page updated May 2, 2006

Susan Koslow

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

Following the publication of my essay in 1996, further studies concerning this picture have appeared. In the comments below, I consider some of these findings. In addition, I add material that has come to my attention in the interim as well as matters that could not be treated given the format of the original paper. My publication is the first to show that Rubens used data from natural-history treatises when fashioning this painting, and it is also the first to cite emblems relevant to the serpents pictured.

Misogyny and The Head of Medusa

In publications postdating the 1996 essay, a misogynist reading has been discerned in my discussion of Rubens’s Medusa. I want to make clear that I am not advancing such a claim, if misogyny is understood as “hatred of women” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED], 1971, I, 1815, 521). In English, the word misogony was used by 1620 with the meaning cited. Rather, what I argue is that in the period when the picture was painted, women were thought inferior to men morally and biologically. Rubens apparently accepted this prevailing view as his theoretical writings attest. (see Théorie de la figure humaine: Pierre Paul Rubens, ed. Nadeije Laneyrie-Dagen (Paris: Editions Rue d’Ulm, 2003); the notion also surfaced in his  private life. The memorial encomium Rubens wrote for Isabella Brant, his first wife, praised her by distinguishing her from other women: “[she] had none of the faults of her sex. She had no capricious moods, and no feminine weakness.” (The Letters of Peter Paul Rubens, trans. and ed. Ruth Saunders Magurn (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1971, 136, letter no. 84.) Ethical issues regarding women will not be addressed in the ensuing discussion, only biological ones.

 Medical science in the early seventeenth century did not contest Aristotelian anatomy insofar as it asserted that since the heart of a woman was smaller than a man’s, women could not metabolize or, to use period terminology, “concoct,” as efficiently as men. The consequences of this were grave because posionous residues collected in female blood; menstruation expelled these poisons, but when menopause occurred the mechanism for cleansing the body ceased and venom remained in the blood.

A curious representation of the consequences of this physiological process is, to my knowledge, uniquely depicted in Ambrosius Francken’s Last Judgment, ca 1610 (Figs. 1, 2) (central panel of a triptych for the Holy Spirit Chapel, Sint Waldetruidiskerk, Herentals). An hermaphroditic devil on the lower right terrorizes and tortures a damned man by threatening him with a (posionous?) toad gripped tightly in its upraised left hand, squirting a poisonous fluid from its right dug, and additionally directing toxic exhalations at him too. (I am extremely  grateful to Dr. Anne Woolett for calling my attention to this picture and securing study photographs for my use.) A foreshadowing of the iconography of venomous mammary fluid is found in the Portuguese picture Hell (ca. 1525--1550) by an unidentified painter (Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiqua, inv. 432) (Figs. 3, 4, 5). On the right, a devil tortures a woman damned for the sin of lust. From the creature's body serpents emerge; one bursts through the breast, sundering the flesh alongside a nipple. The serpent spews forth a yellowish fluid, venom doubtlessly. For this painting see the exhibition catalog Portugal et Flandre: Visions de l'Europe (1550--1680), Brussels, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Musée d'Art Ancien, 1991 (Fondation Europalia International).

Selected examples of snake-haired women other than Medusa in the pictorial arts .


The Witch:

Although young women were denounced and tried as witches, witness Anne Boleyn, mature and elderly women were accused of witchcraft more frequently. Older women are depicted with sallow skin, sunken cheeks, thin lips, and a sharp pronounced nose. If breasts are shown, they are pendant and nipples are enlarged and likewise pendant. Hair is long, stringy, and generally unruly and uncoifed. Its color cannot be determined with absolute certainty, but grey is likely.* Agostino Veneziano, after a design by Battista (?) Dossi represents a witch with these features in an early sixteenth-century engraving Lo stregozzo  or Procession to a Witches Sabbath (See Patricia Emison, “Truth and Bizzarria in an Engraving of Lo stregozzo,” The Art Bullletin, LXXXI [1999], 623—36.) (Fig. 6)

A second example merits citation as well. Jacques de Gheyn II, in the pen, ink, and brown wash drawing  Preperation for the Witches’ Sabbath (Figs 7, 8). The artist portrays witches concocting a potion to annoint their bodies in preparation for Sabbath rites. Of particular interest in the context of my  study is the airborne witch astride a broom. Her flight is aided by a demon pulling her hair with one hand to propel her forwards while gripping five snakes in the other hand. The bodies of these snakes terminate in strands of hair. De Gheyn's engraving after the drawing clarifies the precise composition of the snake-hair (see I. Q. van Regteren Altena, Jacques de Gheyn: Three Generations (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983) II, 84-5, for discussion and for illustrations, III, plates 337—9. The engraving, however, is not reproduced). This figure appears to confirm the belief that hair can be transformed into snakes, as explained in my text.

