Mere Image: Caravaggio, Virtuosity, and Medusa’s Averted Eyes

Hana Nikčević

Caravaggio’s Medusa has frequently been commented on with regard to its nature as an image that blurs the line between the real and its representation. I agree with this interpretation, but I would like to suggest that Caravaggio’s execution of that theme in this painting is rooted in one formal quality that has thus far gone unconsidered: the Medusa’s averted eyes. I propose that Caravaggio likely engaged with the concept of Medusa as a metaphor for virtuosic image-making as measured by lifelikeness, and that he was likely aware, too, of Groto’s poem (or simply its conceit, which may precede Groto; we cannot know). I base this suggestion on a number of elements: Caravaggio’s known association with Marino; Marino’s great interest in Medusa’s significance as an allegory of virtuosic image-making, his quotation of Groto’s “Scoltura di Medusa,” and his suggestion that Caravaggio’s Medusa turns its onlookers to “cold marble”; and both men’s thematization of their own virtuosity. I suggest, thus, that the Medusa thematizes Caravaggio’s virtuosity by depicting a Medusa that purports to be equivalent to the real Medusa’s reflection, which, in Groto’s conceit, is equivalent to the real Medusa herself; by averting his Medusa’s eyes, Caravaggio renders it impossible for a viewer to disprove his Gorgon’s—or, rather, his Gorgon-reflection’s—power to stun.

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Hana Nikčević is an art history MA student at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec). Her thesis research considers how contemporary artists address ecological loss, primarily focusing on artists’ disclosure of loss as beyond representation. She has a BA in art history from the University of Toronto and is the recipient of a SSHRC Joseph-Armand Bombardier CGS-M award.

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