Figure 1

"How looked the Gorgon then . . . " The Science and Poetics of 'The Head of Medusa' by Rubens and Snyders

Susan Koslow
published in Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, Cambridge, Mass., 1995, pp.147-149

Among Rubens' inventions, perhaps the most grisly is the Head of the Medusa (Fig. 1), which was painted around 1613-1617/1618, in collaboration with Frans Snyders.1 Although a great animal painter in his own right, Rubens on occasion allotted this subject matter to specialists, the foremost being Snyders. For three decades they often worked together, with Snyders painting still life in addition to animals for his colleague. Snyders' manner is particularly well suited to Rubens' large-scale pieces, but as the Medusa shows it is also appropriate for smaller works. Indeed, when Constantijn Huygens viewed what must have been a replica of the picture discussed here in the home of the Amsterdam collector Nicolas Sohier, he remarked in his diary on its "ineffabili industria," which should be considered a judgment as much on the way the snakes are painted as on the portrayal of the head.2 But despite his admiration, Huygens also commented that he preferred that the picture be in someone else's home, rather than in his own.

Traditionally Medusa's severed head is an apotropaic motif on Minerva's breastplate or shield.3 Beginning apparently with Leonardo, the shield was portrayed alone, independent of the goddess. Although Leonardo's celebrated painting does not survive, Caravaggio's gruesome picture may emulate it. He represents the severed head still rational and sensate, regarding its dreadful fate with horror. In contrast, Rubens portrays the lifeless head lyng on a stone ledge in a bleak landscape, where a dark sky dramatically heightens its ghastly pallor. Rubens' graphic image of death gives the impression that it was empirically observed, especially the greyish lips and the bloody fluxes and the contusions on the Medusa's eyes and nostrils; yet it is in the devices of physiognomic rhetoric, the rotated eyes, the contracted brow and parted lips, that the countenance's vivid expressiveness lies.

What makes the image riveting and irresistible to close inspection despite its repugnant aspect is the agitated mass of snakes coiling about the decapitated head. Trying to escape the scalp in which they are embedded, the snakes rise up, weave about, and even attack their own engendering flesh. Some are seeking to extricate themselves from the knotted coils that bind them together, while others, having become disentangled, slither away. Their skins, which have a characteristic reptilian sheen, appear to be based on the study of actual models. Thanks to Snyders' precise rendering of the patterns of the scales and their colors, the snakes have been identified as the European grass or water snake, a species still common today.4

figure 2

Snyders may have studied living specimens, but dead models, their skins, or scientific drawings offered a better opportunity for scrutinizing color and pattern (Fig. 2). Bronzes made from life also may have been employed as visual aids. The practice of casting living specimens began around 1500 in Padua and was carried on there throughout the sixteenth century; it also gained popularity in the circles of the Nuremberg goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer and the French ceramicist-sculptor Bernard Palissy. Examples of snakes cast in bronze clearly illustrate the advantages such models held. Possessing all the detail of the live animal, as well as being posed in arrested motion, the cast allowed the artist to observe the figure at leisure, from any angle, and free of danger.

figure 3

Though European water snakes are depicted in the painting, the entwined pair starkly silhouetted against the rock cliff to the right of Medusa's head behave like mating vipers (Fig. 3). Unlike other snakes, which, Pliny relates, copulate by twining their bodies so closely together that they appear to be one double-headed creature, vipers have intercourse by "wreathing their tayles together, even to one half of their body, and the other half standeth upright mutually kissing one another."5 This embrace, however, is not merely lustful, it is deadly, as natural historians explain. The male viper arouses his mate to such a pitch, by thrusting his head into her mouth, that she rends off his head after receiving his seed. Undoubtedly at the direction of Rubens, Snyders distinguishes the gender of the snakes not only by color, but by build and character, showing the male as robust, supportive, and aggressive, the female as slender, dependent, receptive, and malevolent. In various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century emblems (Fig. 4), this lethal union is allegorized to signify the bad wife, following the interpretation of Horapollo, who specifies that the hieroglyph of a viper represents "a wife who hates her husband and plots his death."6

Also viper-like is the snake whose tail protrudes from beneath the white cloth. It is giving birth to its young, who are not hatching from eggs, like other snakes, but rupturing their mother's body. According to Pliny and Gesner, this is the way vipers are born. As they force their way into the world they commit matricide to avenge their father's murder. In keeping with Pliny's description of the infant viper, Snyders depicts it "soft as fishes roe." Like the union of vipers, the birth of vipers is the subject of emblems, with interpetations ranging from ingratitude, to deadly gossip, to the church and its saints (Fig. 5).7

