Medusa: monster but not villain

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The name Medusa prompts terrifying images in the minds of many – of an evil monster that can turn one to stone with a single look, with writhing serpents for hair. The myth of Medusa and her depictions through time have prompted discussion over whether her label ‘monster’ is deserved. For one artist, Luciano Gabarti, the issue presented an opportunity to send what at first may seem like a controversial message: that Medusa could be reimagined as a hero.

Once upon a time, Medusa was human, and a rather beautiful one at that. So beautiful, in fact, that Poseidon, the Greek god of the seas, raped her in a shrine dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. After learning what had happened in her shrine, Athena punished Medusa by subjecting her to life as the monster we remember her as now. One may see why many people have taken issue with this.

The story behind Medusa’s death was another point of contention. According to the myth, Polydectes, sent Perseus to behead Medusa, assuming he would fail. However, Perseus was victorious and decapitated Medusa while she was asleep.

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa (detail) By James Wray

Garbati’s ‘Medusa’ is a reaction to a famous 15th century statue by Benvenuto Cellini. Cellini’s Perseus tramples Medusa’s limp body and brandishes her dismembered head. He still wears his helmet upon his head and his sword is firmly grasped in his hand. His posture exudes an energy of pride in defeating such a beast. And why shouldn’t this statue depict him so? Medusa was a monster who had the power to end anyone’s life with a single look. Perseus was sent on what was meant to be a death mission but came back victorious.

While Garbati is certainly not the first person to take issue with the myth of Medusa, nor even the first to depict her in a non-traditional way, his work has added an entirely new dimension to the discourse surrounding the myth and its problematic implications. He completely inverses the myth of her death.

Luciano Garbati, Medusa By Luciano Barati

Garbati’s statue stands at over two metres tall, easily commanding any room she is placed in, and invoking a sense of power. Unlike the statue of Perseus, Medusa wears no helmet, she is completely exposed. Her sword is down at her side; her posture does not convey pride so much as relief. Unlike Cellini’s statue, Garbati’s Medusa holds Perseus’s head down by her side. She does not seek to triumph or gloat. Garbati’s statue not only reminds the viewer of Medusa’s tragic origin, but also of her humanity. Unlike many artistic depictions, Garbati’s Medusa shows no other signs of being inhuman than the tame serpents in place of hair. No hideous face, no wild mess of terrifying snakes wildly protruding from her scalp. Her completely naked body looks like that of an ordinary woman. Not only does her physical appearance remind us of the humanity within this monster, but the fact that she has clearly decapitated Perseus, as opposed to turning him to stone, shows her using human means of fighting rather than utilizing her inhuman powers. Garbati reminds us in every detail of his work that this monster is human as well, one who was wronged and sought redemption.

The myth of Medusa carries with it a plethora of issues. Yes, she was a monster, but she was also a victim. Garbati’s work is a reminder that monsters are not always villains, and that the characterisation of good or evil is often complex.

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

One thought on “Medusa: monster but not villain

  • Do you really mean to suggest that beauty causes rape? Is the editor asleep?

    Reply

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