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Featured art object

Learn about the Medusa Mirror.

Hand Mirror Decorated with the Head of Medusa

Date Created: about 500-480 BCE
Place Created: South Italy
Culture: Greek (South Italian)
Material: Bronze
Maker: Unknown
Dimensions: 20.2 x 15 x 2 cm (7 15/16 x 5 7/8 x 13/16 in.)
Getty Museum
Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman
Stories of the fearsome Gorgons are some of the earliest Greek myths. The back of this bronze mirror is decorated with the face of the most famous Gorgon, Medusa. Based on archaeological finds and art, we think the owner of this mirror was a woman. Medusa would have guarded her as the owner was looking at her reflection.
The mirror was made around 500 BCE in southern Italy, where Greeks founded colonies. There are many tales of the Gorgons. Some stories, including in Homer’s
, say there was only one Gorgon. Others tell of three Gorgon sisters born with wings, snakes for hair, and terrifying teeth. Later versions say Medusa was beautiful but given snaky hair as a punishment. In most stories, Gorgon heads were so awful that the sight of them could kill. In the most familiar story today, looking into Medusa’s eyes turned people to stone. But in fact, just seeing her face was enough!
Medusa was the only human Gorgon, so she could be killed. The hero Perseus cut off her head with a
, a curved blade, while she was sleeping. He avoided looking at her directly by watching her reflection in his metal shield. Her severed head, called a
, could block evil spirits, curses, and ill wishes. Zeus attached the gorgoneion to his
, or shield. He used it for protection while fighting to become the chief god on Mount Olympus. His daughter Athena borrowed the aegis, and it became one of her most famous
(symbols) in ancient art.
The Gorgon on the mirror is the earlier of two main types of Gorgons seen in art: a snaky-haired monster. She has glaring eyes, a ferocious grin, and a big tongue hanging out over a short beard. Some other early Gorgons are shown with big tusks and wings. In the second type, seen in art from the 400s BCE on, Medusa most often had a human face. Because she offended Athena, the goddess had transformed her hair into frightful snakes. (In one explanation of the offense, Medusa dared to meet Poseidon in Athena’s sacred temple. In another, she compared her own beauty to Athena’s.) Like the earlier monstrous type of Gorgon, the later version of Medusa is depicted as a gorgoneion with snaky hair. Often, tiny wings grow from her forehead, and snakes are knotted around her neck.

Making the Medusa Mirror

The mirror was made in two pieces. The short handle was once inserted into another material. The
bronze disk (the mirror) reflected the viewer from its polished surface. The image of Medusa was attached separately on the back. An artisan cut a circle of sheet bronze and sketched the outline and inner details of Medusa’s face onto it. Then he (usually he)
(heated) the bronze in sections until it softened. The Gorgon’s face was formed by slowly pushing up the soft bronze sheet from the back with a small blunt tool (this is called
). Then, using fine tools, blunt and sharp, the artisan added details to the front (this is
). Medusa’s eyes would have been added in another material, making them more dramatic. Areas of the Gorgon’s face are shiny, but most of the bronze has become a greenish color over time because of the reaction of the metal with oxygen.


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