Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Medusa. 1630. Marble Sculpture. Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome.
We all know who Medusa is. The face we see plastered all over Versace and the face we recognize most when we see Greek or Roman sculpture. Medusa is painted through history as a villainous monster who turns any man who looks at her into stone, and yes that is true. However, she was not always this monster and the reality of her story is really quite sad.
Medusa was a gorgon and the only mortal out of her sisters, born to Phorcys (a sea god) and Ceto (a sea goddess, particularly associated with sea monsters, whales and sharks) . She was known for her exceptional beauty and her long luscious hair. She decided early on that she wanted to devote herself to worshiping the goddess Athena (goddess or war and wisdom). Any maiden who vowed herself to Athena had to be a virgin, which Medusa was. Because of her beauty, the god Poseidon became obsessed with her and was becoming more and more fed up and impatient that Medusa was not giving into him. Finally one day, as she was in Athena’s temple, he raped her. Medusa tried to fight him and called out to Athena for help and Athena did nothing to come to her aide. Athena was already resentful and jealous of Medusa‘s beauty and was an enemy of Medusa’s gorgon sisters. She punished Medusa for for desecrating a holy place and turned Medusa’s long beautiful hair into serpents and transformed her into the monster we all know her as. Any man who looked into her eyes were turned to stone and Medusa was casted away in isolation on the island Samos.
Because of her reputation, hundreds of thousands of men wanted to conquer and kill Medusa to gain a legendary status. All hundreds of thousands of men were unsuccessful, until Perseus came along. Athena gave Perseus a shield and Hermes lent him a sickle to cut off Medusa’s head. Perseus used the shield Athena gave him to guide himself to Medusa without having to look directly at her. He cut her head off in her sleep and on his way back home from his victory, he used Medusa’s head to turn his enemies into stone. He gifted Athena Medusa’s head and she had it casted into her shield.
Benvenuto Cellini. Perseus with Head of Medusa. 1545-1554. Bronze Sculpture. Laggia dei Lanzi, Florence.