Peter Paul Rubens, The Head of Medusa, detail, 1617, Oil on wood, 69 x 118 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
According to Ovid, Medusa was the loveliest of Phorcys's daughters, particularly admired for her beautiful hair. After being violated by Neptune in the Temple of Minerva, the goddess turned her hair into a knot of hideous snakes. Gazing upon the face of Medusa would turn one to stone. The brave and resourceful Perseus snuck up on Medusa while she slept, being careful only to look at her reflection in his shield, and decapitated her with. Ever since Antiquity, depictions of the head of Medusa with protruding tongue, exposed teeth and snake-shaped hair were to be seen on soldiers’ shields located at the entrance to buildings as a talisman warding off danger. Only a few artists dared to deal with this subject and placed the head of Medusa on round wooden convex shields. The first was Leonardo da Vinci, whose picture was in the Medici collection in Florence. The second was Michelangelo da Caravaggio, who painted a wooden shield “inspiring terror and showing the head of Medusa with hair in the form of snakes.” Possibly these experiments by Italian masters prompted Rubens to paint his own work, though it cannot be ruled out that the theme of the painting was assigned by an art patron for his collection. Rubens’ Head of Medusa differs from Caravaggio’s work in terms of both composition and the motif selected. Whereas Caravaggio showed the Gorgon at the moment of her final cry before death, Rubens captured on canvas the head of a woman already dead. Against the background of a gloomy landscape with low clouds we see the brightly illuminated head of Medusa lying on a stony ledge almost devoid of vegetation. Her deathly pale face with frozen gaze, glassy eyes and half-open mouth are filled with an expression of horror. Although Medusa is dead, her repulsive snakelike hair continues to live: it stirs, twists, shakes, intertwine, forming moving rings and balls. The drops of blood which have fallen to the ground give rise to newborn small snakes. The insects and crawling animals, painted by Frans Snyders, are associated with the world of the devil and with sin.