|Credit: a French artist I found on Tumblr called "nymbruyn."|
They said this was for Inktober. Jesus this is such a good picture.
Once again, I'll put in some effort to credit properly and maybe provide additional notes as I can. If you have more artwork that you like, I'd love to see it as well. Some of the art in here is obligatory historical inclusions, some are genuinely brilliant, and some just have a unique variation on the basic design.
For this post, we can also go in (roughly) chronological order, starting with the original Ancient Greek artwork. It gets better and better the further we get, though. You can just look at the pictures if you like (that is what this post is for, of course), but if you like art history/criticism then I'll go ahead and provide some amateur supplemental details. I'm not learned on the matter, I'm just enthusiastic.
[Around 450-440 BCE, attributed to Polygnotos.] Same here. All you need is to show Perseus decapitating a sleeping person with wings and that tells you it's Medusa. Weird how important the wings used to be, and yet now we never see them, huh? That said, this is pretty weird for showing Medusa as being beautiful rather than hideous.Here's a good example showing some more of the traditional details. I also like this one because of the color scheme (or what remains of it, anyway):
Something that's probably good to address now is the gorgon's origins. You see, Medusa is a complicated and plastic character. There is a version of her that is almost ubiquitous in modern culture where she is the victim of rape by Poseidon within the temple of Athena, who then punished her for it with this wicked form. To those who created this story, its narrative purpose was simply naked misogyny, victim-blaming, demonizing women, and cruelty. Because of this, in modern culture, feminists have reclaimed Medusa as one of the greatest of all the "sympathetic monsters" right alongside King Kong and Frankenstein's creature. She is a symbol of women who have been victimized and unjustly judged for it, and especially of righteous feminine anger. I am, as you can imagine, a big fan of the "reclaimed Medusa" version of the character.
But of course, the rape story was Roman, not Greek. Isn't it funny how all of us know that Roman mythology is just fanfiction of Greek mythology, and yet it still sneaks up on us like this anyway?
I'm not invalidating the Roman version (specifically, it was written by Ovid in his Metamorphoses), nor the modern feminist response to that version. I like plastic characters, remember? But the original Greek version is simply that, "three gorgon sisters were born to the primordial sea god Phorcys and his sister Ceto." Their names were Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale, and they were terrible, wicked creatures who lived in the Underworld. No "former human transformed," no attempt at moralizing things, no sexual violence, no real complexity, just a standard heavy metal Greek monster. And I think that's a perfectly valid and fucking cool way to use gorgons. If you want to feature a medusa in D&D who is just a blood-drinking, terror-reigning creature of Hell, then I gladly welcome it. Not only is it the "most authentic" version of the monster you could use, but it also sounds fuckin' rad to me.
[Probably from around 580 BCE.] Carved on the Temple of Artemis in Corfu, flanked by her leopards to represent her role as the "Mistress of Animals." I fucking love the snake belt, which was apparently a fertility symbol.
[510-490 BCE, attributed to the Theseus Painter.]
[600–575 BCE.] Unrelated, does anyone else ever find it weird when you have a sculpture of a helmet bearing a painting? Like, artwork depicting artwork depicting artwork? I dunno, just kinda got into my head is all.
And then we get perhaps the weirdest of all the ancient Medusas:
[Debated to be in the 5th century BCE.] The "Rondanini" Medusa is notable for resembling the typical Olympian beauties of other Greco-Roman artwork, as well as being an early use of the "wings in hair/forehead" motif. Despite looking so different from its contemporaries, this seems to me to have been one of the most influential depictions of the character for later artists. It just goes to show that choosing to make the monster hot instead of ugly will always, always win out.
People often explain Lovecraftian horror as being about the fear of the unknown and unknowable, an allegedly very modern anxiety derived from advancements in physics and other sciences at the time ol' Howie was writing. But I think this is a bit mistaken. Ancient peoples also sought to explain the things around them, even if their attempts now seem to us strange and primitive. And just like today, monsters were often those things which they couldn't fit into their conception of the natural order. That's why Medusa is neither man nor woman, human nor animal. If she could fit neatly into our categories, there'd be nothing to be afraid of. Monsters are the contradictions that make us uncomfortable. And one of the recurring contradictions we'll see in this post is that Medusa is both beautiful and hideous, an inexplicable quality that exposes a lot of the unfairness built into society's agreed upon "natural order." The Ancient Greeks are not the only ones with fucked up views on women.
