Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Finding of Medusa

Today, we look at Perseus finding the Gorgon Medusa, part of a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) inspired by William Morris (1834-1896) and his book The Earthly Paradise (1896).

The Gorgon Sisters are among the most repulsive creatures in ancient mythology.  The Gorgons – Medusa, Stheno and Euryale – were the result of an incestuous relationship between the monstrous deities Phorcys and Ceto.  Medusa, with her head of writing snakes rather than hair, could turn men to stone with a glance.

There are many versions of the story of Perseus killing Medusa.  In general, Perseus used his shield, a gift from the goddess Athena, to look at the reflection of Medusa, rather than at the monster herself.  Using this trick, he was able to decapitate her with a sword from Hephaestus.

Surprisingly, the potency of Medusa really begins once she is decapitated, as her disembodied head take on a narrative life of its own.  Perseus uses the severed head as a weapon, and even kills the Kraken with it in some versions of the tale.  Perseus would eventually give the head to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.

Despite the gruesome aspects of the myth, Burne-Jones seems incapable of painting anything that is not beautiful.  In The Finding of Medusa (1882), Medusa here is tall and svelte, with a strong but attractive face.  He does not depict a head full of snakes – perhaps too gruesome an image for his art to express – but her windblown hair does have a serpentine suggestion.  The other sisters, who should be equally baleful, are quite beautiful in their way.  The Gorgons here are also equipped with wings, and look more like fallen angels than pagan monsters. 

As with other pictures we’ve looked at in the series, the background is an unreal dreamscape; however, unlike The Rock of Doom and The Doom Fulfilled, the background here is suggested with a few broad brushstrokes, rather than depicted with any significant detail.  The craggy mountain range and color-splashed melodramatic sky make it more of an emotional landscape than anything recognizably earthy.  Even the armor of Perseus, so lovingly depicted in other paintings, seems here rather rushed.

Much more interesting to me is the surviving watercolor study Burne-Jones did before creating the actual painting (see below).  Like many great masters, Burne-Jones conceived of his figures first as nudes, and draped them with clothing later on.  Here, we see Medusa’s movements beneath her pendulous robes and have a better understanding of the pivot of her body.  Also – the expression on Medusa’s face is much more effective than that on the finished picture. 

In the final painting, Medusa is a beautiful, if evil, woman now afraid.  The Medusa of the study seems to be more frozen – more (if you will) stone-faced.  This seems in keeping with the magical powers of the Gorgon: and despite that ‘frozen’ quality, this visage is much more expressive.  This is evil in full realization of its own, upcoming doom.    

More Perseus tomorrow, but for now, here is the passage in Morris that so inspired Burne-Jones: 

And midst this wretchedness a mighty hall,
Whose great stones made a black and shining wall;
The doors were open, and thence came a cry
Of one in anguish wailing bitterly;
Then o'er its threshold passed the son of Jove,
Well shielded by the grey-eyed Maiden's love.
       Now there he saw two women bent and old,
Like to those three that north he did behold;
There were they, sitting well-nigh motionless,
Their eyes grown stony with their long distress,
Staring at nought, and still no sound they made,
And on their knees their wrinkled hands were laid.
       But a third woman paced about the hall,
And ever turned her head from wall to wall
And moaned aloud, and shrieked in her despair;
Because the golden tresses of her hair
Were moved by writhing snakes from side to side,
That in their writhing oftentimes would glide
On to her breast, or shuddering shoulders white;
Or, falling down, the hideous things would light
Upon her feet, and crawling thence would twine
Their slimy folds about her ankles fine.
But in a thin red garment was she clad,
And round her waist a jewelled band she had,
The gift of Neptune on the fatal day
When fate her happiness first put away.
       So there awhile unseen did Perseus stand,
With softening heart, and doubtful trembling hand
Laid on his sword-hilt, muttering: "Would that she
Had never turned her woeful face to me."
But therewith allas smote him with this thought,
"Does she desire to live, who has been brought
Into such utter woe and misery,
Wherefrom no god or man can set her free?

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