52:11 Monster Slayer: Cellini’s Perseus
This week I’d like to look at Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus, a magnificent bronze statue in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. It depicts the classical Greek hero holding the severed head of the slain Gorgon Medusa.
In interpreting its mythological significance, I rely heavily on Erich Neumann’s History of the Origins of Consciousness, one of the key texts on the psychological interpretation of myth from the twentieth century.
Neumann distinguishes between heroes of the introverted and extroverted type, where the former transform consciousness through an inward journey, like the Buddha, and the latter are heroic with respect to action and the performance of deeds, such as the slaying of monsters.
The extroverted hero is typical in European culture, and here we have an image of the extroverted hero par excellence, rendered by one of the great Italian artists of the High Renaissance. To invoke only a little hyperbole, this is one of the most “western” things I’ve ever seen. It sounds all the notes of the western register, from the glorious to the problematic – the beauty and vitality of the physical form and the wonder of the achievement echo along with the unmistakable savagery of the act, and the disturbing image of the male hero standing over the decapitated body of a female monster.
In psychological terms, the masculine here represents the rational, individual ego, while the feminine represents the collective unconscious, undifferentiated and animated by powerful energies. The hero-quest in Neumann’s terms is primarily to do with the ego differentiating itself from the unconscious in a process called individuation, and the sign of this on the mythological plane is the male hero slaying the ravenous mother, and thereby emerging from the all-encompassing sphere of dark, unconscious life, often exemplified by the symbol of the ouroboros or serpent.
The original Greek myth of Perseus is well known to us from sources such as the Library of Greek Mythology of Apollodorus. The infant Perseus and his mother Danae were set adrift on the stormy seas, and found refuge in the land of King Dictys. When Perseus grew to manhood, Polydectes, brother of the king, secretly wished to marry Danae, and, anticipating resistance from her imposing son, conspired to obtain Perseus’ pledge to recover the head of Medusa, certain that the errand would be fatal.
Now, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters, deadly creatures with hands of brass and wreathed with serpents, whose gaze would turn any living being to stone. Of the three sisters, Medusa alone was mortal, and could be slain.
Perseus set off on his adventure and with the guidance and aid of Hermes and Athene he obtained the magical implements necessary for his mission: a pair of winged sandals, a helmet of invisibility, and a magical satchel that could hold her head. He journeyed to the home of the three sisters and came upon them sleeping. Using the reflection in his bronze shield to find his target, thus protecting his gaze from the Gorgons’ terrible magic, he beheaded Medusa, seized the head, and fled, with the two immortal sisters in hot pursuit.
It is interesting to note that in early Greek depictions of the myth, Perseus was not presented in Cellini’s heroic aspect of victory, but was always shown in terrified flight through the air from Medusa’s sisters.
This is a very rich set of images, which we could approach in a variety of ways. Jane Ellen Harrison tells us in her Prolegomena, for example, that the salient fact about the three Gorgon sisters is Medusa, and the salient thing about Medusa is the head, locus of mystical power and focal point of the myths that deal with her. She therefore speculates that the Medusa myths were explanatory of a ritual mask cult, and they served to elaborate the mask into a creature, the creature into a set of creatures, and the set of creatures into a story. And indeed many Gorgon masks remain to us from ancient times.
Neumann’s gloss focuses on the psychological and spiritual aspects of the story, noting that the magical implements and weapons that Perseus employs to slay Medusa, as well as the motif of indirection of sight, are all symbols of spiritualization or sublimation. The hero is transposed to the invisible realm of the air, the domain of the mind or spirit, and can only approach the Gorgons in that element. Cellini’s statue may preserve vestiges of this note in his hero’s closed eyes and rather inward tilt of the head.
Reading the slaying of Medusa in psychological terms, Neumann sees it as an expression of the far-flung Bronze Age myth of the masculine hero slaying the devouring mother. The Greek psyche was closely attuned to that aspect of the story, which is why they focused on the immediate upsurge of antagonistic compensatory energy from the unconscious, symbolized as the wrathful eruption of the immortal energies tied to Medusa. In the Greek motif of Perseus’ flight, the danger and difficulty of carving out a conscious zone of rational psychic life from the all-encompassing powers of the unconscious thus becomes the focus.
Clearly in Cellini’s Renaissance-era appropriation of the myth, this valence is completely gone, and what we have in its place is the confident expression of the superiority of the masculinized individual ego, depicted as a figure who confronts and defeats antagonistic forces. The all-encompassing energies of the unconscious are externalized and reduced to a mere monster, little more than a dangerous animal, and the scene is mostly stripped of its mythological register.
The development of this image over time gives us an excellent illustration of Neumann’s general thesis that the evolution of mythological forms corresponds to the gradual development of the conscious mind in relation to the unconscious.
If you’re interested in learning more about the circumstances of the statue’s creation, Cellini’s autobiography is a key text for our understanding of the Italian Renaissance.
Addendum: While scanning over this post after publishing it, I realized how forcefully it impressed me today as an image of the rational intellect slaying the powers of the earth, and thought it was worth articulating that as an additional dimension of my full response. Medusa is indeed thought to have begun her career as an earth-goddess.
In browsing Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment this morning, my eyes fell upon this apposite passage:
Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity.