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Caravaggio's Tactics: On the Problem of Painting Medusa

Caravaggio, Medusa, 1597, canvas stretched
on round poplar wood.

We all know the story already. Medusa was one of the three Gorgons, daughters of Ceto and Phorcys. Her two sisters were immortal while Medusa was mortal. All three had serpents for their hair, wings of bright gold, thick scales covering their bodies and had tusks of boars for teeth.

Their famed cruelty did not lie in their appearance and strength however; what made them more frightening than what they already looked was that they had eyes whose gaze would freeze into stone another gaze that meets it. In other words, here is Medusa the invisible: a monster who kills you either by the sheer terror upon seeing her, or freezes you forever upon being seen by her overpowering gaze. Medusa is invisible not by fact but by necessity because as Perseus cleverly found out, the only way to kill her was to first always look away, and then let her see herself in the reflection of his shield.

As with the Greek hero, Medusa would also be a handful for the painter. (One can imagine that no portraitist in his right mind would ever accept being commissioned by Medusa for a picture.) So how does a painter literally go about the problem of showing in a painting a subject that no one should be able see? We look at one instance where a painter ingeniously answers to the challenge. Take for example Caravaggio’s 1597 Medusa

What first obviously strikes us is the medium Caravaggio uses: a round poplar wood which approximates the size and redraws the shape of Perseus’ handy shield. We note that choice because in doing so Caravaggio creates his own shield which would protect himself (and us) from Medusa’s gaze. Hence Caravaggio doubles the hero’s shield: he paints Perseus’ shield onto another one he makes for his own defense. Like a double screen, Caravaggio diminishes the potency of Medusa’s gaze by filtering it, making sure that we are able to see Medusa without having to meet our end.

Accordingly, if we push the argument to its extreme conclusion, one wonders where we are when we look at this painting. Shouldn’t we be behind the shield (the painting), and not in front of it, because in order for Medusa to see her own reflection she should be the one before the shield instead of us, in the place where our gaze originates. This only brings us to the conclusion that Caravaggio stations us at an impossible point, and gives us an impossible view, because we cannot be in such a position where both we and Medusa are looking at the same shield. Thus Caravaggio again saves himself (and again, our gaze) by an optical illusion: we are there, but we are not there, but since we are there, we also see what we shouldn’t see there. We only see Medusa in this painting only from the pointless point of view of a bystander, a removed spectator, and literally out of harm’s way (as all gazes before paintings are). 

Because we see from a point where we cannot be located, Caravaggio grants us invisibility—the only possible way to escape Medusa seeing and freezing us. By virtue of the invisibility the artist grants us, we are at the same time not involved in the action between Medusa and Perseus but also literally right in the middle of their epic confrontation. For good measure, Caravaggio also makes sure to paint Medusa looking downwards so that we do not meet her “eye to eye,” as we say.

Caravaggio knew perfectly the force that all paintings hide and can inevitably unleash. He understood how great paintings can inspire in us both great admiration and great fear. So he is only able to grant us the pleasure of seeing what we may not be able to stand by letting us enter invisibility. We survive Medusa at bottom because Caravaggio saves us from being seen and being turned into an object. In this rare case the gaze that can turn flesh into stone and kill many an hero remains idle and impotent. We do not suffer Medusa’s cold gaze in this painting, and can even stare at her all we want, only because its painter already saw to all the necessary precautions so we can resist the power of her gaze. 

In this instance yet again, what in principle and by right should overpower and saturate our own vision—another gaze meeting our own—surrenders once again to the radiance of our gaze. We are everyday Medusas that turn even the greatest works of art wart into corpses.

21 March 2012
An excerpt from a paper on Marion 


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