Early depictions of the gorgon Medusa – a monster from Greek mythology – show an ugly, winged woman with serpents entwined in her hair, bulging eyes, a wide grin, a protruding tongue, and boar tusks, among other frightening features. According to the myth, any man who met her gaze would immediately turn to stone.
Beginning in the fifth century B.C., images of Medusa underwent a gradual transformation, changing from grotesque to beautiful.
The exhibition Dangerous Beauty: Medusa in Classical Art, which opened February 5 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, explores the changing ways in which Medusa was imagined and depicted from antiquity to the present day. A similar shift in representations of sphinxes, sirens, and the sea monster Scylla is also considered.
The first exhibition to focus on this topic, it features 60 works in all media drawn primarily from The Met collection and emphasizes the enduring appeal of these figures in Roman and later Western art. The exhibition is made possible by The Vlachos Family Fund and Diane Carol Brandt.
In the fifth century B.C., the concept of ideal proportions of the human body took hold in Greek art. This idealization also affected how mythological beings were portrayed.
For example, images of certain monsters-hybrid creatures having a woman’s face and elements from the body of a beast, bird, or reptile-became more humanized and beautiful at this time.
More than half of Dangerous Beauty traces the visual transformation of Medusa. Whereas early images focused on the monster’s hideous visage, later representations portrayed her as a young and beautiful woman.
The multitude of venomous serpents entwined in her hair, for example, in time became luxuriant curls, a pair of wings on her head, and two small serpents interlaced below her chin.
The exhibition features the earliest depiction of the beautiful Medusa in Greek art along with two dozen examples of Medusa images on ancient Greek armor, drinking cups, funerary reliefs and urns, gold jewelry, and architectural elements, as well as Roman and Neoclassical cameos.
Contemporary use of the beautiful Medusa is illustrated by three garments designed by Versace that incorporate the company’s logo-a head of Medusa-into their designs. Due to the fragility of textiles, these garments will be rotated over the course of the exhibition, with only one displayed at a time.
The exhibition also includes works of art that depict other female composite beings from Greek mythology-sirens, sphinxes, and Scylla-that underwent similar transformations. The beautiful Medusa and Scylla are archetypes of the seductive but threatening “femme fatale” that emerged in the late 19th century in reaction to women’s empowerment.
A major theme in Symbolist art, the “femme fatale” is represented in the exhibition by drawings and prints by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edvard Munch.
The exhibition is organized by Kiki Karoglou, Associate Curator, Department of Greek and Roman Art.
Education programs will include an interdisciplinary talk, gallery talks, #Metkids, and Access programs.
A soundscape was composed for the exhibition by Austin Fisher, Associate Producer, Digital Department.
The exhibition is featured on The Met website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
A Bulletin will be published in conjunction with the exhibition. The publication will be available in The Met Store (paperback, $14.95).
The accompanying Bulletin is made possible in part by the Jenny Boondas Fund. The Met’s quarterly Bulletin program is supported in part by the Lila Acheson Wallace Fund for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, established by the cofounder of Reader’s Digest.