Dante Gabriel Rossetti

British, 1828 - 1882

Aspecta Medusa

Date: 1867



In Greek mythology Medusa was the monstrous daughter of a sea god. Her appearance was horrific; her hair consisted of waving snakes and she was capable of reducing people to stone by looking at them. She was loved by Poseidon with whom she lived in the mythic west. However Perseus came in search of her and slew her. At the moment of her death she gave birth to Pegasus and Chrysaor. The blood from her body was taken by Asclepius; blood from one vein was capable of reviving the dead, whereas that from another served as a lethal dose.

In the history of art the subject of Perseus slaying Medusa is often taken, and the single head of Medusa is also portrayed. From an early time Medusa was represented as a beautiful girl, if with horrible attributes, in contradiction of the accounts of her exceeding ugliness in Greek Mythology.

Rossetti wrote poetry, which took as its theme Perseus’s treatment of the Medusa:

‘Andromeda, by Perseus saved and wed,
Hankered each day to see the Gorgon’s head:
Till o’er fount he held it, bade her lean,
And mirrored in the wave was safely seen
That death she lived by.

Let not thine eyes know
Any forbidden thing itself, although
It once should save as well as kill; but be
Its shadow upon life enough for thee.’

Virginia Surtees has given an account of the commissioning of this subject, as an oil painting, by C.P.Mathews, in 1867 . Mathews was to pay 1500 guineas for the work but in the event rejected the final design on the grounds that he disliked the severed head. The present drawing is a version of the drawing shown to C.P. Mathews, which is in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.

Image and painting notes provided courtesy of Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries, London. http://www.leicestergalleries.com

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