Early Modern Medusa
The Italian Renaissance brought back all things Greco-Roman, and that very much included the gorgon sisters.
[Detail from Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Benvenuto Cellini, sometime from 1545 to 1554, bronze.] This is one of the great "beheading" sculptures, and it's amusing because part of the reason why Cellini made it is specifically to occupy a space in the middle of a piazza in Florence where it would be surrounded by a bunch of existing stone sculptures. That's why he revived the, at that point in time, long-dead medium of bronze sculpture for this piece. He needed his characters to feel alive in contrast to the victims "petrified" by his Medusa.
Also, there's like, y'know, political subtext where Perseus represents the Medici family and other Florentine politics and that kind of bullshit. It's Renaissance art, that's what you get.
[16th century. Erroneously attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, now believed to be made by some anonymous Flemish painter.] I love all the vermin. The bats, the frogs, etc.
[Annibale Carracci, probably 1597.] From what I can see, Medusa has hair wings, one of her sister has back wings, and the other sister has neither. Huh.
From the same year, we get one of the most famous images of Medusa ever:
Caravaggio's version is, predictably, violent and shocking and dramatic. He was the king of the provocative baroque, after all. You know whose face was the model for this? His own. That's right, this is a self-portrait by a male artist. Maybe he felt unjustly persecuted for all those violent crimes he was always committing. She is also, upsettingly, quite conscious even post-decapitation. Horrifying thought. Best part of all? The round canvas you see here is actually a shield. He made sure to make the background as reflective as possible, too. That's right, this isn't merely a portrait of Medusa. It's specifically a painting of what Perseus saw in the reflection of his shield.
[Peter Paul Rubens (with help from artist Frans Snyders for the snakes), 1618.] I love all the crazy shit going on with the snakes here. I love the idea that they break off and continue their own lives after the Medusa has been decapitated. That the blood spilling from her neck becomes new snakes. That some of them are fighting each other, and others are giving birth. And of course, that there's other kinds of vermin spilling from her head as well. I also love her expression of shock, her corpse complexion, and of course, her eyes.
[Bernini, sometime in the 1640s.] Bernini, the most technically skilled sculptor of all time, seemingly decided not to make a perfectly lifelike figure here. Instead, I think he was trying to thread the needle of looking ugly and disfigured (mostly in the eyebrows) and in terrible anguish. We're beginning to reach that humanizing, feminist version. I once read someone describing this as capturing the moment Medusa looks into a mirror, petrifying herself into this very statue. It's a portrait of a suicide. Maybe this is a dumb addition to this post but here's an edit of this piece I saw on the subreddit r/fakealbumcovers that I really like:
[Perseus and the Sleeping Medusa, Alexander Runciman, 1774.] Reminder to have an idea when your monsters/enemies in D&D will be asleep so the PCs have the opportunity to plan an attack like this.
Monsters are unique in art because they can never actually be representative. A painting of a tree or a bust of a pope are representations of real things that are out there in the real world. You can compare them against those real things and evaluate their accuracy accordingly. But monsters exist nowhere outside of the material describing them. You look at the statue of the sphinx and imagine life in it, imagine a voice and personality, hear stories told about it... but it is only ever the statue.
The Western tradition of art spent several centuries on a consistent trajectory towards realism, so it might seem a bit weird for later artists in this lineage to depict monsters at all. They're so close to capturing reality, would it be a step backward? Medusa was an extremely popular subject in Classical art, so do the Renaissance artists revisit her just out of respect for tradition? Initially it might seem like they're a bit uncomfortable with the subject matter. They felt the need to simplify out almost everything that would make it hard to render her. Giant tongue and fangs, clawed hands, and wings sprouting from all over would be undeniably unrealistic. So she's reduced to two elements: a woman's face (one real thing that exists in the world) and a pile of snakes (another real thing that exists in the world). Use your newfound innovations of rendering to paint or sculpt these two elements as accurately as you can and then glue them together. Voila! A "realistic" monster.
