Caravaggio and the Myth of Medusa

Medusa was a beautiful priestess serving at the temple of Athena. Her beauty attracted a number of suitors, but she had to turn them down, as, according to her vows, she was supposed to remain a virgin.

However, Poseidon, God of the Sea, fell in love with Medusa and appeared to her in the shape of a bird. Being a god, it was easy for him to have his way with the poor maid and sleep with her.

As customary in mythological tales, the victim takes the blame for this sort of incident, and Athena, in a fury, turned Medusa into a horrific monster with the skin of a corpse and poisonous snakes for hair. Besides, anyone who dared to look her in the eyes would immediately turn to stone.

Caravaggio's Medusa

Caravaggio’s Medusa

Perseus, son of Jupiter with the mortal Danae, grew up on the Island of Seriphus. For many years he longed to receive a visit from his father, but it did not happen. His mother would tell him to be patient, as time did not work in the same way for gods.

Danae attracted the attention of Polydectes, king of the island, who tried to force her to marry him. She refused, but the King imposed one condition not to marry her: Perseus must bring him the head of Medusa as a gift.

Perseus, although unprepared and young, did not hesitate to accept the challenge. He knew he had first to find the Grey Sisters, horrible old hags who lived in the forest and shared one eye between them. They kept taking turns at using the eye ball. In a moment of distraction, while one of them was passing the eye to another, Perseus snatched it and told them that he would keep the eye unless they told him where the nymphs lived. The nymphs would tell him where to find Medusa and would give him the necessary weapons to fight her. The old hags acquiesced.

Perseus set out to meet the nymphs, who gave him three weapons: the sword of Jupiter, his father; the shield of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom; and the winged sandals of Hermes, the Messenger of the Olympic Gods. He was also told not to look Medusa in the eye or he’d be turned to stone.

As he approached the lair of the monster, Perseus noticed a number of statues of men scattered in the garden. These were probably men who had tried to get to Medusa before him and were dully petrified. All was rock and desolation around the cave of the monster.

Perseus turned his back to the entrance and walked backwards towards the inner chambers of the cave, looking into the reflection on his polished shield for orientation. This way he would not have to look Medusa in the eyes directly. As he located her, he turned around with his eyes shut and struck her neck with the powerful sword of Jupiter, decapitating the creature.

Using Hermes’ sandals, he flew back to the Island of Seriphus, arriving right at the moment when the wedding between his mother and King Polydectes was about to take place. He shouted: Here’s your gift! And held the head of Medusa in front of the king. The King looked into the eyes of the dead monster and, as a result, was turned immediately to stone. And so Danae was free to go and live with her son again.

Caravaggio’s work, inspired by the myth of Medusa, was painted on an actual shield. It was not meant to be hung, but passed from hand to hand when viewed.

Note: the text above is from the ebook: TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: CARAVAGGIO. For further info on the series please CLICK HERE:

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Au revoir

Jorge Sette






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