NEW YORK – Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art is currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan through January 6, 2019. The exhibition is organized by Kiki Karoglou, Associate Curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Art, and explores the various depictions throughout the millennia of the mythological character Medusa, the Gorgon with live snakes instead of hair as her crowning glory. According to the mythology, mostly from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was a beautiful young woman with gorgeous long hair who was courted by many suitors, but before she was betrothed to any man, the god of the sea Poseidon saw her praying in the temple of the goddess Athena, and raped her. As punishment from Athena, Medusa was transformed into a monster with venomous snakes growing out of her head where her hair once grew, and her gaze turned anyone who looked at her to stone.
The fascination with the story has continued ever since the various retellings of the myth circulated from ancient times to the present day. In the current climate, the discussion inspired by the story and the depictions has added layers of meaning, and Medusa is not the only female half-human being in Greek mythology. Sphinxes, sirens, and the sea-monster Scylla, are also a part of this exhibition which highlights the transformation of these monsters into more anthropomorphic, feminine creatures which began in about the fifth century BC.
Karoglou, besides organizing the exhibition has also written the excellent and in-depth Bulletin which accompanies the exhibition and shares its title, Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art. She writes, “The majority of Greek hybrid beings were imagined as female, blending the human female form with elements from animals such as snakes, birds, lions, dogs, and fish.”
“Reshuffling what was familiar, hybrids represented all that was alien, the “Other,” Karoglou writes in the Bulletin, adding that “morphological oddities such as hybrids were considered anomalies in ancient Greece and, thus, of a destructive nature.”
“At the same time,” she noted, “in a society centered on the male citizen, the feminization of monsters served to demonize women.”
The Bulletin, as noted in its description, “explores the changing ways in which Medusa and other hybrid creatures were imagined and depicted from antiquity to the present day. Drawn primarily from The Met collection, this publication examines a wide range of works dating from the late sixth century BC to the twentieth century, from ancient Greek armor, drinking cups, and funerary urns to Neoclassical cameos and contemporary fashion. Also featured is one of the earliest portrayals in Greek art of Medusa as a beautiful young woman. Among the most powerful and resonant in Western culture, the story of Medusa has inspired poets, artists, psychoanalysts, feminist critics, political theorists, and designers.”
Medusa is probably best known for her role in the Perseus myth, a “classic folktale hero’s quest” which includes Perseus eventually beheading Medusa and taking her head back in a special sack to king Polydektes. The story has inspired countless works of art, including the famous statue by Antonia Canova, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, which stands at the center of the Metropolitan Museum’s Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court. Karoglou points out that “Canova wittily makes Perseus look directly at the Gorgon’s head, in essence turning himself into stone.”
Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 6, 2019. The Bulletin and Ovid’s Metamorphoses are available online.
The Versace dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley to the premiere of Four Wedding and a Funeral in 1994 is also on display in the exhibition. The gold safety pins feature the Versace logo, the head of Medusa. Photo by Eleni Sakellis