But especially as this period goes on, I think the artists are coming to recognize the true value in this subject. Ovid's primary contribution to the character is, ironically, transforming Medusa from a monster to a human, and in so doing, opened up the possibility of identifying with her. No, the snake-haired woman isn't actually real. But you can still strive to render her in a way so lifelike that it suggests an illusion of reality, believable enough to invite the audience to take the fantasy seriously and recognize what is real: the fears and anxieties this woman invokes. In her enemies, in her victims, in her conqueror, and most importantly, in herself.
Modern "Fine Art" Medusa
[Cameo by Benedetto Pistrucci, 1840-1850.] Carved from red jasper and mounted in gold and white enamel. The face is just over 2 inches across (5.3 cm). Of all the purely decorative gorgoneions in this collection, this is probably my favorite. It just looks so damn good.
[Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, 1854.] The first known female professional sculptor, in fact. Most folks consider this to be Medusa "mid-transformation" with head still half-hair. One of my favorite incorporations of head wings.
This is one of my favorites but it seems to be by far the most obscure. From a couple blogs I found it came from an old French book titled Human Monsters, Giants, Dwarfs, Super-old Men and Other Oddities of Nature (translated), but the few other sources I've found about it are in French. This comes from a page titled "Great discovery of an extraordinary monster in the Ardennes forest." I was able to translate this description and was delighted that it points out the accompanying dragon buddy on her tail. I haven't found a date for this book but I put it in this section as an educated guess.
[Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878.] I like the corpse-like skin coloration.
[Franz von Stuck, 1892.] Strong contender for the best gaze in this post. It's a specialty of Stuck's. She also looks like her head is emerging from a foliage-like tangle of snakes. I kind of love the thought of a gorgon whose head snakes are so great in number and volume that they form a massive pile of serpents, from which a face only rarely pokes out to be visible.
[Jean Delville, 1893.] I really love the sinuous fumes coming from the poppy flowers, mimicking the snakes. She seems to be wearing a blue veil over her face for your safety, but it's translucent enough that you can still see her glowing eyes. I wonder what the saucers of dark liquid are about. Does Medusa have to feed her snakes? Or is she collecting their venom? The poppy fumes recall opium, a poison that doesn't petrify you in an instant, but instead lulls you to a sleeping death.
[Jacek Malczewski, 1900.] This rare bit of symmetry in the snakes seems dreamlike and uncanny. Her gaze isn't supernatural like the other paintings, but it does look a bit malicious to me. And red hair looks good on the gorgon.
[Salvador Dalí, 1962. Shortly followed up by...
...Salvador Dalí, 1963.] I've heard that he found a dead octopus on the beach and was inspired to literally pick it up, take it home, dip it in acid, and press it to the paper in order to make these images. He was, as you know, a nutjob. The second one is certainly more complex, showing the full body. She's holding a skull and she's down on her knees, which I'm sure means something. But the first one really speaks to me more.
[Luciano Garbati, 2008. Medusa With the Head of Perseus.] Intentionally a riff on Cellini's famous Renaissance sculpture. This piece became very famous in the wake of the #MeToo movement and is probably now the most notable really major medusa piece since the 17th century.
Detail of the face. She looks pissed.
[Damien Hirst, 2013.] This version is made from silver and gold. Notable for being, I think, pretty much the only sculpture of the head immediately after it's fallen to the ground post-decapitation. I also like that there are some decapitated snakes among it.
Another angle. Interesting how there's also a big hole in her face, letting you see inside. I don't think this could really correspond with anything in flesh, so maybe this imaginary medusa is made of gold.
Oleksii Gnievyshev, 2016. Here's a video of him making it.