Oozing forth from the mid-section of the swirling cloud that curves across the sky are large drops poised to rain down on the earth. These are probably intended to to represent poison, perhaps even blood. As my paper explains, snakes, it was believed, could be generated by placing hair dipped in menstrual fluid in dung. Although excrement is not specifically depicted by de Gheyn, its presence may be assumed. For the connection between excrement and demons see R. W. Scribner in his classic study For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 84. Scribner points out that according to popular superstition demons and evil spirits resided in privys.



(Invidia, Jealousy)

The personification of Envy in early modern European art is generally indistinguishable from depictions of witches, as de Gheyn’s memorable portrayal illustrates (Fig. 9). Envy, one of the seven deadly sins, drawn in 1596 and engraved in 1597, was part of a series depicting the mutability of human affairs. The series begins with Peace and concludes with War. Envy precedes War. The personification is depicted with the features of a witch. An old woman with a full head of hair consisting of lively snakes, strides through a barren landscape, her uncovered torso reveals pendant breasts no longer capable of providing nutritious sustenance. With her right hand she holds a heart that she maniacally devours, while gripping  a writhing serpent in her left hand. One of the best known antecedents for de Gheyn’s sixteenth-century representation is Giotto’s portrayal of Envy in the Arena Chapel, Padua (ca. 1305), where she is represented as a clothed female figure with a snake emerging from her mouth, a malevolent creature of unregenerate character as its vengeful act of biting Envy between her eyes demonstrates. (This behavior recalls the snakes in Rubens’s picture who likewise turn on their genetrix.).

The Dutch artist and author Karel van Mander, a friend of Jacques de Gheyn, gives a short characterization of Envy in Den Grondt der Edel vrij Schilder-const (1604) Chapter VI, 61, which describes her as cadaverous and surly and her habitation loaded with  poisonous food (I. Q. van Regteren Altena, Jacques de Gheyn: Three Generations (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1983) I, 177, 61. Van Mander  refers the reader to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (completed ca 7 CE) for further details.

In Metamorphoses (Book II, 760-4, 768-9, 775-8), Ovid creates a vivid detailed description of this dangerous being. She resides in a damp, foggy, foul cave. Her person is filthy with “black gore,” and she feeds on the flesh of snakes, “the proper food of her venom,” whose remains befoul her cave. She is pallid, greenish, and has a shrivelled body. Gall flows from her breast and “venom drips from her tongue.” (It should be noted that de Gheyn inserted an image of Envy within her cave with these attributes, including a substantial snake coiling at her feet in the above described picture Preparation for a Witches Sabbath. The cave is set back in the middle distance behind the three prominent foreground witches .) When Envy sets out on a mission undertaken on behalf of Minerva, her breath posions the air in countryside and cities. Ovid makes no reference to her hair; nowhere does he describe it as consisting of  snakes. However the heart that Envy tears into in de Gheyn’s picture, derives from an Ovidian passage. Aglauros, sister of Herse, “eat[s] her heart out in secret misery,” as she suffers the torments of jealousy. The quotes are taken  from Frank Justus Miller’s translation of the Metamorphoses (London: William Heinemann, 1928) 2nd ed (Loeb Classical Library), I, 113, 115 (Book II, 760-4, 768-9, 775-8)



Alekto (Relentless), and her sister Furies, was conceived when blood from the castrated genitals of the god of the sky Ouranus fell on the goddess Earth (Gaia). This union produced female avengers charged with pursuing transgressive murderers (Hesiod, Theogony for the creation of the Furies (the Erinyes in Greek). For the most part, the Furies were characterized as having odious features, including snaky hair; Richard Buxton, The Complete World of Greek Mythology [London: Thames and Hudson, 2004, 86-7]) . Rubens’s great late work painted for the Florentine Medicis, The Horrors of War, 137--8 (Florence, Pitti Palace), depicts Alekto with this deadly attribute and her body type is identical to Envy’s.

