Masterpiece Stories

Shiny Shield with Caravaggio’s Medusa

Zuzanna Stańska 29 September 2023 min Read

Caravaggio’s art epitomizes the essence of Baroque art. The artist, known for close physical observation with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro, can be called the father of tenebrism. He made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light. His works are also one of the most influential for the epoch – especially for Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation who were heavily under his influence were called the Caravaggisti or Caravagesques, as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (“shadowists”).

Today, we are going to talk about this severed head – the head of Medusa, the gorgon who had hair of living snakes. Anyone who looked at her was turned to stone. She was decapitated by the hero Perseus who firstly used a shining shield received from the goddess Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly.

Here, we have a horrifying image of a decapitated head of Medusa, for which the model was apparently a male youth. Medusa’s head is severed but still conscious. The mythical creature just realized their mortality–in the most horrible way. Blood pours from Medusa’s head in thick streaks. She screams in silence. The serpents are only silent witnesses.


Caravaggio Medusa
Caravaggio, Medusa, 1597, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Caravaggio was commissioned to make this masterpiece as a gift for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de Medici. It was supposed to enter the Medici collection in Florence (to the Armory of the Uffizi), as a competition against Leonardo da Vinci, who by that time had been dead for 80 years.

Medusa was painted on a wooden shield, which alluded to a story about the young Leonardo, whose father once asked him to decorate a shield. Leonardo went into the fields and collected snakes, lizards, and insects, assembling them into a hybrid monster which he painted on the object. The broad wooden piece is also, of course, referring to the shield from Athena which was cunningly used to exploit Medusa’s power to petrify people. This iconography was often used by the Medici to represent their military power.

Caravaggio’s Medusa exists in two versions. The first was created in 1596 and the other, presumably, in 1597. The first version (1596) is also known as Murtola, after poet Gaspare Murtola (d. 1624), who wrote of it:

Flee, for if your eyes are petrified in amazement, she will turn you to stone.

This work is privately owned.

The second version, shown here, is slightly bigger (60×55 cm) and is not signed, though often dated 1597. This work is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.


Giorgione and Titian, Sleeping Venus, 1508-10, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Sleeping Venus by Giorgione and Titian

Giorgione and Titian’s Sleeping Venus is a masterpiece of the Venetian Renaissance school of painting. It explores sensual nudity through a...

James W Singer 25 September 2023

Anguish August Friedrich Schenck Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Anguish by August Friedrich Schenck

Surrounded by menacing crows, a mother sheep wails in anguish as her lifeless young lamb rests on a snowy bed. This scene, painted by August...

Montaine Dumont 14 September 2023

Rembrandt, Abduction of Ganymede, 1635, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Abduction of Ganymede by Rembrandt

Rembrandt is less known for his mythological paintings, but their visual impact matches any of his religious images and secular portraits. The...

James W Singer 11 September 2023

Jan Havicksz Steen, Woman at her Toilet, 1655-60, oil on panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands. Detail. Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Woman at Her Toilet by Jan Steen

Jan Steen’s Woman at Her Toilet is a provocative masterpiece of genre paintings because of its visual complexity and seductive allure, inviting...

James W Singer 28 August 2023