I know some people question why fantasy works keep using dragons and elves and dwarves when they could be telling stories about literally anything else. Why not something new and unfamiliar? Well, because some images endure for a reason. At this point it feels silly for someone to claim that you're using Medusa "incorrectly" according to some arbitrary canon or reading. She is now the ultimate figure to express ideas about how femininity intersects with beauty and ugliness, power and weakness, predation and victimhood, desire and shame, and so on.
Medusa in Fantasy Art
Ray Harryhausen's famous Medusa figure from the 1981 Clash of the Titans. This has possibly had a greater impact on pop culture than nearly any other piece in this post. This is where the "snake lower half" comes from (and this version has a rattle to boot!). It's kind of the perfect "monster" version of the character.
Concept art from that scene. One of the best D&D combats ever depicted on screen. Don't forget to include more pillars in your battlefields!
Compare this to the design of the playable Medusa in DOTA 2, an earlier MOBA. A more monstrous design, with especially strange head snakes. I always find it interesting the difference between artists that go for lots of snakes (roughly one for every strand of hair or lock of hair on a normal person) versus artists who go for just a handful of snakes.
Closeup of her face. I think they were going for "snake-like human" but mostly it just looks kinda vaguely monster-y. This medusa almost seems to lack any sex at all.
Euryale from God of War is one of my favorites in this whole post. We don't have enough fat monsters.
Medusa in Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. Very heavy metal, lots of really cool details. The snakeskin dress, the face paint, snakes coiled around her whole body.
Sculpted by Gautier Giroud for Eclipse Miniatures. I think the standout detail are the snakes coiling around her arm, weaponized further than probably any other design I've seen. I also really like the massive snake jawbone she's wearing on her hips.There's a tabletop miniature skirmish game called Arena Rex where you have gladiator battles in fantasy Rome. They include units for all three gorgon sisters. Let's go in order of least to most interesting.
Euryale, illustrated by Owen Matthew Aurelio. Nowadays this is a pretty basic gorgon design, but I love just how fucking huge she is. The colors and the severed head are great details, too.
Medusa, illustrated by comics artist Yasmine Putri. Another veil to cover the eyes, but she's decked out as a warrior. Normally she's given a bow and arrow, but here she looks more like an Amazon in the service of Athena. I don't know the details of Arena Rex's version, but there's an occasional reading of Ovid's version of the myth that Medusa stayed a priest in Athena's service, and that Athena granted her the petrifying gaze as a blessing to defend against future perverts.
Stheno, also illustrated by Putri. Holy shit look at that. Just so fucking cool.
Tony DiTerlizzi, the king. Great headdress, great evil eye earrings, and I love the implication that she petrifies you by getting you to simp. DiTerlizzi pivoted almost entirely to children's media about 20 years ago, which suits his style extremely well. But back when he was drawing for D&D (and D&D-adjacent projects), he was actually one of the very best at drawing horndoggery. He has a talent for drawing the sensual without being outright gross or leering.
Wayne Reynolds. I mean, it was inevitable to pair up the medusa with the monster who stole her name. But this is seriously so fucking metal. Purple plate armor and lance alone would do it for me, but check out what she's holding in her other hand. That Greek theater mask-looking helmet with holes for her snakes.
Richard Suwono. This is the medusa art in the 5E Monster Manual. Another veil (it's a really good idea), but also a fucking awesome headdress. Black looks good on her. I'm also a pretty big sucker for arm stoles.
I think this was drawn by John Stanko but I've had trouble finding a source. This appears on page 83 of the 5E DMG. I love coral snakes and I love seeing that coloring used for a medusa. In fact, I'm surprised it's not more common. There's such a huge variety of colorful and interesting snakes in the world, yet most artists just draw medusa's hair as... green.
This is Elacnida, designed by artist Geraud Soulie for a Pathfinder adventure path called Siege of Stone. Surprised we don't see capes more often.
Modern "Amateur" Art
This is a tricky category to define because the line between professional fine art, commercially published art, and just someone posting their art online is actually quite blurry these days. My intent is just to use this section to include art that doesn't appear in a published product or in a gallery (to my knowledge), not to trivialize the talent of the artist or anything.
First up, here's some pictures that are just real good.