Witches, the personification of Envy, and the Fury Alekto have external physical characteristics  in common and their physiology, though not explicated, indicates that poison circulates through their blood system. This taint is explicitly generated by the consumption of venomous snakes in the case of Envy but the body’s own physiological processes are implicitly responsible too.

Textual sources for The Head of Medusa

Ovid and Lucan

In Wolfgang Prohaska’s entries for The Head of the Medusa in two recent publications, Das Flämische Stillleben 1550--1680 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 2002,) 58-9 and Peter Paul Rubens 1577---1640: The Masterpieces from Viennese Collections, edited by Johann Kräftner, Wilfried Seipel, Renate Trnek (Vienna: Christian Brandstätter, 2004) 222-6, Ovid is cited as Rubens’s textual source. These entries ignore my suggestion that Lucan was the primary source for Rubens’s picture. There can be no doubt that Rubens read Ovid, but Ovid’s text focuses principally on Perseus and only incidentally on the Gorgon Medusa; Lucan, on the other hand, expatiates at length on Medusa, the region she inhabits, and its fauna. When identifying the offspring that result from the severing of Medusa’s head, Ovid mentions only the horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor, whereas Lucan describes the watchful acitivity of Medusa’s snaky hair, the poison she exhales, and the “deadly discharge of her eyes.” Further, he adds that Medusa’s blood engendered posionous creatures.

Ovid, IV, 781---5

Lucan, IX, 670—733: “though that land is barren and those fields give increase to no good seed, yet they drank in poison from the gore of the dripping Medusa head—drank in from that savage blood a ghastly dew,  which was made more potent by the heat  . . . In this land the blood, when it first stirred a head above the sand, sent up the asp . . .[and]  the fell amphisbaena, that moves towards each of its two heads.” ( I quote from Lucan, The Civil War (Pharsalia) trans. J. D. Duff (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988) [The Loeb Classical Library] , 557, 559.) The amphisbaena, which is not mentioned by Ovid (or the other horrid creatures) is pictured in The Head of the Medusa. This is not by chance but arises from Rubens’s  close reading of Lucan’s text.

The failure to mention Lucan’s text in recent literature is surprising. As is well known Rubens read extensively and his library confirms his impressive knowledge of classical literature. Although the  inventory of Rubens’s library does not exist, it is generally believed that his son Albert inherited most if not all of his father’s volumes. These were inventoried for a sales catalog published in 1658. Lucan is listed on p.18 of that catalog. (see Prosper Arents, De Bibliotheek van Pieter Pauwel Rubens: een reconstructie, ed. Frans Baudouin et al [Antwerp: Universiteit Antwerpsen/ UFSIA, 2001], 357.) Lucan is mentioned on several occasions by Nicolas Peiresc in his descriptions of the Gemma Tiberiana, although these citations postdate The Head of the Medusa by some five years. Peiresc’s information was surely conveyed to Rubens since both were collaborating on a publication in the 1620s on classical gems. It is certainly plausible that Rubens  owned a copy of the Pharsalia or at least had read passages relating to Medusa by ca 1615. (see Marjon van der Meulen, Copies after the Antique, ed. Arnout Balis (London: Harvey Miller, 1994) [Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, Part XXIII], I, 114, 158, 160). 


Who Painted the Snakes: Rubens or Snyders?

