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The Arts Room Painting Caravaggio's Medusa
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Caravaggio's Medusa
I wanted to start a discussion on the painting of Medusa by Caravaggio:


                                                 


I saw it here lately in a post by Jessica Rosen: post . The very interesting post reminded me of this painting which I find simply astonishing and I wanted to start a conversation on it.

I guess I'll get the ball rolling. Besides its emotional impact of, should we say terror, (petrification), the snakes, the open mouth, I’ll start with what I would consider its "topic."

From Wikipedia: "In Greek mythology, Medusa (Greek: "guardian, protectress") was a monstrous chthonic female character; gazing upon her would turn onlookers to stone. She was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head as a weapon until giving it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In classical antiquity and today, the image of the head of Medusa finds expression in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion."So Medusa is both a weapon and a a shield, similarly to Athena, the protector of Athens.

The shield of course has to do with her death as Perseus used a mirrored shield as a way to see her but avoid her gaze. The shield thus also symbolizes, or rather is, both a weapon and a shield. We are used to seeing heads on a stick, on a spear, rather than on a shield, which again reinforces the shield as a weapon rather than merely the spear. A spear, which is also associated with Athena (notice the snake):



One can now discuss this view of women and its meaning but we are in the gallery so let’s talk about the image. (I will though mention that when you look at her face, it is unclear whether it is a man or a woman, though when you look at the painting it is completely clear it is a woman. Strange.) Why does this interest Caravaggio?

In our story, the image is both horrifying, petrifying, terrifying, and protecting at the same time as the image is evil-averting. Medusa’s image is petrifying, but her image in the mirror (or painted on the shield) was used to defend yourself (Perseus). Painting of the horrific thus takes the place of a shield to protect us, and even a weapon which gives us strength. Painting, as showing us the world, as a layer between us and the world, is both protective, and gives us power.

I’m saying all this because I think this is also one of the origins of the amazing power this painting has. It is a painting exclaiming the horrific power of painting and thus claims this power for itself!


Another point I’ll quickly mention. Notice that though Perseus saw the head in the mirrored shield, Athena’s shield which we are seeing has the real head on it. Thus the 3-dimensionality of the image takes on another significance. This significance is moreover at the base of this painting. Medusa, remember,  is a sculptor turning people into stone. The relation painting/sculptor is at the heart of this painting, and even with relation to text – Homer describes Athenas shield, and though it is not his most famous shield description which is his description of Achiles’ shield (I think), that last is always used as note on the inter-arts relationship, and who is better than whom. I can describe it by writing better than you can by sculpture and so on. (This was a popular discussion at the time – which is better. Interesting to think why it so completely disappeared nowadays).

Anyway there’s lots more to talk about, so I’ll stop now and let you continue the conversation.
Great painting, Art. Oh, it still gives me shivers. The averted eyes, the gushing blood...

Very much enjoyed your remarks, too. You say that Perseus used the shield to avoid looking at her, and thus to kill her. Is this true? For some reason I had always thought that she died from seeing her own reflection, thus turning herself into stone. Of course, this version doesn't fit so much with the gushing blood (and one can't decapitate a statue), but still I'm sorry to let this piece of misremembrance go. 

Now that I've established myself as an unreliable witness mythologically, I'll nonetheless give an hypothesis: iirc Medusa incurred Athena's wrath by being raped in Athena's temple (of course much to say here), so it's possible her name "guardian" refers first of all to the fact that she was by profession a guardian of the temple. The stone statue of Athena you quote is a nice touch.

Also, as to your reading of "painting of the horrific," might say it a bit more simply: by allowing us to look at horror indirectly art perhaps allows us to conquer (or at least, to comprend) it. 
And you're right about the manliness of the face. Still, it has a very strange kind of sensuality -- those full lips, the expressiveness of the eyebrows. She could almost be Caravaggio's Bacchus, older and angrier. 
Meanwhile, back in the good old days guarding the temple...
Arthur and Mia, these are really insightful and brilliant remarks, I think, which take us to the heart of the thinking about the painterly image in particular, and about the question of the image - of that which is not a regular object of perception, but that THROUGH WHICH we are supposedly given objects -  in general. I especially liked your point, Arthur, about the image being a protective shield from horror, as well as a weapon and a power.

I would like to simply add a couple of points: First of all, it is important to remember that the image here shows a LOOK of horror, that is, shows us someone, who though dead perhaps, or in a strange limit between life and death, SEES something horrifying, that is, something too strong for him or her to understand, something we also often call traumatic. the image is the showing of the experience of a trauma. Now, what is important about this look of horror is that, precisely, it sees something that we cannot see, that is, something OUTSIDE the painted surface, or something outside the frame. the image thus, paradoxically, is that which SHOWS us what is outside the frame, what is thus "invisible" or unrepresented. In regular, everyday, perception, we see regular objects, and in a way, objects opened for us by the frame of our existence, but art and the artistic image do not show us regular objects but, paradoxically, what the frame of our existence does not show us, both the frame itself, which we need IN ORDER TO SEE , but which we do not see usually, and this mysterious dimension that exceeds the frame itself, what thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot called the absolute outside. In a metaphorical and not so metaphorical way, to have one's head on one's shoulders, is to be within the framed world, being oriented and directed by this frame, understanding existence through it. to lose one's head is precisely to see something that exceeds the frame of experience which oriented us (Freud called such a seeing of that which exceeds the frame of existence and which evokes for him castration, the primal scene, the scene where the child sees something that is too traumatic to be comprehensible, and which because of that remains engraved in memory AS AN IMAGE - thus, the image is also always a memory image, it is an image, thus not a meaning, precisely because it traces and keeps for us that which exceeds meaning, the incomprehensible. the image marks the showing of that which traumatically exceeds meaning. ) it is crucial to note here precisely the way in which Caravaggio's understanding of the image here as that which shows the excess over the frame and thus the losing of one's head marks to an extent a NEW, modern, experience of the image. In the original story, perseus uses the reflected image of the medusa in order to reflect to her back her own petrifying face and thus to be able to paralyze her and cut her head. this means, I think, I'm less certain here, that to an extent what the image shows is understood as containable WITHIN the painterly surface. it is the CONTENT of the surface which, as a mirrored reflection of another dangerous content, manages to paralyze. What is new about the modern image is, that its power comes not from a reflection of some powerful and mysterious CONTENT, but comes precisely from SHOWING WHAT CANNOT BE REFLECTED, thus what is not at all of the order of content, or representable things, what is outside the mirror, pr what the mirror precisely cannot show. to put it succinctly perhaps, the ancient understanding of the image, whetrher platonic or mythological, understands the image according to the model of the reflectived mirror, the modern conception undertstand the image as showing the "vampiric ghost" or what cannot be reflected (and remember that vampires are precisely those who cannot be reflected in a mirror.) the modern image is thus that which shows the traumatic seeing of that which cannot be reflected.

Another important point to mention about this, indeed, extraordinary image, is the silent scream. in many nightmares, dreams where one "lives" the experience of trauma as a repetition of what cannot be contained or understood in everyday life, people experience an attempt to scream, an attempt which fails due to being violently stifled. If the scream can be understood as the last shred of the capacity to express, thus "articulate" something one has experienced, then the stifled scream means that in the traumatic moment even this capacity is taked away from us. Thus painting which, by definition can show a scream but cannot make it heard, brings us to "experience" this limit moment which the traumatized look showed as well, of being stifled, not being allowed to use our last means of discursive expression. the painterly image thus marks the visual image as the failure of the voice and of language to articulate a meaning, and thus marks the memory of this stifling nightmare of the invisible excess over the frame, where we lose our head.
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