There is a famous Greek myth about Perseus and Medusa.
In Greek mythology, the Greek hero beheaded Medusa. A representation of this myth is present in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. It is a painting by the Italian artist Luca Giordano that dates from ca. 1680. This oil on canvas belongs to the Baroque period. It is a great representation of the period because it shows the main characteristics of Baroque art. It should be included in the next edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages book.
The Slaying of the Medusa by Luca Giordano is a rectangular painting. Painted with the oil on canvas traditional technique, it measures 40 x 135 inches. It was gifted to the museum by the Nixon family. The painting presents three characters. They are Perseus, Medusa, and Athena. The historical context will be explained later on, but for now, the only thing to know is that Perseus is fighting Medusa with the help of Athena.
This painting presents a naked woman laying defeated on a rock. If we look closer to her, she has snakes coming out from her hair. She isn’t a human, she is Medusa. Then, in the center of the painting, we have a man in a heroic pose. This man is Perseus. He is lifting his sword while looking at a shield. He is actually looking at Medusa in the reflection of the shield. The reason will be explained later when we go in deep into the context of this painting. The woman carrying the shield is the Greek goddess Athena. The whole scene is a representation of an important Greek myth.
Focusing on the visual characteristics of the artwork, we find a great representation of Baroque. The main characteristic of Baroque is a very contorted style. This painting is full of details. Starting with the background, the sky is very colorful. Giordano used different colors to represent clouds. It looks like there is a storm right above the battlefield because of the black clouds, but farther, the sky looks blue. There is the idea of Tenebrism, the use of strong contrasts of light and dark to create drama in a painting. It is some kind of chiaroscuro. The painting looks alive, which is another characteristic of Baroque. There is a fight going on and the painting clearly shows movement and tension in the characters. It looks really dramatic, Perseus is standing in a heroic pose. He just defeated Medusa and is about to cut her head. The painting shows excessive details in the faces, bodies, clothing, weapons, and background. This painting is an excellent representation of the Baroque style.
In order to completely understand the painting, we have to understand the context of this fight. Perseus, son of Zeus, was sent to a dangerous mission by the King Polydectes. The king wanted to marry Danae, Perseus’ mother, and he knew that Perseus won’t permit it. The king sent Perseus to bring him the head of the Gorgon Medusa thinking that he will never come back. Medusa was the only mortal of three sisters. She was a beautiful woman and Poseidon was crazy about her, but she rejected him. Poseidon decided to punish her by turning her into a monster. He put live snakes to cover her head. She remained beautiful, but she was a monster and whoever looked into her face was turned into stone.
Perseus began his dangerous mission by going to the end of the world where the Gorgons lived. Athena and Hermes helped him and provided winged sandals, a cap to make him invisible, a sword, and a mirrored shield. This is the mirrored shield shown in the painting. The scene shows Perseus looking at Medusa’s reflection in the shield. If he looked at her directly, he will be converted into stone. Athena helped him by holding the shield and Perseus was able to kill Medusa. This is the scene shown in the painting. Perseus was about to behead Medusa and complete his task with the help of Athena.
The myth of Perseus and Medusa has been a powerful inspiration for many artists. Paintings and sculptures of Perseus beheading Medusa are famous all over the world. This was a painting by Luca Giordano, it clearly reflects the main characteristics of Baroque while representing this ancient myth. Other Baroque artists that inspired his art on this myth was Caravaggio. He has a painting of Medusa’s head placed in the shield. The myth has been very influential back in the Baroque period, but it remains to be an inspiration for different Hollywood movies of our times.
This painting will be a perfect addition for chapter 20 in Gardner’s book. The Slaying of the Medusa by Luca Giordano presents a perfect representation of the Baroque period. More important than the representation of Baroque itself is the fact that Luca Giordano paints about a Greek myth that originated thousands of years before him. Paintings like this one show the legacy of the ancient Greek culture. Greek myths that started in the 18th century BCE are still being addressed today. Painters like Giordano helped to keep these myths alive. The myth of Medusa and Perseus lives forever in Giordano’s painting and it is the legacy of the Ancient Greek culture. This painting should be included in chapter 20 of the next edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages because it is an excellent representation of the Baroque period and it shows the legacy of one of the most influential ancient cultures.