figures 4 and 5

What the natural-history books do not explain is the issuance of snakes from the gore of Medusa's severed arteries and from drops of her blood. For these details the story of Medusa, as told by Ovid and Lucan, must be consulted. In Metamorphoses, Ovid writes that when Perseus flew over the Libyan desert "bloody drops from the Gorgon's head fell down; and the earth received them as they fell and changed them into snakes of various kinds."8 While modeling his narrative after Ovid's, Lucan amplifies it considerably in Book IX of his epic Pharsalia, a history of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey. The story of Medusa is interpolated to account for the deadly snakes afflicting the army of Cato, Pompey's general, as it marches through Libya. Known for his gripping theatrical descriptions, Lucan paints a picture that corresponds in mood and detail to Rubens' painting. Thus the land Medusa inhabits, "a realm not shaded by the foliage of trees nor softened by the plough, but rugged with stones," resembles the one wherein Medusa's head lies. Comparable too is the portrayal of Medusa's hair. Whereas Ovid speaks merely of "writhing serpents of green hair," Lucan is expansive, describing the snakes' behavior in detail. Identified as vipers, they hang down Medusa's back, dangle around her neck, rear erect over her brow, keep watch as she sleeps, and lean forward to protect her face. The picture does not illustrate each action, but it does convey the animation the text portrays. In other respects, however, the image is literal. Where Lucan writes of the venomous vapors Medusa exhales after decapitation and the "deadly discharge from her eyes," Rubens shows Medusa's lips parted, secretions at her nostrils, and her eyes bloodied. It is tempting to see the tiny snakes evolving from the neck's gore as representing the ones Lucan reports emerged from Medusa's throat and "that poured forth shrill hissings with their forked tongues." Lucan's narrative also accounts for the presence of the two-headed amphisbaena, which is identified among the snakes born from Medusa's blood. It is placed alongside creatures Gesner classifies as serpents because they are venomous.9 Finally, Lucan not only paints a vivid image, but he also offers a challenge. After describing how Perseus beheaded Medusa, Lucan writes: "How looked the Gorgon then, when her head was severed by the stroke of the curving blade!" Reading this we can well imagine the strong impression it made on Rubens, and how it piqued his imagination. The picture is his reply; it answers the question Lucan posed, proclaiming: "This is how the Gorgon looked!"

In addition to Medusa, Rubens portrayed other figures with snaky hair, as iconographic tradition dictated. These include fallen angels, as in the oil sketch Fall of the Rebel Angels (Brussels), the Fury Allecto, who appears in the 1637 Allegory of War among other pictures, and Discord, who is identified with Allecto on occasion. She is the snake-haired figure Rubens represents most often.

That this repulsive attribute is mainly a woman's characteristic is noteworthy. Medusa, Allecto, and Discord, Allecto's sister Furies, and the female personifications of Envy, Greed and Strife all have snaky hair. Given this preponderance we may well ask why the female sex is so susceptible. Is there perhaps a constitutional factor at work that predisposes women to this feature?

To answer this question we shall look briefly at the physiology of hair and then examine popular beliefs that illuminate this problem. According to the prevailing view, which was Aristotelian, hair forms when sooty vapors, exhaled through the body's pores, come into contact with air.10 These vapors are residues the body is unable to dispose of through concoction, the process whereby food is made into the body's nourishment. Because women are constitutionally cold and moist their bodies are unable to "cook" as thoroughly as men's, leaving them with an excess of superfluous matter. What is not used to make hair is expelled as menstrual blood. According to learned and popular scientific texts of the Middle Ages and the early modern period this blood, which consists of rank impurities, is venomous; its makes dogs rabid, wilts plants, kills trees, and poisons men who ingest it. It also rusts metal and turns bronze objects black.11 Moreover, the gaze of a menstruating woman is venomous, because the impure blood flowing into her eyes, contaminates air nearby. Thus a menstruating woman can dull a mirror or stain it red by merely looking at it. When menstruation ceases a woman's body still continues to produce superfluous fluids, but because they are not expelled, they concentrate, producing especially potent venom.

Although physiology explains the processes whereby hair is formed, it does not account for the transformation of hair into snakes. However, this issue is not altogether ignored in scientific literature. A number of treatises refer to popular beliefs in this regard. According to one text, a snake is engendered from the hair of a menstruating woman placed in dung or earth. Another reports that "wicked venomous beasts" are formed when a woman's pubic hair is mixed with menses and buried in the same manner. And citing Avicenna as his source, Conrad Gesner notes: "that the longest hairs of women are easily turned into serpents."12 Apparently an analogical principle underlies the transformation. Given these circumstances we can understand the rationale for women growing snakes in place of hair, and we can also account for why the personifications identified above are hags. Being elderly they are too cold to concoct and expel their venomous residues, which accumulate and concentrate into deadly poison. This wells up in the cranium, condenses around the "cooling" brain, and discharges through the scalp's pores as snakes, rather than as hair.

