of her horrifying power that cannot be completely subverted by beauty.

Installation view of Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Terracotta two-handled funnel vase with Medusa head (Greek, South Italian, Apulian, Canosan, Early Hellenistic, late 4th–early 3rd century BCE), terracotta, height: 30 3/4 inches; diameter: 17 5/16 inches (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1906)
Installation view of Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art continues through January 6, 2019 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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