Terracotta Roundel with Head of Medusa


Unknown Greek artist. Terracotta relief roundel with the head of Medusa. 2nd Century B.C.E.. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This terracotta roundel contains in its center a sculptural relief of the head of Medusa. In this piece of artwork from the Hellenistic period of Greek art, Medusa is portrayed as a beautiful woman with thick flowing hair, and traces of pink and blue paint remain detectable but not visible on the terracotta. This portrayal of Medusa differs greatly from earlier portrayals of the gorgon as a hideous creature — this Hellenistic interpretation sees Medusa as a beautiful woman (a gorgon woman, not human). During the time period, Medusa was a common motif on ornamental pieces. This roundel most probably served as a wall decoration.
The shift from Medusa being portrayed as hideous to more attractive may have come as a result of ancient Greek attitudes towards women and the purpose they served in myth and entertainment. In later ancient versions of the myth (like this one), Medusa is a beautiful maiden and is raped or seduced by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, resulting in Athena turning her hair to snakes and giving her the power of petrification as a punishment. While Medusa may have seemed more fearsome in archaic times because of her status as a chthonic creature, the ancient Greeks began to turn away from respect towards very ancient traditions and the chthonic gods/creatures in favor of newer ideas during Classical and Hellenistic times. This included the way that gender was seen. In Classical times, women actually may have had less rights than they did in archaic times. Thus, it may have served a better purpose to portray Medusa as being a beautiful woman raped or seduced by Poseidon in order to maintain/correspond with the Classical and Hellenistic views of women as inferior, other, incompatible with civilized society, and sexually impulsive or uncontrollable. The beautiful Medusa is representative of later ancient Greeks views and fears regarding women.

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