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Art and Images in Psychiatry |

The Head of Medusa Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Snyders

James C. Harris, MD1
[+] Author Affiliations
1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland
JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(6):614-615. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.2735.
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Medusa, a proud vestal virgin with long beautiful hair, was raped by Neptune in the Parthenon sanctuary of the Temple of Minerva (Athena), the virgin goddess of wisdom (epigraph). Because the rape defiled a holy site (and possibly, too, because of Medusa’s irritating claim that her beauty exceeded that of Minerva), the virgin goddess turned Medusa’s hair into foul snakes. Any man who looked upon Medusa would be turned to stone. Medusa’s assailant, Neptune, who was Minerva’s uncle and the god of the sea, escaped unharmed but saw how Medusa was further brutalized following his lustful attack. We do not know if he suffered remorse or ever dared to look toward her face again. Nor do we know what role Medusa’s pride in her beauty played in Minerva’s lesson that mortal beauty decays with time. However, in the patriarchy of those times, women were blamed when they were raped, and, unfortunately, they sometimes still are today.

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Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Flemish. The Head of Medusa, circa 1618. Oil on canvas, 68.5 × 118 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.




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