Sebastiano Ricci, Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, 1705-1710, Getty Center, Los Angeles, oil on canvas
Throughout history, Medusa can be considered the most well-known and representative monster in Greek mythology. A beautiful woman who got cursed appears horrifically with living venomous snakes in her hair; meanwhile, she has nearly undefeatable power for whoever gazed into her eyes would be turned to stone. Fatal to all the mortals. However, facing such a formidable enemy, Perseus with great courage and wisdom, with the help of gods, eventually defeated Medusa and saved his mother. His legend makes him one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, revealing the exceptional honor a human could ever achieve. Also, as the son of Zeus (mother Danaë, a mortal,) Perseus was destined to be extraordinary.
The work we chose is the oil painting, Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa. According to the information provided by the Education Department of Getty Center, the work is created by the Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci between 1705-1710. And it is currently on view at the J. Paul Getty, Los Angeles. This painting is full of tension due to its overall dark tone and vivid delineation of human bodies (ex. Tense muscle, realistic facial expression), with the emphasis on people’s movement during the vigorous battle. Our main character, Perseus, can be easily recognized by viewers for he uses the Gorgon’s head to deal with the opposition of Cepheus’ brother Phineus, to whom Andromeda had previously been betrothed (Morford et al. 545). The whole picture is naturally separated into two parts: Perseus near the center, standing on the left side, confronts his rivals on the right side. Interestingly, from the aesthetics perspective, there are two highlights in this frame: Perseus, as the protagonist, lunges forward in a state of energetic fighting, and Phineus’s soldiers who are turned into grayish-white stone by Medusa’s head. Those soldiers were frozen during attacking actions, implying the ultimate outcome of Phineus and whoever challenges the great hero. The lighter color (of stone) makes them pop out, in the contrast with some other men lying and dying.
Although the episode it portraits is not the most famous part of Perseus’s adventure (fighting against Medusa,) it is another climax. This scene demonstrates his alertness and works as the fulfillment of his hero's life. Worth mentioning, The artist, Sebastiano Ricci, has set this scene in a great room or large hall because in the story this scene takes place at the wedding feast of Andromeda and Perseus (Getty Education Department). A happy wedding got interrupted and became a fierce battle is absolutely dramatic. It arouses my own thinking: is defeating a monster alone not enough to make someone a hero, but he still needs to overcome one more challenge, encountering the hatred from other humans? Just like humans were originally created with guilt, conflicts usually raise for foolish causes.
Medusa was once a human, then turned into a monster by god. Perseus eventually defeated Medusa, and then suffered from the viciousness of other humans, yet gained victory again with the power of a monster. Seemingly there is no absoluteness in the eye of fate. Just like the name of our piece, Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, the scene itself is ironic.
In Sebastiano Ricci’s Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, a brutal fight between Perseus and Phineus’s accomplices takes place. Desperate to end the fight, Perseus lunges towards his enemies with his recently “earned” battle prize- Medusa’s head. Immediately, the head turns Perseus’s enemies to stone, thus ending the intense battle. Although an excellent way to cease the fight, the use of Medusa’s head as the necessary weapon to end the fight demonstrates an attempt to continue the traditional exercise of sexism in mythology without success, as well as Perseus’s incompetence, arrogance, and vain personality.
Zeus, as a punishment for Prometheus stealing fire, punishes humans with the creation of women- particularly with the creation of Pandora (“Rise of Man, Rise of Woman” 04:38-07:31). As a result, women suddenly become the bane of man’s existence. The perception of women being responsible for man’s troubles, as well as being promiscuous, manipulative, deceitful, and even evil, becomes the common narrative. Interestingly, Medusa (a mortal female Gorgon), becomes Perseus’s reason for success. Perseus’s use of her head (which even after death and removal from her body still possesses the ability to turn those who look at it into stone) (Morford et al. 543) during his future battles is evidence that he, as opposed to Medusa, is the manipulative, arrogant, and vain character in this narrative.
A supposed strong and skilled fighter, the demigod Perseus bet Polydectes that he could slay and bring back Medusa’s head (Morford et al. 543). It quickly becomes apparent that Perseus does not naturally possess the skills and abilities necessary to accomplish such a feat. Having to trick the Graeae to receive special articles of clothing and a weapon, Perseus then becomes somewhat capable of killing Medusa (Morford et al. 543). It is evident that Perseus is instead the manipulative figure in the narrative- tricking the Graeae so he can receive the tools he needs to succeed, and essentially lying to Polydectes that he can kill Medusa on his own. Furthermore, only after further guidance from Athena does Perseus attempt to kill Medusa. After killing Medusa while she sleeps (which is cowardly in itself), Perseus later rescues Andromeda after she was made to be sacrificed to a sea monster. In exchange for rescuing Andromeda, Perseus is granted her hand in marriage by her father King Cepheus (Morford et al. 544). When Perseus flies back to Seriphos with his bride-to-be, Phineus, King Cepheus’s brother whom Andromeda had been betrothed to, attempts to fight Perseus to earn back his place with Andromeda (Morford et al. 544). During the battle, Perseus reached a breaking point and decided to pull the head of Medusa out of his kibisis to finish off Phineus and his accomplices. Later on, Perseus utilizes Medusa’s head to turn Polydectes and his followers into stone as well (Morford et al. 545). The use of Medusa’s head soon becomes Perseus’s only renowned skill.
If Perseus were truly the hero and skilled fighter he makes himself out to be, then he wouldn’t have needed the assistance of the gifts from the Graeae, the guidance from Athena and Hermes (“Destination Argos” 02:25-02:36), or the use of Medusa’s head repeatedly to win future battles. Medusa, often portrayed as a terrifying woman, was hardly given a chance to fight back- if any chance at all. In fact, the reason for Medusa’s death is incredibly unclear. It might even be safe to say that her death was all but an attempt for Perseus to prove to Polydectes that he was tough or manly enough. If Perseus were in fact tough enough, he shouldn’t have had to use Medusa’s head to defeat his future enemies. Instead, Perseus practices typical patriarchal beliefs and values in an attempt to prove himself- he uses a woman who is portrayed to be deserving of the punishment to increase his status. Overall, the painting depicts the coward that Perseus truly is. He is not strong enough or capable enough to fend off Phineus and his accomplices. Instead, he must fall upon the power and ability of a woman, even in her death, to defeat his enemies, demonstrating that Perseus is instead the bane of other’s existence.
Education Department, Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, “About the Artist”, J. Paul Getty Museum.
La Fond, Marie. “Destination Argos: Adventures of Perseus.” Greek and Roman Myth. University of Washington, August 2021, https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/1457478/pages/lesson-8-video-lectures?module_item_id=13108141
La Fond, Marie. “Rise of Man, Rise of Woman: Prometheus and Pandora.” Greek and Roman Myth. University of Washington, August 2021, https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/1457478/pages/lesson-2-video-lectures?module_item_id=13108108
Morford, Mark, et al. Classical Mythology. 11th ed., Oxford UP, 2019.