Wolfgang Prohaska has consistently maintained that the snakes were painted by Rubens, despite their attribution to “Subter” in the seventeenth—century sales catalog (Antwerp, 1648) of the collection of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. (Subter is regarded by scholars as a misspelIing of Snyders.) I cannot concur with Prohaska’s view and consider the snakes to be by the hand of Snyders, except for certain passages discussed below (Fig. 10). The detailed reticulation, the marking on the scales, and the factually precise portrayal of their heads (structure, mouth, eye, nose) are in keeping with the exactitude of natural-history representation and are comparable to the snakes in Snyders’s picture Eagles and the Dead Wolf (Chambord, Musée de la Chasse et de l’Art animalier) See Susan Koslow, Frans Snyders: The Noble Estate. Seventeenth-Century Still—Life and Animal Painting in the Southern Netherlands, foreward Walter A. Liedtke (Antwerp: Fonds Mercator, 1995), 302, 308--15. Rubens’s approach to animal painting is consistently different: he applies an undertone and then at strategic points adds features and texture to give an impression that is effective at a distance rather than viewed at close range (Figs. 11, 12) . However, I do agree with Prohaska that Rubens did participate in painting some of the snakes. The mating vipers show his hand, specifically the midportion of the male snake. The robust brushwork here is decidely different from the more precise delineation of the creature’s head. Another instance is the golden-black snake coiling above and behind the Medusa’s head. Rubens appears to have touched up some of the other snakes by adding impasto highlights or a thin red glaze over part of the body of the vicious female viper biting the flesh of the Medusa’s forehead. In  Prometheus (Philadelphia, Museum of Fine Arts), a painting close in date to the Medusa, the collaboration is comparable. Although Rubens himself testifies that Snyders painted the giant eagle in the Prometheus, he does not mention that he touched up the bird’s beak and claws with thick impasto and emphatic strokes of paint, yet this is evident from visual examination of the painting. These additions bridged the styles of the masters, unified the picture, and significantly intensified its affect.

A Neostoic Reading of  The Head of Medusa

Ulrich Heinen has argued that The Head of Medusa may have been perceived by adherents of Neostoicism, a revival of Stoic philosophy (founded by Zeno, 344-262 BCE) in early modern European intellectual circles, as an opportunity to test aspects of their beliefs. (See Ulrich Heinen’s entry, “Haupt der Medusa,” in exhibition catalog for Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig Peter Paul Rubens. Barocke Leidenschaften, eds. Nils Büttner and Ulrich Heinen (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2004), 222-3.) Neostoicism originated in the first half of the sixteenth century, gained strength in following decades and was  an important aspect of seventeenth—century culture. Justus Lipsius (1547—1606) is a key figure in this movement; he reconciled ancient Stoicism and Christianity in belief systems and also in practice. Among the chief practical aims of Stoics and Neostoics was self-control and impassivity (apatheia). Even when confronted by the evils of the world the Stoic or Neostoic was to remain constant, steadfast, and tranquil; his instrument was reason. To master the passions (emotions) and powerful sentiments that arise from sensory experience—examples are given by Seneca in ira (On Anger)-- such as witnessing a play, hearing music, reading about distressing historical events or seeing horrifying pictures (atrox pictura) (Seneca, On Anger, II, 2, 4; Seneca, Moral Essays, trans. John W. Basore (London: William Heinemann, 1928) [Loeb Classical Library], 170-1), the application of rational analysis acts to quell the body’s physical and mental disturbances and to lead ultimately to a state of tranquil impassivity.

Heinen explains that viewing The Head of the Medusa likely caused surprise and horror; he, too, cites Huygens’s remark about not wanting to hang such a picture in his own house, despite its excellence. Heinen argues that the painting may well have have caused an attack of ictus or “mental shock.” But ictus has other meanings that were more common in Latin literature: first, a blow, stroke (of lightning), stab, bite, sting; second, in music, a beat, and in medicine, a pulse; third, in warfare, stroke, blow, attack (Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 876. Heinen’s usage, “mental shock,” derives from the writings of Seneca himself, where the word occurs in the Stoic philospher’s essay On Anger: ictus is a  response to witnessing  a “wrong committed” (Loeb Classical Library, 168-9: ille ictus animi ponendus est, qui nos post opinionem inuriae movet, translated by Basore (see above) as “ that mental shock which affects us after we have formed the impression of a wrong committed.” Seneca adds that it also “steals upon us” when watching a play and on other occasions (again, see above, previous paragraph)

The picture Constantijn Huygens viewed at Sohier’s residence was protected by a curtain (see my paper). Drawing the curtain aside to reveal the spectacle of the severed bleeding head was a kind of entertainment. For some the spectacle must have occasioned repulsion, for others pleasure. But for the confirmed Neostoic, if horror, repulsion, terror or other passions were experienced, reason, analytically applied, could tame the “mental shock” the image induced and prove the efficacy of Neostoicism or even serve as a Neostoic educative tool to master the passions.

