What’s not interesting about a statue depicting a Greek hero triumphantly holding the severed head of a creature that turns people into stone statues!? (My how the tables have turned….)
Antonio Canova had the right idea when he did exactly that! Let’s look at this daring sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa and see what details we can uncover!
Tracing the Past
Antonio Canova (1757-1822) holds the prestige of being a great Italian Neoclassical sculptor. His works were inspired by classical antiquities and looked beyond the excessive Baroque and Rococo styles. His sculptures speak to us through myth and expert positioning. Beyond sculpting, Canova oversaw the return of antiquities taken by Napoleon to Rome.
His statue Perseus with the Head of Medusa has an interesting tale. It was ordered by Countess Valeria Tarnowska of Poland. Created around 1804-6, it currently rests at the Metropolitan Museum. Yet, this Perseus sculpture is a replica of Canova’s 1801 Perseus Triumphant at the Vatican which is based loosely on the Apollo Belvedere. The Apollo was taken from the Vatican by Napoleon. In fact, Pope Pius VII had Canova’s statue replace the Apollo until its return.
Creatures of Myth
Percy Jackson fans probably know a little bit about the terrifying Medusa but I’ll still throw in my two cents. Medusa is a gorgon creature with snakes for hair (yuck!) and had the horrifying ability to turn men into stone. Warning: avert your eyes or risk this fate!
To stop her stone-turning craziness, our Greek hero Perseus stepped up! Perseus is the demigod son of Zeus and with his fighting skills (and a little help) he slayed Medusa by cutting off her head!
Canova’s statue depicts Perseus victoriously holding Medusa’s severed head. Medusa’s face is horrified yet still pays tribute to her former beauty. Perseus wears the Cap of Hades. It turned him invisible so Medusa couldn’t see him as they fought! He’s also wearing Hermes’ winged sandals to help him move swiftly in battle. One hand holds a harpe sword with its sickle-like extension to, I guess, help make the killing easier. All these elements make a recipe of disaster for Medusa!
For a deeper dive into Perseus’ mythological Medusa adventure, click here!
A Powerful Pose
Canova’s sculpture takes advantage of the body and movement to make a statement! Perseus’ body is well-proportioned and has a full musculature. The drape falling down his left arm frames the sweep of this ideal male body.
Looking good and probably feeling victorious, Perseus stands confidently as he presents his prize to the world. Check out Perseus’ feet. His left foot is placed in front while his right is slightly lifted. This upward and outward sweeping movement combined with his extending hand, creates a triumphantly powerful pose. His body exudes strength and power. Furthermore, by gazing at Medusa’s head, Perseus emphasizes his victory for he overcame Medusa’s stone-turning cruelty. In all, Medusa is no longer a threat to hide from.
Try it for yourself and mimic Perseus’ pose. What do you feel? Educator Emmanuel von Schack provides his own answer saying,
Canova’s statue may not be able to physically speak, but it sure has a lot to say thanks to his dynamic movement and body language!
A Technical Marvel
A powerful character like Perseus needs a daring creator! In fact, Canova took a risk sculpting a character with slender yet unsupported limbs. Would the marble support the weight? We’re lucky it did!
With this successful and inspiring sculpture, the Metropolitan Museum wanted visitors to receive the best viewing experience. Thus, the statue is located at the end of a narrow hallway to direct our viewing. We approach Perseus from the front so, the closer we are, the more striking it gets. Then, we are able to circle around the statue to soak in the incredible detail.
It’s grand, no?
A Heroes Legacy
The tale of Perseus and Medusa has intrigued people for centuries. There are modern day adaptions like Riordan’s Percy Jackson. But there are plenty of Perseus and Medusa art. Canova even based Medusa’s head off of the Rondanini Medusa antique. Now at the Uffizi, Caravaggio painted the gory severed head of Medusa on a shield. Benvenuto Cellini has his own Perseus and Medusa statue in Florence’s Loggia dei Lanzi. And these are just a few extra works! Do you know any others?
For more beastly creatures, check out our Beauty and the Bestiary Louvre Hunt! Also, stay tuned for a future Metropolitan Museum hunt! We’re expanding! Yay! 🙂