The Metamorphosis of Medusa

The Legion of Honor is currently host to a terrifyingly beautiful bust of The Medusa, on view through February 19. Created by master Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), this nightmare in marble arrives at the museum via the Dream of Rome, a project initiated by the mayor of Rome to exhibit timeless masterpieces in the United States. The Medusa is the inaugural loan in the prestigious partnership between the Fine Arts Museums and Rome’s Capitoline Museum.

Medusa projected onto the facade of the Legion of Honor

In Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts the tale of the legendary monster, Medusa. The most beautiful of the Gorgon sisters, Medusa was cursed with the power to turn to stone anyone foolish enough to stare into her eyes.

Medusa, full view

Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Medusa, 1640s. Carrara marble. Musei Capitolini, Rome. Photo: Andrew Fox/FAMSF

Medusa was ultimately vanquished by the hero, Perseus, who came upon her while sleeping and lopped off her head. Perseus was able to avoid the stony fate of his predecessors, by viewing the monster through the reflection of his highly polished shield.

Perseus cuts off Medusa's head

Bernard Picart (French, 1673–1733). Perseus cuts off Medusa's head, 1730. Engraving. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.33760

Although disconnected from her body, Medusa’s decapitated head still maintained its petrifying power, so Perseus gave it to the goddess Minerva, who used it to decorate her shield.

Perseus holding head of Medusa

Francois-Nicolas Chifflart (French, 1825–1901). Perseus holding head of Medusa, from Improvisations sur cuivre, ca. 1865. Etching. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.32367

Adorned with Medusa’s head, the shield of Minerva defeated the enemies of reason and knowledge, virtues championed by the goddess. This grotesque model of the Medusa head donning Minerva’s shield is the typical mode of interpretation for this subject matter.

Minerva

Hans or Jan Collaert (Flemish, 1566–1628). Minerva, 16th–17th century. Etching. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 1963.30.12513

Bernini, however, turned this tradition on its head, choosing instead to depict the painful moment of condemnation when Minerva transformed Medusa into the snake-haired monster of legend as punishment for her affair with Neptune, god of the sea.

Medusa detail

A feat in naturalism and emotional potency, Bernini’s Medusa demonstrates the sculptor at the height of his technical abilities. Known for highly refined works of exquisite accuracy, Bernini treats the writhing snakes in a rough-hewn manner, as if they too are being transformed from cold stone into living, seething serpents. The face of Medusa is a far cry from the distorted and monstrous visage traditionally associated with the subject; rather Bernini chisels a heartbreakingly beautiful expression of agony and despair.

Truly a masterpiece in three dimensions, Bernini’s Medusa is displayed at the Legion of Honor completely in the round, allowing viewers full access to each wriggling snake.

Gird your loins and come face to face with Bernini’s incomparable Medusa, on view at the Legion of Honor through February 19, 2012.
 

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