Although the Neostoic reading Heinen proposes in connection to the Medusa is strong when considered purely in the realm of art, culture, and theory; however, when it is set in the context of everyday experience it is questionable whether the same responses or ideas occurred. Did a confirmed Neostoic experience  “mental shock” when horrific sights far worse than the painting were witnessed? Take, for instance, capital punishment which was brutal and public, such as the penalty of being drawn and quartered. The spectacle began with the condemned person dragged prone along a roadway to the scaffold. There the prisoner was hanged, but cut down before death occurred. Next, still alive, he was castrated, his abdomen slit open, and his guts and organs pulled out. Finally his limbs were cut off and  his head severed. The head was fixed on a pike and displayed prominently in public places. Limbs too were exhibited. Beheading of the high nobility likewise was public theater as was the hanging of thieves and other miscreants. Did the duke of Buckinghan, George Villiers, the original owner of The Head of Medusa, who is not known for philosophical interests, aim to master his emotions, assuming he experienced a mental shock after looking at the Medusa?

In this discussion it is assumed that the audience that studied The Head of the Medusa was male, especially if the painting had a Neostoic aspect. But did women view this image too? Unfortunately evidence is lacking. It is not known whether Buckingham hung a curtain over his picture, as had Sohier. If he did, then access to women probably would have been limited. Curtains had various purposes: to protect valuable works; to honor the subject portrayed; and for ludic aims. However, there is another rationale for covering paintings. In Spain, in the seventeenth century, nude images were covered with curtains in rooms where women congregated or passed through. (see Javier Portús, The “Sala Reservada” and the Nude in the Prado Museum, exhibition catalogue, Prado Museum, 2002). The curtain's purpose was to protect women from the sight of images that might excite desire and unchaste thoughts. Perhaps the earliest mention of this effect occurs in Terence’s comedy The Eunuch (161 BCE). In that play, a young girl is alone in a room where she studies a painting of Danae being inseminated by Zeus; the picture prompts sexual desire. Thus curtains installed before a painting may denote a division between male and female spaces. Of course an image of Medusa would not incite sexual arousal but it might have baleful consequences. Because women were considered to be weaker morally and physically, viewing a Medusa picture (or sculpture) might be cause for concern since the representation could cause emotional or physical harm. Moreover, women were especially susceptible during pregnancy. Visual impressions were thought to affect the foetus. Therefore the gravid female was encouraged to look at beautiful unblemished faces and bodies to prevent the embryo from becoming disfigured. Curtains would insure that women did not chance upon such imagery.

At least two copies of The Head of the Medusa exist in Dresden and in Brünn. (See entry by Wolfgang Prohaska in Peter Paul Rubens 1577—1640, exhibition catalog, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 1977, 81-2).

An important depiction of the subject (Figs 13, 14) is in the Uffizi, where it is attributed to an unidentified seventeenth-century Flemish painter. Regretably, I have never studied the picture directly, but the snakes do resemble ones by Snyders, judging from photographs. The painting on panel entered the Medici collection as a testamentary gift from Hippolyte de Vicq to the grand-duke Ferdinand II. See exhibition catalog Didier Bodart, Rubens e la pittura fiamminga del Seicento nelle collezioni pubbliche fiorentine. Rubens et la peinture flamande du XVIIème siècle dans les collections publiques florentines, Florence, Pitti Palace, 1977, 306-7. For more on this picture, see "On The Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci" by Percy Bysshe Shelley A Hypertext Edition, eds. Neil Fraistat and Melissa Jo Sites, with Dialogic Commentary, last updated 03/02/97.

* A reflection of this view appears in Rubens’s seven-tier ranking of the color of womens’ hair. Blond was top-rated whereas sooty grey and “pepper and salt,” were on the seventh and lowest level and judged dishonorable (déshonorante). (See Nadeije Laneyrie—Dagen, 209-11)


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