For a billion reasons, I love Florence. It is my favourite place in the world to visit, short breaks, long breaks, hours even. It’s a dreamers dream and a place of fantasies, but one of the reasons I really LOVE Florence is the Uffizi gallery and its many superior works of art. It houses a few of my favourite artworks, almost like a great masters reality show of the best, the very best art works ever. Its a big dick swing if you will, of the grand masters from the grave, all vying for their time in the spotlight with the biggest frames, the grandest strokes and most ambitious interpretations of reality or a world imagined.
Caravaggio’s Medusa is one of such works of art that I find resplendent and terrifying all at once. It really is the stuff of nightmares. Real beyond paint and oil, and so very scary. If you look at it through one eye the snakes are in motion- I kid you not. Or maybe that’s just my wild imagination. It is horrifying and alluring all at once, but scary as it is, it is difficult to look away.
Medusa the gorgon was a figure in greek mythology with a head of living snakes, so terrifying was it, that one look would turn a person to stone, petrified to death almost. Aside: you think that’s where JK Rowling got the idea for the Basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? Hmm… Back to Medusa and her head of snakes, in Greek mythology Perseus is the one to kill the monster, using a mirrored shield from Athena to avoid looking at her directly for fear of petrification. The shield would serve as a reckoning for Medusa. There is blood gushing from the severed head, the snakes are still wreathing, almost like they are coming for her face, a dark hole for a mouth, what we see of the teeth are dirty and eyes wide with fear, rage, shock. Emotions that Caravaggio expertly captures in the painting. More interesting is the shock factor, shock that she sees herself for what I think might be the first time? But also fear that this is how she is to meet her death at the hands of a man, one in a long line of many sent to kill her. But this was no ordinary man. This painting was meant as a gift to the Duke of Tuscany, painted on a battle shield, it is rumoured that this painting alludes to a story pertaining to Leonardo Da Vinci’s youth; his father asked him to decorate his shield and young Da Vinci went out to get insects, bugs and snakes and assembled them on the shield before painting the gorgon.
But before we condemn Medusa to being purely evil, for none is born of evil I always like to know the story- I love a good story and I am a storyteller. In some versions of Greek mythology some poets speak of a beautiful Medusa who was one of the three gorgon sisters: Stheno and Euryale being the other two. Medusa chose a life of servitude to the goddess Athena: Olympian and virgin goddess of wisdom and battle who had a fierce rivalry with Poseidon. In order to humiliate her, Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple and left her at the mercy of her goddess. Athena, instead of directing her anger to Poseidon, takes it out on her maiden, feeling betrayed she cursed Medusa, ruined her looks, gave her scaly skin, wings and a head of snakes, cold eyes. And then she was banished to an island where several men were sent to kill her. Her protection was also what scared her, having no control of her powers but used them of a means to punish those who wanted to kill her. But she lost her battle against Perseus who was sent from the gods and was given protection- a sword and crown from Zeus, flying shoes from Hermes and the shield from Athena. He beheaded Medusa and presented her head to Athena who in turn replicated the severed head onto a shield for protection from her enemies. Its a damned story, even in mythology its a bloody tale.
When two elephants fight its the grass that suffers, Medusa was a casualty in a war between gods.
There is a juxtaposition with reality here, the way power works in the world, the lures of power and the dangers of it in the hands of unstable men, very much like we have in the world today. The world is in a most precarious state and power is concentrated in the hands of men who only seek to destroy it, whose reality is disjointed from actual reality and the people that will pay for it are us. Centuries later, times have hardly moved from then…