Idon’t have any tattoos. But if I ever got one, it would be of Medusa, the notorious Gorgon demon of Greek mythology. I picture an elaborate rendering of her terrifying face covering the back of my neck, her eyes vacant and her eyebrows in a deep furrow. Her hair—made of hundreds of snakes—spreads across my upper back and shoulders. In this fantasy, I will just fold down my collar if anyone messes with me: Medusa’s countenance will immediately turn the perpetrator into stone. Like her name, which comes from the ancient Greek verb μέδω, meaning “to guard or protect,” Medusa is my armor.
As I write this column, it’s midsummer, and I’m feeling a relentless need for protection. It’s a vulnerable period: In my life, I’m witnessing loved ones facing unruly illness and the difficulties of old age. Online and on television, I’m watching shocking videos of people dying across the country and the world. I’m afraid of the additional loss and carnage that will transpire between now and the time you read these words.
My obsessiveness fuels my anxiety. I check my phone too often, for both personal messages and world news. If there is nothing, I’m relieved, but the calmness is brief. Perhaps the bad news will come now... Or now... I’d better check again.
Most of all, I’m aware of the absence of protection—the sense of security that I cannot guarantee to others, that I don’t expect for myself. I’m saddened by the futility. I feel powerless.
I tried addressing the realities of tragedy and illness head-on with literature. I bought two books: physician Paul Kalanithi’s memoir When Breath Becomes Air, in which he deals bravely with his diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, a surgeon who discusses how to improve life as well as its ending. I read Kalanithi’s book first. It was beautifully written, but only intensified my anxiety.
I chose not to read the second.
I am weary of this fear. I decided to try thinking about protection in a way that is not literal—not about protecting our vulnerable organs and bones, our fragile skin. So I imposed a moratorium on the news: Instead of perusing images of protests, sniper attacks and military coups, or Googling compression stockings for venous insufficiency in the elderly, I began looking at protection in the fantastical world of armor.
I frequently visit the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The vast collection is supported by extensive online resources, a seemingly endless treasure trove of writings and photographs from the Met and around the globe.
I downloaded a catalog titled “Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and His Contemporaries,” published in conjunction with a 1999 exhibition at the Met. In it, I found relevant references to Medusa. I read, “No monster was more terrifying and none more appropriate to armor, her visage acting as a psychological, if not a magical defense against the enemy.”
I read about the Greek hero Perseus, who hid his eyes behind his mirrored shield, “directing Medusa’s petrifying glance back at her, with fatal results. After severing her head, Perseus adopted it as a trophy and wore it on his shield.”
In a section describing the Medusa shield of Charles V, I found the inspiration for my tattoo. The intricately ornamented steel, gold and silver shield was designed and produced by the armorers Filippo and Francesco Negroli in Milan in 1541. I printed out high-resolution images of the shield. Now when I’m anxious or have the urge to check my e-mail for the umpteenth time, I tell myself to draw Medusa in my sketchbook. Sometimes I concentrate on the eyes, other times on her open-mouthed grimace or the snakes that tie in a bow under her chin. A good drawing makes me feel stronger— I’m either growing a thicker skin or I’m turning to stone.
Perhaps the most famous object signed exclusively by Filippo Negroli—referred to as his masterpiece—is a burgonet: a helmet of steel, gold and textile dated 1543. It features a mermaid-like siren that, forming the helmet’s comb, reaches her arms backward and grasps Medusa’s hair. Unlike the angry face on the shield of Charles V, this Medusa looks calm and cool. To me, her power seems transformed, and I wonder whether it is heightened or diminished by this representation. She is on display at the Met, and whenever I visit her, I imagine what it would be like to wear Medusa’s heavy weight—both literal and metaphorical—on my head. Would it feel like protection? ca
©2016 W. Richmond