This fine oval pendant depicts the mythological Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon sister. Stheno and Euryale were her immortal siblings, mentioned by the Classical Greek playwright Aeschylus, ‘with snakes for hair, hatred of mortal men.’ According to tradition Medusa is the daughter of the sea god Phorcys and the sea goddess Cato, and notorious for her ability to turn onlookers into stone. Her dangerous nature resulted in her death: Polydectes, king of Seriphos, sent Perseus on a mission to kill Medusa, but he was able to avert her deadly gaze. He used her head as a weapon before giving it to the goddess Athena, who placed it on her aegis, a goatskin cape fringed with snakes; tradition also holds that it was placed on her shield. This tradition continued in the Graeco-Roman period, with the motif of the Medusa, known as the Gorgoneion, used on armour to avert evil and offer protection in battle. One of the most famous representations in this context appears on the breastplate of Alexander the Great in the celebrated mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii (displayed in Naples National Archaeological Museum). The Gorgoneion was also a popular choice on the cuirasses of imperial Roman sculptures, such as emperor Hadrian in Thasos Archaeological Museum. In this context our pendant was probably worn to afford protection to a female Roman aristocrat.
Her fearsome appearance was not universal. In Classical Greek pottery and architectural sculpture she was often painted and carved as a beautiful woman. In the early fifth century BC the great lyric poet Pindar described medusa as ‘the fair cheeked Medusa’ and this tradition continued in the Roman period with the Augustan poet Ovid citing her as ‘the jealous aspiration of many suitors’.
This beautiful pendant has an elegant mount incised with a periphery of triangular motifs each scored by a central line, intersecting with concave ‘open work’ segments, and a suspension loop. The bezel contains a cameo of Medusa carved in fine detail to create a pronounced relief. Its features express the mythological attributes that are associated with the creature: her wings are etched in a subtle crisscross pattern and lateral striations that combine to represent feathers and a series of snakes curl around the forehead, the side of the face, and neck. The face is smoothly rounded with full cheekbones and a softly rendered chin and a prominent nose with gently carved eyes. In its entirety the fine artistic execution of the white cameo contrasts with its gold mount to convey a beautiful aesthetic sensibility. This gem represents the change in Medusa’s appearance over time: prior to the Hellenistic period she was depicted as a grotesque creature, and the piece conforms to the so-called ‘beautiful Medusa’ type. A similar pendant, dating to the second or third century AD, is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (98.758).
Art Market, Belgium, 1985-1986.
Art Market, New York, 1998.
Private Collection, New York, 1995-2014.