Tuesday, October 22, 2013

MWA XVIII: Caravaggio's Medusa

If you weren't shocked by this Monthly Work of Art, then you're watching too many zombie movies. Our society today is overexposed to sensation. Every thrill has to be bettered by the next thrill. Special effects have to be even more realistic or over-the-top than what was seen before. And each time you're scared, you need to be scared even more by the next encounter. This all especially applies to the movies, our most popular of art forms, and you can probably blame Hitchcock and Psycho for starting that trend. But in the world of art (i.e. the "fine" arts), the ability to shock can still do that. We expect beauty, finesse, refinement, and serenity from paintings and sculptures of figurative subjects. Think Madonnas and Nativity scenes, Grand Manner portraits, and picturesque landscapes. So it startles us when we see something ugly or shocking or repulsive in a painting or sculpture. For some it is the sublime at work--beauty so terrifying it scares them. But for others it is simply the shock value of the grotesque.

Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio (ca.1571-1610), excelled in extreme forms of realism and in many ways ushered in the Baroque style, with dramatic lighting and unusual scenes, in Southern European painting. This work is no exception, and it is among Caravaggio's most disturbing. Painted in the late 1590s, this painting, oil on canvas laid on board, at the Uffizi in Florence (image: Web Gallery of Art), shows the decapitated head of Medusa. According to ancient the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was a beautiful maiden who was raped by Poseidon, the sea god, in the temple of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. Athena blamed Medusa for seducing Poseidon and defiling her temple, so she cursed her and transformed her into a hideous monster with snakes for hair. One look at Medusa and you turned to stone (literally, petrified). She was eventually killed and beheaded by Perseus, who used his shield as a mirror to help him cut off her head. Athena then used the head as the aegis on her shield, a symbol to inspire fear in others. Hence, Caravaggio's painting depicts, rather shockingly in its naturalism, Medusa's head on Athena's shield. The blood and guts of the severed head are frightening enough, but it is the pathos of the painting that chills us even more. We fear her gaze, but we realize she is as frightened of us as we are of her. And that frozen scream of pain echoing from her gaping mouth makes us aware that she too was once was just a poor girl who suffered great tragedies in life. Beautiful works of art can convey many things, from spirituality to morality, but sometimes with gruesome, visceral subjects, they generate catharsis, that jolt, that sensation, which makes a viewer stop and pause, and feel something about what s/he sees, perhaps for the first time.

And, oh, yes...Happy Halloween!

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