Previously, I wrote about my experiences visiting the Early Rubens exhibit at the Legion of Honor. When viewing an exhibit like this, I am always on the look-out for points of contact with Classical culture because images of Classical mythology have long been standard themes utilized by artists through the ages. The majority of Rubens’ work in this exhibit deal with Biblical scenes, which he masterfully portrays with dramatic intensity, but one painting in particular stood out as a response to–or a reinterpretation of–Classical myth: the “Head of Medusa”.
Rubens repulses us with this grotesque depiction of writhing snakes and the decapitated neck of Medusa as it spills out blood, yet we are at the same time transfixed by the intense vividness of the scene and its beautifully-rendered details. We are also moved with sympathy for the suffering of Medusa, as we look upon the beauty of the woman’s face, contorted with pain in the last moments of her life. As a result, our encounter with this work produces feelings of disgust that are disrupted or mixed with a humanizing instinct that guides us to view Medusa as a sympathetic figure, rather than a horrific face that makes the viewer recoil.
The most influential, canonical account of the Medusa myth comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (4.604–5.263), which tells us that Medusa was a beautiful young woman, known for her lovely hair. She was raped by the sea god Neptune in the Temple of Minerva, and the goddess Minerva punished the violation of her temple by transforming Medusa into a snake-haired monster. Anyone who saw her ghastly visage would turn to stone. She is killed and decapitated by the hero Perseus, who uses the reflection on his shield to find her without looking directly at her (Met. 4.765-803).
At no point in this story do we get to hear Medusa’s experiences or sufferings recounted through her own voice–or more fittingly for Medusa, from her own viewpoint. Rather, the narrative emphasizes the role of Medusa as a prize to be claimed, a symbol of Perseus’ heroic triumphs, or as a weapon to fight his enemies: her decapitated head with its terrifying features is utilized by Perseus to turn them into stone (Met. 4.653-662, 5.177-249).
We do get to hear her tragic backstory, but it is told through the mouth of Perseus (Met. 4.793-803). He mentions it as an interesting fact that adds renown to his defeat of Medusa: a “worthy thing to narrate,” he calls it, and the emphasis is on her beauty only–nothing of her suffering.
So, as it turns out, the most well-known version of the Medusa myth silences her voice, removes her from her own narrative, and then has her story told by her killer.
Many post-Classical artists responding to the myth focus on the same aspects of Medusa as Ovid did. Unveiled in Florence in 1554, Benvenuto Cellini’s famed “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” depicts Perseus triumphantly standing on Medusa’s body, while holding up her head.
Others emphasize the use of Medusa’s head as a destructive weapon of terror. It is said that Minerva attached the head of Medusa to her shield, or aegis, to terrify her enemies (Met. 4.802-3). Following this, Caravaggio placed his 1598 painting of Medusa on a shield, now at the Uffizi gallery.
Annibale Carracci’s 1597 frescoes in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome depicts the same scenes known from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of Perseus slaying Medusa and turning his foe Phineus to stone with Medusa’s head , thereby continuing to push the same themes.
In contrast to other artists, Rubens’ interpretation of the myth shifts the emphasis of the narrative. We are shown nothing of the triumphant Perseus, even though we know from the myth that he has just killed Medusa and is standing right there. Unlike Ovid, Rubens removes Perseus from his version of the narrative and focuses on Medusa’s experiences. We are left standing face-to-face with Medusa herself, seemingly alone in the darkness as she lies there dying.
We might be momentarily disgusted by the blood or the snakes. Yet we do not get any sense of Medusa as a monstrous threat, for she is already dying and fading away. Nor do we witness the destructive capability of her terrifying visage to turn Perseus’ enemies to stone–Perseus and his heroic exploits are far from our minds at this point. Rather, what stands out among the grisly details is Medusa’s very human face in all its pain and fear.
The sympathy we feel for Medusa as we contemplate her suffering asks us to reflect upon her perspective. For viewers unaware of her backstory, Rubens adds a human element to the story of a monster. Viewers with Classical knowledge might think of the events leading to her death: a sexual assault victim, blamed for being attacked, is transformed into a monster, and then killed by a man who proceeds to utilize her as an object or tool to advance his own exploits. In the end, we are forced to recognize that the true horror is not the mass of snakes tumbling from her head, but the tragedy of Medusa being destroyed and meeting her fate due to forces beyond her control.
The basic narrative remains the same, but Rubens’ version of the story has us imagine the alternative perspective of Medusa. He opens up the suggestion of a viewpoint which had been hidden.
In 2008, Argentine-Italian artist Luciano Garbati went even further and reversed the entire narrative. His Medusa gazes forward with determination as she holds up the decapitated head of Perseus. This new narrative of a resolute woman defending herself and doing what needs to be done has acquired greater urgency in the wake of the MeToo movement.
This aligns with the phenomenon in recent works of modern Classical reception to reveal the perspectives of female characters who have been silenced or prevented from telling their own stories by the male-centric Classical tradition. While the Odyssey is dominated by Odysseus, The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood tells the untold story of his wife Penelope. All we hear in the Odyssey about the sorceress Circe comes from Odysseus’ version of events, but the novel Circe by Madeline Miller reveals the viewpoint of Circe herself.
Similarly, the plot of the Iliad is initiated when Agamemnon seizes Briseis from Achilles, who had received her as a war captive. However, we know next to nothing about the experiences of Briseis, and so Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker remedies this by exposing the grim realities of captivity from Briseis’ point of view.
One reason that I appreciate the literary texts of Classical tradition is that they represent sympathetic expressions of the human experience, and as much as this is true, it is also the case that the Classical canon remains restrictive in many ways: Ovid’s removal of Medusa from her own narrative is only one instance. But, rather than thinking of this as a failure, let us consider it a unique opportunity to create new expressions of humanity and tell new stories that have gone untold–this is certainly what Rubens suggests in his interpretation of the Medusa myth.
Sources and Additional Readings
- Legion of Honor Exhibit Website: “A Tarantino-Like Taste for the Macabre”
- Brill’s New Pauly entry on reception of the Gorgon (Subscription Required)
- Online Versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Loeb Classical Library (Subscription Required), Poetry in Translation, Perseus Digital Library, Theoi Texts Library