Samantha Darcy, a freelance fantasy artist who I think has done some RPG stuff? This is the kind of coloration I've been waiting for. [EDIT: brought to my attention that this is the cover for a D&D 5E book on the DM's Guild!]
Drawn by artist Lily Grasso, who goes by Feyspeaker in most places. Intentionally going for the style of Hades, so obviously it's a great fit.
Drawn by Kirk Shannon, who has made a lot of great Medusa pictures. Everyone loves gold leaf, and the tiara + stars looks really cool.
Drawn by concept artist Bjorn Hurri. If you're going the "pure monster" route, this is about as good as it gets.
Next, I have a couple of Halloween costumes that I was really impressed by. It's a pretty hard costume to pull off but I thought these were clever.
This one is literally just from a Reddit post I saw. A lot of really cool makeup here, but I especially love the slit throat. I kind of love mythical characters still actively in play even after their alleged fate befell them, like Atlas getting involved while still holding the world or Prometheus doing stuff while still chained to his rock.
Same story here, and I'm sure you can appreciate just how innovate these "snakes" are as an effect. Also worth mentioning the really well-done color theme with the makeup matching the black foam.
The next batch of pics are all included because they did something really interesting with her hair that caught my attention.
This is a WizKids miniature made for the D&D 5E setting Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Like most of their stuff, the quality isn't very impressive. But look at those snakes. This is one of the scariest medusas in this post.
Sam Mameli (AKA Skullboy) is the only one among us smart enough to ask, "if Iron Cobra, why not Iron Medusa?"
Drawn by TommyJChen on DeviantArt. This is one of the more respectable efforts I've seen at simply trying to do "snake-like hair" believably (not unlike Medusa from the Marvel Comics universe). It also is a great way to cover up her eyes by default, and is a pretty spooky image.
Drawn by Bryan Wozniak, who says he wanted to make an Egyptian Medusa. Surprised I don't see more cobra hoods incorporated in the character. I also love the handful of massive snakes, although I'm not sure where they originate. I can almost picture a Doctor Octopus-like design. Bonus points for the claws making a return.
And aside from hair, there's plenty of neat accessories that you can dress the gorgon with. We've already seen veils, masks, and wings, but here's a few more good ideas.
Drawn by ZeD ("z--ed" on DeviantArt, "_Z eD_" on ArtStation). Face veil? Yes. Covering eyes? No. Strictly for style points. The pinned head veil is one of the most common forms of feminine headwear in all of human history and yet it doesn't show up much in historical and fantasy works made nowadays.
This is by Zara Alfonso, who does a lot of fantasy art including for Magic: the Gathering. Speaking of underutilized headwear in artwork, head scarves are pretty important, too. This is one of the few pictures in this post where I think a real effort was made to depict the snakes in a size and shape that could be mistaken for hair if you glance or squint.
Lastly, since it's my own damn post and I decide what goes in it, enjoy my own Medusa picture.
This isn't, uh, great really. I drew it for Inktober many years ago. You can tell I do a lot better with people than environments. But I like connecting gorgons with the theme of poison. This gorgon's lair is full of hemlocks, and her victims are petrified not by her gaze, but by drinking her wine. And since "non-Greek aesthetic" is always a fun twist, I sprinkled a dash of Slavic flavor in there.
And finally, as reward for getting through all that, enjoy the goofy medusa section
"Megoosa" by Teal Sather.
Retired and living her best life. I love the petrified invaders hidden among her garden. Credit: Lisa Combelles.
Drawn by Blanca Martinez de Rituerto for their "Dungeons and Drawings" blog/project, which you should all check out immediately. In the post, they talk about how much more interesting it is to imagine that the petrification has nothing to do with her eyes or gaze, but is instead caused by the ugliness itself. Thus, it is essential to the character that the gorgon remain un-sexy.
Gummy worm Medusa, by "juno" (@NymphaLuna on Twitter).
Well, I hope you've enjoyed this journey. There may be more art posts in the future. No doubt I could do something comparable with, I dunno, dragons or giants or something. But it felt to me possible and even likely that I might show you something you'd never seen before, since boring and shallow depictions of my favorite monster are so disappointingly common.