Why Medusa inspires artists so much

1. A motif that is both terrifying and protective

It is one of the most famous myths of antiquity; a character so famous that his name gave rise to an adjective that is still used and which means to be amazed. For the Greeks, the Gorgon Medusa ruled the gates of Hades, the border that symbolically separated the world of the dead and the living. She was endowed with a terrifying power, since she could petrify anyone who looked at her in the face. This dreadful creature is immediately recognizable, as it presents itself as a severed head whose hair is composed of a myriad of furious snakes. Paradoxically, despite its horrific character, this image was also invested with an apotropaic dimension, because the Ancients thought that its representation had the ability to ward off bad luck. This is why this appalling and grotesque facies has been painted and sculpted on all sorts of supports: from the pediment of temples to shields, passing through household objects such as crockery.

2. An allegory of the gaze

Bernini, Jellyfish17th century, marble, 51 x 38 x 38 cm, Paris, Louvre Museum.

© RMN-GP / Pierre Philiber.

If we cannot date the birth of the myth with exactness, we do know that the oldest written sources date back at least to Homer, i.e. to the 8th century BC, and that the first representations are more or less contemporary with the bard. , this epic poet and narrator. Since then, this theme with its powerful iconography and innumerable variations has never ceased to inspire artists. Especially since the myth includes many episodes conducive to plastic variations, playing on fear as much as on Medusa’s power of seduction. Indeed, if the ancient creators essentially immortalized her in the guise of a monster, the artists of the modern era have exploited the ambivalence and the evil beauty of the character. The latter also acclaimed it, because they saw in it an allegory of the gaze and the image, and therefore a mise en abyme of the status of art. A metaphor all the more convincing among sculptors who literally have the ability to petrify their model.

3. The opportunity to glorify a true hero

The stainless iconographic fortune of Medusa lies in its great visual force, but also in the many edifying episodes that make up its myth. The destiny of the creature is indeed inextricable from the adventure of Perseus, the ancient hero par excellence. In order to save his mother threatened by the tyrant Polydectes, the demi-god, son of Zeus and Danae, promises the despot to bring him the head of Medusa. Protected by two major deities – Athena and Hermes – who provide him with accessories as precious as the helmet of invisibility and the winged sandals, he bravely accomplishes his feat. From the Renaissance, artists made their honey of this positive character, who embodied the struggle of good against evil, and whose legend is full of scenes allowing for elaborate compositions. For his reception piece at the Royal Academy, Nattier thus stages the moment when Perseus neutralizes the murderer Phineus thanks to the head of Medusa, transformed into a virtuous weapon.

4. The Fascinating Beauty of Horror

If the Ancients essentially represented Medusa in the manner of a grimacing and grotesque mask, the Moderns were on the contrary captivated by the horrific potential of the subject. Virtually non-existent in medieval iconography, this motif reappeared in a very original way during the Renaissance, where artists competed in precision to render the bloody anatomy of this severed head. The fragmentary aesthetics of this evil body, with its wide eyes, its face distorted by the pain of decapitation and its hair composed of snarling snakes, astounds as much as it repels. The sequences most frequently illustrated are the moment when Perseus victoriously brandishes the abominable head, but also a focus on the head itself just after the fatal sickle blow. At the time, the myth also took on political connotations, for example the striking painting by Rubens was interpreted as an allegory of the triumph of Stoic reason over its enemies.

5. A good excuse for a sexy nude

A secondary episode of the myth of Medusa also greatly contributed to its timeless success: the deliverance of Andromeda. From the 16th century, this chapter becomes an autonomous subject and even a key theme in painting until the contemporary era! It must be said that it has all the ingredients to please: heroism, love and a particularly sexy nude. As he has just accomplished his feat, Perseus discovers the tragic fate of the Princess of Ethiopia. Her mother having proclaimed that she is of a beauty superior to the Nereids, the sea nymphs take revenge by having Poseidon send a monster which ravages the kingdom. To atone, the king must deliver his daughter to the beast. The fate of this beautiful damsel in distress, chained naked to a rock, could only touch the brave Perseus, who hastened to free her and marry her. This motif could also only seduce painters, because it offered them a literary pretext to represent a sulphurous nude.

6. The paragon of the femme fatale

Franz von Stuck, Medusa, around 1892, painting on cardboard, 37 x 37, Aschaffenburg, Museen der Stadt.  © Ines Otschik.

Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), medusaaround 1892, painting on cardboard, 37 x 37 cm, Aschaffenburg, Museen der Stadt.

© Ines Otschik.

Over the centuries, the analysis of the myth of Medusa has been constantly updated according to the worries, fantasies and obsessions of the moment. The symbolists see for example in this ambiguous character, arousing both attraction and repulsion, the paragon of their obsession: the femme fatale. In their eyes, the monster embodied feminine omnipotence, hypnotizing man and leading him inexorably to his downfall. An emblematic character of the tortured and sticky state of mind of end-of-the-century decadentism, the creature is thus anything but a hideous monster. Medusa is, on the contrary, a seductive woman whose eroticism is as torrid as it is toxic. This link between the gorgon and sexuality has moreover been amplified by psychoanalysis, Freud bringing beheading closer to the threat of castration. The severed head would evoke the female sex, therefore what the little boy is not supposed to see and which terrifies him, while the snakes would be the multiplication of the male sex absent in the woman.

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