Mythology in Art: Perseus and the Head of Medusa, 1545

By Carroll, Colleen | Arts & Activities, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Mythology in Art: Perseus and the Head of Medusa, 1545


Carroll, Colleen, Arts & Activities


To this day, the name alone has the power to send chills up the spine; yet to the ancient Greeks, the very thought of her could (and did) instill terror in the heartiest of souls.

According the Greek mythology, Medusa was a Gorgon, a snake-haired monster capable of turning any living thing that had the misfortune to look upon her ... to stone. But Medusa was not always a Gorgon: she transformed into one.

The story of Medusa has been told for centuries, the conclusion of which is portrayed in this month's Clip & Save Art Print. The bronze statue, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by the Mannerist sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, depicts the moment directly after the demigod Perseus chops off Medusa's head, thereby fulfilling his promise to deliver it to the abusive King Polydektes of Seriphos, who is planning to marry his mother, Daena, against her will.

Although Perseus represents the classic hero in this myth, Medusa's back story, and what made her the most evil and terrifying creature in Greek mythology, bears explanation. Medusa was once a beautiful priestess in the service of the goddess, Athena. One day, while performing her duties in Athena's temple (the Parthenon), Poseidon, god of the sea, savagely rapes the beautiful virgin. Because her position as priestess required she live a chaste life, the brutal act is considered a sacrilege of the highest degree.

Instead of blaming Poseidon, Athena curses the young Medusa, causing her beautiful face to wither and crack, and her long hair to be replaced by writhing, venomous serpents: a Gorgon monster. Athena banishes Medusa to a remote island to live out her days in solitude. As a final curse, any living thing that looked upon her face would instantly be turned to stone.

During ancient times, the image of Medusa was so feared that warriors often rode into battle with it emblazoned on their chest plates, as seen in the Pompeian mosaic fragment of Alexander the Great, and parents placed her image on dangerous objects, such as ovens, to keep their children from harm.

ABOUT THE ARTWORK

Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) was a Florentine goldsmith, sculptor, and writer. This month's Clip & Save Art Print, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, is considered his masterpiece. Cast using the lost wax technique, the sculpture is revered for elegance of line, complex details, and dramatic effect, all hallmarks of the Mannerism, a period of art that occurred during the High Renaissance. "Derived from the Italian maniera,' meaning simply 'style,' mannerism is sometimes defined as the 'stylish style' for its emphasis on self-conscious artifice over realistic depiction" (source: www.nga.gov).

In his autobiography, Cellini wrote of the difficulty he encountered in casting the piece, which was commissioned by Duke Cosimo d'Medici I as a symbol of his political power. "Cellini's Perseus also has political meaning, just like the vast majority of the statuary in the piazza. Indeed, it represents the new Grand Duke's desire to break away from experiences of the earlier republic and send a message to the people, which are represented by Medusa" (source: www.turismo.intoscana.it).

The 18-foot sculpture, which stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza Signoria, shows the youthful Perseus on top of Medusa's headless body as he triumphantly holds his prize aloft. The level of detail is remarkable for a bronze sculpture, and it has been noted that Cellini's expertise as a goldsmith allowed him to achieve such results, as evidenced by the subtly modeled musculature, the treatment of the hero's hair, and the serpents and gore that make Medusa terrifying even when dead. …

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