Let us return now to The Head of Medusa and inquire how the picture may have been regarded by Rubens' contemporaries. Most educated viewers probably recognized its ekphrastic intent, since the Pharsalia was required reading in many schools offering a humanistic curriculum.13 And this same audience probably knew the allegorical expositions of the beheading of Medusa recounted in the iconographic and mythographic literature of the day. Authors, such as Conti, Ripa and Carel van Mander, explained the decapitation as representing reason overcoming carnal desire, with Perseus signifying intellect and Medusa lust.14 In a general sense this explanation applies to The Head of Medusa, but the picture's focus and its details indicate a more specific meaning. Although shown independent of Perseus, the head is not the apotropaic or heraldic object of tradition; it is not shown en face as the prodigy with the unique faculty to petrify. Represented as a genetrix, whose spawn is deadly, the Medusa is a type for the dangerous woman, a misogynist fantasy of the power of women. This interpretation is supported by the detail of the mating vipers, discussed earlier. The female viper tempts the male to mate with her, attracting him by her allure, and when he is most vulnerable during orgasm, she slays him. The widespread anxiety of women mastering men in the sexual act is also expressed in the belief that the envenomed blood of women, especially the menses, can poison or infect men in intercourse.15

When considered in this light, Perseus' decapitation of Medusa may well be read as a sign of retribution and as an assertion of male dominion. When Perseus beheads Medusa he not only vanguishes her, but gains control over her deadly weaponry. Yet, though now commanding it, Perseus cannot contain the creatures Medusa's corrupted body generates. They proliferate unchecked, disseminating evil thoughout the world. They are a reminder that the capacity to engender evil is not unique to Medusa but inherent in all women.



1. Wolfgang Prohaska in Peter Paul Rubens 1577-1640 [exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum] (Vienna, 1977), 81-83; Peter Sutton in The Age of Rubens, ed. Peter Sutton [exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts] (Boston, 1993), 245-247. Sixteen thirteen is given here as the terminus ante quem because Rubens acquired Gesner's book on serpents (see below) then, and 1617/1618 is the terminus post quem for the reasons cited in Prohaska and Sutton.

2. S. A. Worp, "Constantijn Huygens over de schilders van zijn tijd," Oud Holland 9 (1891), 119.

3. Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 6 vols. (Zurich-Munich, 1988),4, pt.1, 285-362, pt.2, 163-207.

4. Sutton 1993, 247.

5. Quoted from the English translation of Gesner. See Edward Topsell, The History of four-footed beasts and serpents and insects, intro. Willy Ley, 3 vols. (New York, 1967)[reprint London 1658] , 2: 802; Konrad Gesner, Historiae animalium liber v qui est de serpentium naturâ, 4 vols (Zürich, 1587), 4: 73 v.

6. Arthur Henkel and Albrecht Schöne, Emblemata Handbuch zur sinnbildkunst des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart, 1976), 660-661.

7. Henkel and Schöne 1976, 662.

8. Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. Horace Gregory (New York, 1960); Lucan, The Civil War, trans. J.D. Duff [Loeb Classical Library] (Cambridge, Mass., 1988)

9. Gesner 1967, 597, lizards and spiders are among the creatures enumerated.

10. Aristotle, Generation of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck [Loeb Classical Library] (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), 82a-82b, 515-517; Aristotle, Parts of Animals, trans. A.L. Peck [Loeb Classical Library] (Cambridge, Mass, 1968), 58b 5-25, 191-193; Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body, trans. Margaret Tallmadge May, 2 vols. (Ithaca, New York, 1968), 2: 531, offers a variant; L. R. Lind, Studies in Pre-Vesalian Anatomy, Biography, Translations, Documents (Philadelphia, 1975), 112-113, 279, for the physiology of hair in sixteenth-century treatises.

11. Ian Maclean, The Renaissance Notion of Woman (Cambridge, 1980), 28-46; Danielle Jacquart and Claude Thomasset, Sexuality and Medicine in the Middle Ages, trans. Matthew Adamson (Princeton, 1988), 71-76.

12. Gesner 1587, 3; Topsell 1967, 2: 595.

13. P. Bot, Humanisme en onderwijs in Nederland (1400-1600) (Utrecht and

Antwerp), 1955), 153; Kenneth Charlton, Education in Renaissance England (London, 1965), 146; Paul F. Grendler, Schooling in Renaissance Italy (Baltimore, 1989), 17, 19, 116.

14. Natale Conti, Mythologiae (New York and London, 1979) [reprint Padua, 1615), 547; Cesare Ripa, Iconologia, intro. Erna Mandowsky (New York, 1970)[reprint Rome 1603], 426; Carel van Mander, Uytlegginghe (Haarlem, 1604)[reprint Utrecht, 1969], 39v

15. Jacquart and Thomasset, 1988, 129, 186-191; Laurent Joubert, Popular Errors, trans. Gregory David de Rocher (Tuscaloosa and London, 1989), 128; for anthropological studies regarding the power and danger of menstrous women, see Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, eds, Blood Magic, The Anthropology of Menstruation (Berkely, 1988); pyschoanalytic literature identifies the Medusa's head with genitalia and sexual castration. See Sigmund Freud, "Medusa's Head" [1922], in The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, 24 vols(London, 1955), 28: 273-274 and Sandor Ferenczi, "On Symbolism of the Head of Medusa" [1923], in Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Pyschoanalysis, ed. J. Rickman, trans. J.I. Suttie (London, 1926), 360.


The Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders: A Postscript (2006) -

Further comments  and additions to 1995 essay "The Head of Medusa by Rubens and Snyders"

Susan Koslow - Homepage

Publications | Biography | Art | Snyders | Resources | Family History