Introduction | Mannerist Art | Research | Bibliography

Mannerist Art

Perseus with the Head of Medusa


Benvenuto Cellini
Bronze
18' tall
1545 - 1554 , Renaissance
Loggi dei Lanzi, Florence

Subject: The subject of this piece is Perseus, and he is shown holding the head of Medusa. Perseus and Medusa are figures in Classical Greek Mythology. Medusa is a Gorgon, an evil female monster, and she had two sisters Stheno and Euryale. She was said to be both strikingly beautiful and horrifying at the same time. She had snakes for hair, as well as wings and fangs. The story goes that she was originally a priestess in the Temple of Athena. There, she was raped and impregnated by Poseidon, the God of the Sea. Mad with rage, Athena tranformed her into a beast. Her hair became serpents and her face so horrific that the just looking at it would turn men to stone. Perseus, on the other hand, was a beloved hero who was the son of DanaŽ and Zeus. Polydectes wanted to marry DanaŽ, so he decided he needed to get Perseus off of the island on which they lived. So he announced a banquet to which each guest was told to bring a horse. Since Perseus had no horse, he was told instead to bring the head of Medusa. Since this task would have been impossible for just anyone, he was assisted by the Gods. From Hades, he recieved a helmet which provided invisibility. From Athena, a mirrored shield. And from Hermes, a curved sword. With these items, he went to find the gorgon. He snuck in unseen to the cave where they slept, using the mirrored shield to avoid looking directly at her which would have turned him to stone. Finally, he used the sword to behead her.

The Artist's Work: This statue depicts Peseus holding up the head of Medusa, her body at his feet. He holds in his hand the curved sword, and wears the cap of Hades. Blood is shown shockingly spewing from the severed neck of the monster as well as from the head he holds in his hand. Though it is blood coming from the head, it doesn't look particularly offensive. It is treated in such a way that it almost just looks like hair. She is most easily identified by the snakes in her hair. Perseus is shown very realistically. The way his muscles look tense and both his leg and arm look in motion suggest that he has just beheaded Medusa. The way he holds the head, facing the people below is probably a reference to her severed head used as a weapon in this way as she could still turn men to stone. The strap going across Perseus's chest states the name of the artist, Benvenuto Cellini. This is one of the most famous statues of Cellini's, and he had hoped to surpass the works of Michelangelo and Donatello with it. Because of how intricate it was, the casting of the piece was difficult and it has been suggested that the bronzework is just as impressive as the carving itself. Once it was finally successfully completed, it was looked at as a masterpiece immediately. Cellini states, most proudly, in his autobiography, "Now it pleased my glorious Lord and immortal God that at last I brought the whole work to completion: and on a certain Thursday morning [April 27, 1554] I exposed it to the public gaze. Immediately, before the sun was fully in the heavens, there assembled such a multitude of people that no words could describe them. All with one voice contended which should praise it most."

Reaction: I like this piece a great deal. My favourite sculptures are ones that harken back to the ones of ancient times depicting heroes and Gods. I enjoy the juxtaposition of two beautiful bodies alongside a sword and gushing blood. To me, Perseus looks humble as he looks down. This is especially interesting to me especially after reading excerpts from Cellini's autobiography as above, because it seems like humility is not a characteristic that Cellini valued very much. Though it seems like most experts in the field feel that the blood does not make the piece shocking, I tend to disagree. The blood coming from the body of Medusa looks to be a 2' stream, and this seems very sensational to me. I don't find it offensive, but it is among the most graphic pieces I have seen. That said, I also think it is one of the most realistic depictions of a man I have seen. His legs and arms suggest movement incredibly and the back bends perfectly. It is difficult to find flaw in a statue like this. Everything down to the folds of fabric under Medusa's lifeless body is realistic. I think it is a symbolically powerful piece and the man who comissioned it surely intended it to be a testament to his continuing power.