What do you see? This marble statue shows the Greek demigod Perseus holding the head of Medusa. Perseus is standing in a triumphant pose as he has just beheaded Medusa. He holds the head of Medusa in his left hand by grabbing the venomous snakes on her head. The face of Medusa expresses horror as it has just been cut off. However, you can also still see the beauty of her face.
Interestingly, Perseus is looking at her face, even though that should turn him into stone according to the myth (but the irony may be that this actually happened in this statue). Perseus is wearing the sandals of the Roman messenger god Mercury (Hermes in Greek) which allowed Perseus to fly. These sandals were made of gold by the god Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek). Perseus also wears the cap of Hades, which could make him invisible.
In his right hand, Perseus is holding a harpe sword, which is a sword with a sickle-like extension on one side of the blade. The sword was owned by Zeus, the father of Perseus. A robe hangs loosely over his arm. Notice that his left foot is standing in the front, while the heel of his right foot is lifted. In this way, Canova creates the sense that Perseus is moving forward.
Backstory: Antonio Canova made this statue twice. The first version is on display in the Vatican Museums and is also known as Perseus Triumphant. A replica by Canova is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The head of Medusa in this statue has been inspired by the Medusa Rondanini, a marble sculpture that is in the Glyptothek in Munich.
The rest of the statue has been heavily inspired by the Apollo Belvedere, a famous statue from antiquity, which is also in the Octagonal Court of the Vatican Museums. The first version of the statue of Perseus and Medusa was acquired by Pope Pius VII to replace the Apollo Belvedere which Napoleon Bonaparte had confiscated and shipped to the Louvre in Paris. When the Apollo Belvedere returned to Rome, they kept the statue of Canova as it was such a great piece of work. When the second version of this statue first arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sword was missing. They took a cast from the version in the Vatican Museums and added a newly carved marble sword to the statue.
The story of Perseus and Medusa: In Greek mythology, Perseus is the son of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek), who was the king of the gods, and Danaë. Polydectes, the King of Seriphos, ordered Perseus to provide him with the head of Medusa as a wedding gift for him.
Medusa was one of three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were often referred to as Gorgons. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was not. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. However, after Poseidon (the god of the sea) made love to her in Athena’s temple, Athena (the goddess of wisdom and war) changed her beautiful locks into living, venomous snakes (in other mythological stories the three sisters were already born with snakes on their heads). Medusa had a horrific facial expression that could turn people (or according to some, only men) who looked at her into stone.
Perseus used a shiny shield that he got from Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly and succeeded to cut off her head. When Perseus returned to King Polydectes, he showed him the head of Medusa, which still retained its power, which turned Polydectes into stone. This was the purpose of Perseus as he discovered that Polydectes had abused his mother.
Perseus and Medusa in art? Perseus and Medusa have been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used their story as the inspiration for their artwork. Leonardo da Vinci created two version of the head of Medusa, but neither of them has survived. Caravaggio has painted the head of Medusa on a shield which is in the Uffizi Museum. Rubens also created two versions of the Head of Medusa, of which one is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Various sculptures of Perseus and Medusa have also been made, such as one by Benvenuto Cellini.
What is neoclassicism? Around 1760, neoclassicism started in Rome in opposition to the then-popular Baroque and Rococo styles. The neoclassic style quickly spread through Europe and become especially popular in France, with artists such as Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Neoclassic art is inspired by the old Roman and Greek art and focuses on simplicity and symmetry. The paintings, sculptures, and architecture in this style did not show much emotion, were more ordered and down-to-earth compared to the Baroque style and were less playful compared to the Rococo style.
Fun fact: When making a statue of marble, the artist needs to be aware of the center of gravity. In this sculpture, the stretched arm of Perseus and the head of Medusa naturally shift the center of gravity. Canova included two tricks to keep the sculpture stable and decrease the chances that it gets severely damaged by movement or that the head would simply break off.
