Bronze relief head of Medusa

The eyes have it

4 October 2022

Eyes in the ancient world

Eyes were a potent motif in the ancient world, sometimes used to protect, sometimes used to destroy.

[Trigger warning: assault, sexual assault, allusions]
Attic black-figure depicting Athena

Athena depicted with her Medusa-head breastplate. Attic black-figure lekythos, attributed to the Leagros Group, 525–500 BC, Athens, Greece, Nicholson Collection, NM46.52

When Perseus cut off the head of Medusa, he artfully used his shield to defend against her petrifying sight. Medusa and her two sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, were gorgons. Born of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto, gorgons were depicted in poetry and art as monstrous women, often with boar tusks and snake hair, so hideous a mere glimpse of them would turn the viewer to stone.

The mythology of Medusa and the gorgons, like most ancient myths, has many versions and developed new meanings throughout history. In all, Medusa, unlike her sisters, was mortal. In some versions, Medusa was a beautiful woman, turned into a monster by Athena as a punishment for being ‘seduced’ (raped) by Poseidon in one of Athena’s temples.

Perseus was sent on a quest to retrieve the head of one of the gorgons as a bridal gift for King Polydectes. With the guidance of Hermes and Athena, Perseus secured the knowledge and equipment needed to slay Medusa. Upon her death, impregnated by Poseidon, Medusa gave birth from her severed neck to Pegasos, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, who was human looking.

Attic black-figure eye-cup

Attic black-figure eye-cup, attributed to Group of Walters 48.42, 550–525 BC, Athens, Greece, Nicholson Collection, NM47.3

After her death, Medusa was still a powerful being. Perseus used a special bag to contain her head, using it to petrify his opponents on his journey home. In some myths, Medusa’s blood was also powerful, able to kill as well as to cure. The severed head of Medusa was later acquired by Athena, who used it to decorate her aegis (breastplate); she rarely appears in literature or art without it.

The earliest surviving depictions of gorgons do not include bodies, only faces, with frontal gazes, wide toothy smiles, and tongues poking out. These gorgoneia were also often bearded. Like Medusa on Athena’s aegis, gorgon heads were often apotropaic in function, using the power of the image of a gorgon as a protection device and to intimidate opponents. In the Illiad, King Agamemnon’s shield is decorated with this type of gorgon’s head, along with Phobos and Deimos, the personifications of fear and terror. Examples of this type of shield decoration, dating to the 6th century BC, have been recovered from the site of Olympia, likely dedicated by warriors in hope or gratitude for a recent victory.

Gorgoneia were particularly popular decorative motifs in Greece and neighbouring cultures throughout the Archaic period (c. 700–480 BC). Temples, particularly in Etruria, South Italy and Sicily, were decorated with antefixes (the covering cornice of roof tiles) in the shape of monstrous gorgon faces.

In ceramic art of the Archaic period, gorgoneia were a favourite decoration for the tondo (interior centre circle) of a drinking cup. As the wine was consumed, a staring face would slowly be revealed. The gorgoneion depicted here is painted on the interior of a kylix (drinking cup), made in Athens around 550–525 BC. It belongs to a specific class of vessel called ‘eye-cups’, named for the large black and white eyes painted on each side. Eye-cups regularly depict other facial features, such as eyebrows and noses as part of the decoration, along with motifs of warriors, seafaring, athletics and other ‘daily life’ scenes. The Nicholson Collection example has facial features one side and birds in mid‑flight on the other (in place of a nose). Under each handle is a ship with boar head prows, sailing across the sea.

It was believed that eye-cups drew on theatrical masks for their imagery. Used in the symposia (a male drinking party with many social rituals) the cup, when lifted to the lips, masks the drinker, transporting them into the world of Dionysos. However, new studies, particularly by Sheramy Bundrick on the distribution of eye-cups and the use of the design in other contexts, suggest that this may not have been the intended function of the decoration. Eye-cups, while made in Athens, were widely traded throughout the Mediterranean and were particularly popular in Etruria. They are frequently found in burials and votive contexts, where an apotropaic function may be equally interpreted. Combined with the interior gorgoneion, the vessel and its owner would be highly protected against the evils of this world, and the underworld.

Gorgons continued to be a popular motif in art throughout the following centuries, well into the Roman period. However, their image was transformed from the bearded monstrous figure of the Archaic period into an idealised woman’s face surrounded by a wreath of snake hair. It is this highly feminine version of Medusa that continues to be popular today.

Candace Richards is Assistant Curator, Nicholson Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.

This article was first published in issue 28 of Muse Magazine, April 2022. 

Header image: Bronze-relief head of Medusa, reproduction of a Hellenistic-Roman style relief, 18th century, Italy, Nicholson Collection, NMR.543