“Dangerous Beauty,” at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, explores the treatment of Medusa and related myths in art, presenting works from classical art through to items of contemporary fashion.
Medusa was one of three gorgons who lived by the western ocean, the edge of the known world to the ancient Greeks. Monstrous creatures, they symbolized the danger inherent in going beyond civilization. Medusa was so hideous that any man who gazed upon her would be turned to stone.
Originally, the ancients portrayed Medusa as hideous. Indeed, in early Greek art, it was often not clear whether Medusa was a man or a woman. However, starting in the 5th century BC, artists began to portray Medusa as a beautiful woman. But mixed in with her beautiful hair were snakes.
This evolution of Medusa was in harmony with the idealization of the human figure that was taking place in the art of the period. In addition, it made the Medusa story more satisfying. If Medusa was a hideous creature that lived on the edge of the world, why would anyone go to look at her in the first place? If she was beautiful, then there was a reason to look at her. The myth became a warning that there is danger in what may at first appear to be desirable.
Inasmuch as the ancient world was a male-dominated society, Medusa took on the form of what men find desirable - - a beautiful woman. Thus, the beautification of Medusa can also be seen as a demonization of women.
Although Medusa is usually referred to as a monster, she was actually a victim. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful woman with widely admired hair. While in the temple of Athena, Medusa was raped by Neptune (Poseidon). Apparently not big on the concept of sisterhood, Athena decides to punish not Neptune but Medusa for defiling her temple. Athena turns Medusa's beautiful hair into snakes. She also aids the hero Perseus in murdering Medusa.
Perseus did not have any real cause to murder Medusa. He undertook the task as a wager with King Polydektes, who wanted to marry Perseus' mother. Perseus objected to the marriage and it was agreed that if Perseus killed Medusa, Polydektes would not go through with the marriage. Thus, Medusa had done nothing to Perseus. Yes, men who looked upon her were turned to stone but in such instances, the men were the ones taking the active role. Medusa was passive. Furthermore, Perseus had to travel to the edge of the world to find her. Medusa was not an immediate threat to him.
Medusa as a victim appears to have been largely ignored by artists. Perseus was the hero and Medusa the evil one who got what she deserved. Her image was widely used in ancient times, not just on jewelry, statuary and pottery to illustrate the myth but as a warning on grave sites that evil would befall anyone who intruded upon the dead.
At the same time that Medusa was being transformed into a beautiful woman, other mythological creatures were being feminized and beautified. Sphinxes, sirens and hideous sea gods all went through a similar transformation.
These myths have continued to provide subjects for art until the present day. In the late 19th century, they evolved into the concept of the femme fatale. For example, the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti's “Lady Lilith” depicts a sexually alluring woman coldly contemplating her next conquest. As in the ancient myths, there is a mixture of desirability and danger.
More recently, a dress by Gianni Versace carries the image of Medusa on its prominent metal buttons. Part of his "Bondage" collection, the tight-fitting black dress with its prominent straps is sexually aggressive, making its wearer both desirable and dangerous. Thus, beyond being Versace's logo, the Medusa images carry forward the classical Medusa tradition.
Beautifying Medusa - By the 5th century BC, ancient artists had transformed Medusa from a hideous monster into a creature with ideal features.
Above: "Lady Lilith" by Dante Gabreil Rossetti. The ancient myths evolved into the modern femme fatlale.
Art review - Metropolitan Museum of Art - “Dangerous Beauty”