Where? Ground floor, room 403 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Colonel John Campbell
What do you see? The moment at which the lifeless body of Psyche is just brought back to life by Cupid. The figures of Cupid and Psyche (except the wings) are positioned in a pyramid shape, which creates a stable form for the sculpture. Cupid sits on one knee on top of a rock and holds Psyche by her head and breast. He has large wings pointing straight up into the air and wears his arrows in a quiver on his back. Psyche reaches up to Cupid and has her hands on his head. She lets her head hang back and they are about to kiss. Her long hair reaches all the way to the ground. She has a cloth wrapped around her lower body. Behind them lays the flask with the ointment that Psyche had collected from the underworld. Directly to the right of the flask is Cupid's arrow, which he used to wake up Psyche.
This story symbolizes the big efforts and challenges a human must undergo to achieve happiness and immortality. Look also at the precision with which Canova created the smooth bodies of Cupid and Psyche. This smoothness contrasts nicely with the wrinkly texture of the sheet wrapped around Psyche and the rougher texture of the rock on which they sit. Near the right foot of Psyche is a handle, which was originally included to turn the sculpture around as it was worth seeing this sculpture from all possible angles.
Backstory: This sculpture is based on a story the Roman writer Apuleius wrote in his book Metamorphoses, chapters four, five, and six (you can download the book here for free). In short, Psyche was considered the most beautiful woman alive, and Cupid fell in love with her. The painting Cupid and Psyche in the Cleveland Museum of Art by Jacques-Louis David shows the couple after they made love.
The goddess Venus was jealous of Psyche's beauty and sent her on a very dangerous journey to the underworld to collect a flask with Proserpina’s beauty ointment. Psyche succeeds with the help of Cupid. Venus instructed Psyche not to open the flask, but after she completes the journey, she could not resist and opened it to take some of the content. But instead of becoming more beautiful, the ointment makes her fall in a very deep sleep as Proserpina had filled the flask with sleep of the innermost darkness. Cupid forgives Psyche and revives her. He asks for the help of Zeus who makes Psyche immortal. Cupid and Psyche marry and stay together forever.
Multiple Versions: Antonio Canova created another version of this statue for the Russian art collector Prince Yusupov. This version was made in 1796 and is now in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. It differs somewhat from the current version as Yusupov asked for some changes. For example, he wanted the cloth on Psyche to cover her legs completely. The favorite student of Canova, Adamo Tadolino, inherited the plaster model for this sculpture, which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He used this model to create at least five known marble replicas of this sculpture with small modifications. He added, for example, small butterfly wings to the back of Psyche and created smaller wings for Cupid.
Who is Psyche? One of the three daughters of an unknown king and queen. She was very beautiful, and people treated her like a goddess. Venus was jealous of her beauty and the way she was treated. She asked her son Cupid to use his arrows to make her marry the ugliest of all human beings. However, when Cupid saw Psyche, he fell in love with her.
Psyche's father went to an oracle to ask why her daughter had not married yet. The oracle said that Psyche should be left behind there immediately as otherwise terrible disasters would happen. Next, the god Zephyr blew her away and put her in a palace by herself. There, every night she made love to a person that she was not allowed to see. This person was Cupid. When she discovered this, Cupid fled. To get him back, Psyche followed the instructions of Venus to gather a beauty ointment from the underworld as described above.
Who is Canova? Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was born in Possagno, a small town in the Northeast of Italy. He studied arts in Venice and then moved to Rome at age 23 to start his own workshop. He completed various commissions for the Pope while in Rome. In 1802, he moved to Paris where he created several sculptures for Napoleon.
He was inspired by the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. He revived this classical style and Canova is considered to be the prime Neoclassical sculptor. His sculptures are praised because of their perfect form and finish. The careful finish of the human bodies makes his statues look like real flesh and makes them come alive. An example of another great sculpture of Canova is Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Vatican Museums. A replica of this statue can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Canova conducted extensive research to create this sculpture. The position of Cupid is copied exactly from a painting he saw in Herculaneum near Naples. After many sketches, he then created numerous clay figures of the sculpture. Unlike many other sculptors who created small-sized clay models for a sculpture, Canova created the clay models at their real size. This helped him to accurately sculpt his work in marble.
Note that the flask and the wings of Cupid are sculpted separately and are inserted into the rest of the sculpture. For example, you can still see some marks on where the wings are attached to Cupid’s back.
Finally, Canova had special curved chisel tools designed for him, which he used to carve out the sculpture’s most inaccessible places. This attention to detail makes him one of the most admired sculptors in history.