Poor Medusa…minding your own business when along comes Perseus and lops your head off.
Our Gorgonian friend might be consoled by the thought that this image has provided inspiration for artists across history, including Peter Paul Rubens. You can see the results of his efforts in a mini-exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM)…
- Exhibition of two versions of Rubens’ Head of Medusa painting
- Runs from November 30, 2018 to March 24, 2019
- Just a museum entrance ticket required. Purchase a skip-the-line ticket* online, or enter for free with a Vienna Pass sightseeing ticket
- See also: Events in Vienna | Kunsthistorisches Museum
Rubens and the Medusa
The Rubens display is number 23 in a series of mini-exhibitions titled Ansichtssache. The official translation is “Points of View” but I’d perhaps go with “A question of perspective”. The goal is to present a piece of art that visitors rarely get to see or where recent research has provided us with some new insights into the work.
#23 is a painting by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Actually, two paintings by this famous Flemish painter. Both are versions of the Head of Medusa, one from the KHM’s own collection, the other a temporary loan from the Moravian Gallery in Brno in the Czech Republic. The first Duke of Buckingham once owned the KHM’s Medusa and was himself painted by Rubens.
The Flemish master was not a proponent of “less is more”. Rubens produced hundreds of paintings, many of which feature the full-bodied women that have given us the adjective Rubenesque. The Head of Medusa is not one of them.
Instead, you have the pallid, startling gaze of the severed head and a swarm of snakes, with a scorpion, spiders and even a salamander thrown in for good measure. The paintings are due to undergo special examination as part of a research project financed by the Flemish government.
(Incidentally, Rubens was a master of delegation, too. Experts think it was his colleague, Frans Snyders, for example, who actually painted Medusa’s snakes.)
The side-by-side display is a rare opportunity to compare painting approaches between two near-identical works completed by the same artist but on two different backing materials: the KHM version is on canvas, the Brno version on oak.
I felt the Czech work had less detail but more depth. That probably makes no sense, but then I studied biology so what do I know?
The location of the two paintings within the picture gallery is also interesting. An adjoining wall features Frans Snyders 1621 “Fish market” painting , so you can compare his work with the reptiles in the Head of Medusa and draw your own conclusions on whether the experts are right about the identity of Rubens’ helping hand.
Dates and tickets
How to get to the exhibition
Find directions and public transport suggestions on the KHM museum page. The special mini-exhibition is in Hall 14 (Saal XIV) of the picture galleries.