Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

Horror in October Part Two: The Female Monster

The monster is most often an embodiment of traditional masculine characteristics. If a monster is considered female, it has to be indicated so, otherwise we would probably just assume the opposite. How many female monsters are in our cultural history can we name? Not a ton. This is perhaps what makes them even more terrifying. That, and the fact that they often have a better motive for being monstrous. Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.

The name Medusa is now synonymous with hideous monster, but before she became so she was a beautiful young woman. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was a virgin priestess of Athena’s temple, when her ravishing good looks were noticed by the sea god Poseidon. Overcome with lust, Poseidon took her right on the floor of Athena’s temple. Unjust as it seems, Athena was disgusted by such disrespect of her temple and blamed Medusa for her own rape. The goddess punished Medusa by transforming her into a gorgon, changing her hair into a mane of living, writhing snakes and her face into something so hideous that it would turn anyone who met her gaze into stone. Cast off by this transformation into woman-monster, Medusa moved into a lair in which she dwelt and decorated with the stone bodies of those who would come to try and catch a glimpse of her terrible form. Medusa persisted in haunting many, until the demigod hero Perseus outsmarted her and cut off her head.

Click image to enlarge. Antonio Canova (Italian), Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804-6, marble, H. 95 1/2 x W. 75 1/2 x D. 40 1/2 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Click image to enlarge. Antonio Canova (Italian), Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1804-6, marble, H. 95 1/2 x W. 75 1/2 x D. 40 1/2 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

From then on, the Greeks painted Medusa’s head on the fronts of their warriors’ shields, so as to provoke fear from their enemies. The gorgon’s head was also depicted in other places as a means of protection, such as garments, objects, or buildings. The stone pediment at the temple of Artemis at Corfu displays an archaic Medusa, probably one of the oldest known representations of her.

Click image to enlarge. Archaic pediment with Gorgon figure, c. 580 BC, Temple of Artemis, Corfu.

Click image to enlarge. Archaic pediment with Gorgon figure, c. 580 BC, Temple of Artemis, Corfu.

Medusa is possibly the most depicted female villain in the history of art. Beginning in archaic Greek marbles and stretching all the way into contemporary culture with the logo of fashion icon Versace, Medusa’s frightful face has fascinated us for generations. And it is always her face that we look upon.

Bernini Medusa

Click image to enlarge. Gianlorenzo Bernini (Italian), Medusa, c. 1630, marble, Capitoline Museum, Rome.

Artists were never really concerned with the rest of Medusa’s body, most likely because it was everything above the shoulders that was lethal about her. Catch a glimpse of Medusa’s face and it would be the last thing you’d ever look upon, until Perseus finished her off.

Click image to enlarge. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, called Caravaggio (Italian), Medusa, 1595-6, oil on canvas mounted on wood, diam. 21.5 in., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Click image to enlarge. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, called Caravaggio (Italian), Medusa, 1595-6, oil on canvas mounted on wood, diam. 21.5 in., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

This terrifying thought is what intrigues us about her, and is why all artistic representations of her consist almost exclusively of her head or face. It is another example of artists representing the unknown, the monstrous and aberrant in its physical form. Horrific figures, terrifying and distorted forms, such as Medusa’s, are opportunities for the artist to employ creativity and invention. A most frightening composition, from the Flemish artistic powerhouse of Rubens, illustrates the part of Medusa’s tale in which the blood spilt from her severed head sprouts fresh writhing snakes.

Click image to enlarge. Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish), The Head of Medusa, c. 1617, oil on panel, 69 x 118 cm., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Click image to enlarge. Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish), The Head of Medusa, c. 1617, oil on panel, 69 x 118 cm., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of the renowned Orazio Gentileschi, paints an interesting twist on the subject. Her Minerva, who is of course the Roman version of Athena, sits in all her regalia holding up a spear. Leaning against Minerva’s left leg is her metal shield, upon which is carved the head of Medusa, the very victim of Minerva/Athena’s fury. The gorgon’s head shines in bronze, her dark eyes widened and her mouth gaping open in a ferocious roar.

Click image to enlarge. Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian), Minerva, c. 1640, oil on canvas, 131 x 103 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Click image to enlarge. Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian), Minerva, c. 1640, oil on canvas, 131 x 103 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

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One comment on “Horror in October Part Two: The Female Monster

  1. Pingback: Medusa Experiences Difficulties | michelledevilliersartandstories

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