An impressive Second Empire parcel gilt and painted cast iron roundel Medusa mask, depicting a beautiful full-frontal image of Medusa, with her mouth slightly open, her hair with entwined serpents and headed by interlocking serpent heads flanked by a pair of wings
French, date circa 1870
Diameter 136 cms.
This handsome mask head depicts the gorgon Medusa and appears to have been inspired by the Hellenistic or Roman marble known as the Medusa Rondanini, which portrayed Medusa as an aesthetic beauty with wings in her hair but in place of serpents a bow under her chin. For many years the latter was exhibited in Palazzo Rondanini, Rome where it was admired by no less than Canova and was to inspire his Perseus with the Head of Medusa of 1798-1801 (Vatican Museum), which shows the same aesthetic interpretation of the gorgon as here. The Medusa Rondanini also inspired other works including bronze mounts that were used to decorate furniture or clocks, predominantly dating from eighteenth and nineteenth century France.
According to legend Medusa, along with Stheno and Euryale was one of the three gorgon sisters who lived in the far west in the confines of the world of the dead. Ovid described them as having a hideous appearance with staring eyes, fangs instead of teeth, tongues that hung out and hair composed of entwined snakes and all who saw them were turned to stone. Medusa was the only one of them who was mortal and was eventually killed by the ancient hero Perseus, who overcame her by looking at her reflection in his polished shield. At the point of death it was said that Pegasus, the winged horse, sprung from her body. Perseus cut off her head and placed it upon his sword but even after death her head still retained its petrifying powers. Because of this her head often appeared as a protective talisman used on warriors' shields. The myth also told how Minerva, who was Perseus' protectress, placed Medusa's head on her aegis, which was a type of goatskin tunic fringed with serpents.
Despite - or perhaps because of her terrifying powers Medusa was a constant source of inspiration to artists. From the seventh century on, images of her appeared in many forms, from small objects such as bronze statuettes, Greek vases, terracottas, ivories and coins to more monumental works such as the Running Gorgon centering the pediment from the Temple of Artemis in Corfu (c. 590 BC). As the centuries progresses so too did artists' representation of her metamorphose until as she became to be represented a beautiful woman expressed in the Medusa Rondanini (now in the Glyptothek in Munich, having been purchased by the art-loving king Ludwig of Bavaria from the heirs of the marchese Rondanini).
Medusa became one of the many subjects of Renaissance and Baroque art. Among them was Benvenuto Cellini's bronze Perseus and Medusa of 1533 (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence), which, like here, was an example of the "Beautiful Gorgon" type. In contrast Caravaggio's rendition was a hideous looking Medusa showing her with live swirling serpents in her hair, a gapping mouth and eyes that bulge from their sockets (1598-99, Uffizi Florence).
It was painted on a tournament shield serving to avert evil but must have terrified the enemies of Prince Cosimo II de Medici who received the symbolic object as a wedding gift in 1608. Medusa has also been the subject of more modern works such as Paul Klee's The Triumph of Wit over Misfortune (1904) as well as Vik Muniz's colour print of Medusa Marinara of 1997 in the Metropolitan Museum, showing a modern interpretation of Caravaggio's head. Given the size and the striking qualities of the present roundel it is probable that it was made for a grand French or more specifically Parisian residence, where it may have been fixed to the front of the exterior wall.