Last week—quite literally at the eleventh hour—the Bavarian State Painting Collections received news that the Italian Ministry of the Interior and the authorities for cultural-heritage protection in Milan and Rome have granted permission for Caravaggio’s world-famous ornamental shield depicting the severed head of Medusa to leave the country and feature as another high-profile loan in the exhibition ‘Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe.’
Joining Caravaggio’s renowned ‘Entombment of Christ’ from the Vatican Museums, his ‘Penitent Saint Jerome’ (1605) from the collections of the Benedictine Abbey at the Museum of Montserrat near Barcelona, as well as his ‘Fortune Teller’ (1595/96) from Rome’s Capitoline Museums, the ‘Medusa’ (1596/97) represents an additional highlight by the hand of the Italian Baroque painter to go on show in ‘Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe.’
The ‘Medusa Murtola,’ signed, dated to around 1596/97, and currently in a private collection, has been identified as the earlier of two extant versions of the painting, largely thanks to X-radiograph images that reveal alterations during the painting process. Caravaggio’s second version is now housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. This first version takes its name from the Italian poet Gaspare Murtola (d. 1624/25), who wrote in a madrigal from 1603: ‘Flee, for if your eyes are petrified in amazement, she will turn you to stone.’
Medusa’s macabre facial expression, her hair of living, writhing snakes, and the blood sprouting from her throat all make this work one of Caravaggio’s most gruesome and, at the same time, most impressive. Even once severed by the hero Perseus, the head of the Gorgon Medusa was still deadly: one look into her eyes or those of the snakes was enough to turn the viewer to stone. The Gorgon’s head was thus an ideal motif for a shield held up against one’s enemies.
The ‘Medusa’ is on view as part of the exhibition until 21 July 2019.
Image caption: Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (1571 – 1610). Medusa, called Medusa Murtola, 1597. Canvas on panel, diameter 44.68 cm. Private collection.