the myth of medusa in art

A Terracotta stand embellished with the face of Medusa


The image of medusa is something that the majority of us are familiar with: a striking, female figure endowed with snakes as hair and traditionally sporting bestial wings and tusks. Her distinguishable features have historically been used in architecture and on jewellery and vases, but the Ancient Greek monster has familiarised herself with modern day audiences through Hollywood films, such as the 2010 Clash of the Titans, and on magazine covers, like that of the 25th anniversary of British GQ, by Damien Hurst. Somewhere along the way however, Medusa has become an advertisement of the femme fatale, and her strength is perceived as a danger. Her power is shown as something that threatens the foundations of society, resulting in the repeating portrayals of her being humiliated and violently executed, across the art world.

Magazine cover by Damien Hurst, for British GQ

In Ancient Greek and Roman society, the myth of Medusa served as clandestine warning to women. The Goddess Athena punished the beautiful Medusa, after she was raped in Athena’s temple, with grotesque features and a cursed gaze that turned onlookers to stone. Medusa was later viciously beheaded by Perseus. She paid the price of a battle between the Son of Zeus and a King, both vying for pride and ownership, and willing to destroy anything to achieve that. Her head was then gifted to Athena and her portrait was paraded on shields and breast plates as a symbol of defence, but also I think of conquest and power status.

While this overt display of violence and discrimination against women, to some, may seem archaic and barbaric in comparison to todays climate, within much of contemporary media the same actions are frequently portrayed. Power in the hands of those traditionally omitted from influential spheres of society is villanised, and the wielder’s authority is crucified and slated. Take, for example, the use of Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus and Medusa in the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton’s face was imposed on Medusa’s severed head, held up by Donald Trump. This flippant display of savagery was widely printed onto tote bags and mugs, normalising and encouraging this hatred and disgust at powerful women. As Elizabeth Johnston explains, Medusa is ‘a metaphor and a literalisation of… how all women who are powerful in the public imagination have placed onto them images of monstrosity, or are imagined as monstrous underneath their exterior appearance.’

I was inspired by a 17th Century, Italian shield painted with the head of Medusa, displayed at the National Gallery of Ireland. It seemed to me that the painting depicted someone suspended in a state of despair and anguish, not necessarily menace and threat. Her eyes are wide with alarm and stare to the side, which is an unusual trait as most portrayals of Medusa have an intrusive, confronting glare. This show of fear, along with features like the crooked teeth, imposed a sense of humanity and familiarity upon her that was somehow more shocking than ‘Medusa the Monster’. Medusa exists because of how others have projected themselves and their assumptions onto her; she is known because of how Poisidon inflicted himself upon her, her features and defining abilities were quite literally created by Athena, and her legacy as a monster exists because of how we insult her myth.

The convex nature of the shield reminded me of both an eye, and fishbowl, two symbols used to convey the surveillance we experience in modern society. Elements of our environment, like social media, make it hard to escape judgment and we often become restricted by who we are told to be. Medusa, to me, is representative of similar things and how our lives are determined by other people’s opinions and actions.

In keeping with the notion of a fishbowl, I took inspiration and photographed images of my sister submerged in bowls of water and painted them. The water distorted her features and created unsettling, stark portrayals of distress. The intense, relentless environment we exist in, and have always existed in, can stifle and manipulate and to represent this I wanted to recreate the hostile nature of the Medusa shield. I tried to create the sense of misunderstanding and misrepresentation that surrounds the myth of Medusa, by resonating with her story in the 21st century.

Written by Emilia Stanton

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