Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was born in Naples and moved with his family to Rome when he was young. Bernini’s father introduced him to sculpture when he was very young. He eventually went on to study classical and Renaissance art at the Vatican.
Bernini worked during the Baroque period, which lasted from the end of the 16th century through the 17th century. Artists during this period produced emotional artworks with open compositions, strong diagonals, and theatrical pools of light and darkness.
Bernini’s sculptures appear to interact with the space surrounding them. This sculpture portrays Medusa, who was a maiden priestess of Athena. After Medusa violated her marriage vows to the god Poseidon, Athena punished her by turning her hair to snakes. Anyone who looked into Medusa’s eyes was instantly turned to stone.
Bernini’s portrait shows Medusa’s surprise, distress, and agony at her moment of transformation. Her suffering is recorded in her facial expression as her luxurious hair transforms, lock by lock, into writhing snakes.
The extremely complex shape of her hair, with its many overlapping layers, is a virtuosic display of craftsmanship. Bernini intended to render a lifelike creation out of marble in this sculpture. He cleverly turned the Medusa myth on its head; instead of Medusa turning flesh to stone, he turned her to stone.
The open composition utilizes negative space for a highly dramatic effect. The deep shadows in Medusa’s mouth and eyes emphasize her astonishment, as if she just formed the fleeting expression. The snakes twist in a depiction of chaotic movement, propelling the viewer’s eyes from snake to snake with tightly curving lines. The effect is dynamic, creating the impression of movement. The constantly shifting shadows obscure and reveal details as the viewer moves around this sculpture-in-the-round.
The only visual resting point is found in Medusa’s anguished expression, the emotional center of the piece. Bernini carves her face with a smooth texture to show her humanity, in contrast to the coarser snakes. The artist accentuates the cruelty of Medusa’s punishment by the menacing expression of each snake’s head.