NEW YORK, NY -- With her piercing eyes and severed head of snakes, Medusa is one of the most recognizable figures in Greek mythology. Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art displays Medusa’s transformation from the grotesque to an alluring fatal beauty. Consisting primarily of small ancient objects, Dangerous Beauty offers an eclectic variety of Medusa’s iconography. This concise and cohesive collection of objects reveal the transformation of Medusa from dangerous to beguiling. By expanding beyond the area of fine art into fashion and music, Dangerous Beauty explores the evolution of Medusa.
Once said to be the most beautiful of her three sisters, Medusa was assaulted in the Temple of Athena by Poseidon. As punishment, an enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s hair into a bed of snakes and made her face so ghastly that one look would turn women and men to stone. Perseus aided with a helmet given to him by Athena, Aphrodite’s sword, and a shield from Hera, went into Medusa’s lair and severed her head. After her death, Medusa’s gaze remained lethal. Still in Perseus’ possession, he used her head to kill King Polydectes and rescue Perseus’ mother from an unwanted marriage.
Upon the completion of his mission Medusa’s head was given to Athena, who placed it on her shield. Affixing a grim or horrifying image, such as Medusa, on a shield or amulet is known as a Gorgoneion. Used to protect the wearer from evil, the Gorgoneion was typically depicted with black bulging eyes and bared sharp incisors to embody danger. Athena using Medusa’s head in its most horrific form was meant to avert danger from herself as long as she was in possession of the Gorgon.
Music composed by Austin Fisher plays throughout the exhibition, highlighting Medusa’s transformation through moments of silence and periods of distressing cacophony. The composition begins with a haunting melody and develops into an uncomfortable arrangement of notes that make you suspect that danger is imminent. Fisher’s composition illuminates the objects by continuously reflecting the changing persona of Medusa.
The modern depiction is represented with a dress by Gianni Versace. Designed for his runway show Miss S&M, the dress has twelve medallions with Medusa’s horrifying face. With her eyes wide and her mouth agape, this Medusa is one that appears in deep anguish. The dress itself, however, is provocative. It seems to be only held up by straps wrapping tightly around the neck and weaving intricately across the back. It invites one to look unbeknownst into the many faces of Medusa. The dangerous vixen is also personified through Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Lady Lilith. Her beauty is beguiling and sensual as she gazes unabashedly at her reflection while combing her long locks. Just like Medusa, Lilith’s hair, which she used to seduce and ensnare men, is the source of her power.
Born the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters, even in death Medusa maintained her stone inducing gaze, forever immortalizing her as the most fearsome Gorgon. When you walk into Dangerous Beauty all eyes are on you. Medusa’s gaze, never wavering, remains trained on each visitor as they walk through the exhibit. The temptation to gaze back is ubiquitous, but do you dare?
Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art
On view through January 6, 2019
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
New York City
Bronze ornament from a chariot pole
Roman, 1st–2nd century A.D.
Bronze, silver, copper
7 3/16 × 7 1/16 × 4 3/16 in., 4.5 lb. (18.3 × 17.9 × 10.7 cm, 2 kg)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1918