Where? Room 96 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Cardinal del Monte, who gave it as a gift to Ferdinando I de Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany
What do you see? A depiction of the head of Medusa painted on a circular and curved wooden shield. Medusa is a woman described in Greek mythology. With her glance she could turn people who looked at her into stone. Instead of normal hair she has living, venomous snakes on her head. The snakes are watersnakes from the Tiber river as those were the best type of snakes Caravaggio could find nearby. I count at least eight snakes on her head. The blood streams out of her head as she has just been killed by the Greek demigod Perseus. This painting shows the moment that Medusa is looking at the reflective shield that Perseus is holding (which according to the myth actually happened just before she got beheaded). She realizes that her head is separated from her body, but that she is still conscious. You can see this realization by the horror in her eyes. As the painting is created on a shield, Caravaggio’s idea was that this painting actually represents the view of the shield as held by Perseus just after he killed Medusa. It is also interesting to have a closer look at Caravaggio’s use of light and shadow in this painting. Do you see how Caravaggio used these contrasts to show the head of Medusa as a three-dimensional object?
Backstory: The painting is actually a self-portrait of Caravaggio. As he painted Medusa on a convex shield, he has actually used a convex mirror to paint his own face. If you look carefully, you may notice that the forehead and cheeks of Medusa are somewhat bigger than expected. Caravaggio created two versions of the Medusa painting. The first version is also known as Murtola (or Murtula), named after the poet who first wrote about it. The first version was painted in 1596 and is slightly smaller than the second version discussed here. Unfortunately, the first version belongs to a private collection nowadays. Do you see the differences?
Who is Medusa? In Greek mythology, 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. They were daughters of Phorcys (a sea god) and his sister Ceto (a sea goddess). 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. The Greek hero Perseus, a demigod, used a shining shield that he got from the goddess Athena to avoid looking at her directly and succeeded to cut off her head. He used her head as a weapon afterwards as it retained its power to turn people who looked at it into stone. Perseus ultimately gave the head of Medusa to the goddess Athena, who placed the head on her shield (which is what is depicted in this painting). When the head of Medusa was cut off, two creatures arose from Medusa’s body: Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chryasor, a giant with a golden sword.
Medusa in art? Medusa has been a popular subject in art. Famous artists have used her story as the inspiration for their artwork. Well known versions include a painting of Leonardo da Vinci (that has not survived), a painting by Peter Paul Rubens in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, a marble bust by Gianlorenzo Bernini, and Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Outside the Uffizi Museum (in the Loggia del Lanzi of the Piazza della Signoria) you can also admire a bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini. This sculpture was made in 1545 and shows Perseus after he took the head of Medusa. He is almost completely naked, wearing his winged sandals and standing on top of Medusa’s body.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisa da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was trained by Simone Peterzano, who was in turn trained by Titian. He used a realistic painting style, paying attention to both the physical and emotional state of the subjects he painted. He combined this with a beautiful contrast between light and shadow in his paintings. He was a brilliant and unconventional artist. During his life he received quite some commissions for religious paintings. However, Caravaggio always knew to how add some dark elements to the painting. He liked to use beggars, criminals, and prostitutes as models for his paintings, which would often give unexpected outcomes for familiar biblical scenes. Two beautiful examples of his religious paintings are Death of the Virgin in the Louvre and The Entombment of Christ in the Vatican Museums.
Fun fact: Monica Favaro and colleagues published an academic study on which materials have been used in this painting and the evolution of these materials over time. The shield is made from poplar wood and covered by a linen. On top of the linen, Caravaggio added four different preparation layers (which are layers of paint that have dried and are again painted upon). These preparation layers helped to build the foundation of the painting (such as the main areas of dark and light). On top of these four preparation layers another layer of paint is applied containing a failed experiment of Caravaggio to make the background of the painting reflective. On top of this layer, a green layer, consisting of a mixture of verdigris and lead-tin yellow, is applied, forming the background of the painting as we see it today. On top of this background layer, three other layers of paint have been applied to form the painting (consisting of a mixture of siccative oils, turpentine and mastic with traces of beeswax). Finally, the painting contains additional layers to conserve the painting. As you can read, this painting is a fairly complex chemical composition!
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links).
Written by Eelco Kappe