Medusa at the Legion of Honor

So you know all those people who camp out for the latest Twilight or whatever, wearing their Team Jacob shirts? That was basically me when I heard Bernini’s bust of Medusa was making its American debut at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The museum mailed out the news months and months ago about the exhibition, and I immediately did two things: put the opening day on our family calendar and started working on my Team Medusa shirt.

So how was it?

Someone needs to come up with a term for experiencing all at once the feelings of profound joy and profound … confusion. Schadenhuh? I don’t know.

To begin, the bust itself was incredible, just an amazing representation of what it must have been like for Medusa to be transformed from a beautiful virgin into a haggled, snake-headed monster. Her brow is knitted into fear and her lips are parted in what appears to be the beginnings of a scream, a scream frozen for all eternity. For someone whose decapitated head is usually shown on shields and castles as a warning to others — it’s said Greek houses used to keep a picture near the oven so kids would be too scared to approach when hot — it’s a startling, almost tender look at the humanity behind the monster.

I was excited to see this statue in part because Emmeline loves the story of Pegasus and how the winged steed and her brother were born from Medusa’s severed head — but mostly because I had seen Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo at the Galleria Borghese in Rome and wanted to see if he had brought the same beauty to Medusa’s snakes as he did to Daphne’s fingers. I could have stared for hours, if the museum let me (it doesn’t), at the leaves on Daphne. They are so delicate and transparent that they appear to be made of paper, not marble. It’s unfathomable to me that someone can do that with rock.

Although Medusa’s snakes weren’t quite as delicate as Daphne’s leaves, they were still impressive — a few of them slithering about, as if to bite, and a few of them actually biting others. While the piece wasn’t quite as moving as the Daphne and Apollo, I still found myself doing the same thing I did on the way out of the Borghese: I kept looking back, trying to get one more glimpse before I had to go. Emme was in school at the time and I had to go pick her up. She was disappointed I went without her and I had to promise to bring her back, so long as she could bring a mirrored shield to view the statue. We’ll see what the museum says ….

Now on to the confusion part.

I’ll start by saying I’m certainly no scholar (as clearly evidenced above?), but I found it … odd that the museum would get a few things wrong in exhibit posters and pamphlets or maybe just choose to misrepresent them.

The information told viewers that there are many versions of the Medusa story but then went on use Ovid’s as the “most familiar.” OK, I thought, I follow that logic. I had read Ovid’s version myself — which is why I thought it peculiar that the information would then have Medusa turned into a monster because she was “making love” or “had an affair” with Neptune in Minerva’s temple. (The museum uses the names of the Roman gods, as Ovid did.)

I think anyone who had read this passage would not consider this an act of “love.”

Take a look at Ovid (as a quick set up, this is Perseus is recounting the tale of how Medusa was revered for her beauty and that one day, the sea god took notice):

“Her Neptune saw, and with such beauties fir’d,
Resolv’d to compass, what his soul desir’d.
In chaste Minerva’s fane, he, lustful, stay’d,
And seiz’d, and rifled the young, blushing maid.
The bashful Goddess turn’d her eyes away,
Nor durst such bold impurity survey;
But on the ravish’d virgin vengeance takes,
Her shining hair is chang’d to hissing snakes.
These in her Aegis Pallas joys to bear,
The hissing snakes her foes more sure ensnare,
Than they did lovers once, when shining hair.”

Stay’d. Seiz’d. Rifled. Ravish’d. Did no one at the museum read this? I don’t think you can use Ovid as a stated source and then come up with the words “making love.”

Given the penchant of the gods to have their ways with mortals (Leda? Swan? Anyone?), and given that this particular myth is well known for its tragedy — being turned into a monster for having the temerity to be raped — I was disappointed to see the way the museum presented the story. If Bernini took the time to tell a different side of Medusa, the museum took the time to tell a completely different one as well — one that seems to put her at fault. I couldn’t help but imagine the confusion of the young viewer interested in the myth: Bernini expertly captures the profound unfairness and injustice of being turned into a monster for being raped, while the museum information makes it sound like just another side effect of women having sex. Not cool, Legion of Honor. Not cool at all. (I wasn’t joking about the Team Medusa thing.)

Overall, the exhibition wording shouldn’t and can’t take away from the beauty and emotion of the statue.

The statue is on display until next year and I plan on going back many times to see it because, I would argue, it retells those haunting Ovid lines like nothing else can: the horror, the confusion, the unfairness — all of it curling on those parted lips, as if to howl, but it in a way not usually associated with the monster.