Cave Gorgonem! (Beware of the Gorgon!)

Sculpture of an evil head and garland of fruits and foliage on the door of my residency next to the Church of Santa Maria delle Rose in Assisi. © Darryl Smith

Ah, Medusa…we all know this story, or if you don’t know the story at length or where to find it, you probably know that you should never EVER look at Medusa in the eyes. Once you do, you’ll turn to stone. Continuing with my post from a couple weeks ago about the head, I decided to talk a bit about the head in Greco-Roman art.

The spark to write this mainly spawned from the doors of the residency I am currently at in Assisi. I think I’m in some sort of medieval house/annex of the church right next to it, which is quite fascinating. The doors of this house are masterfully carved wood with an ugly face as a door handle. Surrounding the ugly face is also a garland of flowers. When the residency director introduced me to my new studio and home for the next two weeks, she mentioned these faces. She said the ugly face wards off evil spirits while the flowers are a welcoming sign for the good spirits into the home. Right after she said that I started to think about none other than Medusa, and specifically the Gorgoneion.

Let’s break this word apart, Gorgoneion. It all comes from the main root word “gorgo-“ which comes from the adjective γοργός (gorgos) meaning “terrible” or “grim.” From here we get the noun Gorgon, the three immortal monster-sisters (except for Medusa) who have venomous snakes as hair. This “-eion” ending changes the meaning now to “[a face] like a Gorgon.” Gorgon-ish…Gorgon-y. Essentially that.

The Gorgoneion shows up everywhere in Greco-Roman art, and after being in Florence and Assisi for a couple of days, I see it pop up in medieval and Renaissance art, too! In Greek art, the Gorgoneion appears on the breastplate of Athena, aegis, if you will. This served the purpose of divine protection. Zeus is also said to have worn a similar garment with the Gorgoneion on it.

Mosaic of Athena from the Vatican Museum.

Athena is the Greek goddess of so many things but one of them is warfare. But this association with warfare is different than that of Ares (Mars in Roman mythology). Why? Well, Athena, being the goddess of warfare, is also the goddess of craftsmanship and wisdom. She fights with wisdom, she calculates and plans her attacks, and ultimately wins. So those who bear the Gorgoneion on their breastplate in battle will surely prevail. This divine, specifically Athenian (relating to Athena, not relating to Athens), protection is what we see represented on other rulers throughout history when they are depicted wearing a garment with the Gorgoneion.

It’s on Hadrian’s breastplate and Alexander the Great, in this mosaic fragment, is decked out with the protective Gorgoneion. As I was walking around Florence, I noticed how this symbol has ceased to die out! There was a breathtaking show of Verrocchio (his first retrospective!) at the Palazzo Strozzi and here I found more Gorgoneion scattered throughout the exhibition, mostly of which were also on breastplates.

“Alexander the Great”, Andrea del Verrocchio and Francesco di Simone Ferrucci, marble, 1485 circa, the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy (from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC). © Darryl Smith.

Though by mythological standards, Medusa is not granted with immortality, her symbol, I would argue, has continued to lead a life of its own in various stages throughout art history spanning from architectural features to political propaganda. It has been great to see this legacy just within a week of being here in Italy!

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