Four Paintings of Perseus turning Phineus and his Followers into Stone

On the way back from his quest for Medusa’s head, Perseus passed from an Ethiopian Kingdom where he saved princess Andromeda from the terrible sea-monster called Keto.

The monster was divine punishment for Queen Cassiopeia’s claim that her daughter, Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids. According to a prophecy, the monster would destroy the whole kingdom unless Andromeda was sacrificed.

Perseus decided to help. Before saving Andromeda, however, the hero asked her hand from her parents, Cassiopeia and Cepheus. The love of the girl in exchange for her life.

Once Perseus killed the monster, he expected Andromeda to become his wife. However there was a problem. Phineus, the brother of the king was already betrothed to Andromeda. This led to a confrontation between the two men. Phineus and his followers encircled Perseus and attacked him. Perseus took Medusa’s head out of his bag and turned Phineus and his followers into stone. The hero triumphed over his enemies and won the girl.

This was the first time Perseus used the head of the Medusa against his enemies (or second according to the version of the story where Perseus turns Atlas into stone). The weird part of the story though, is that – in most versions of the myth – he did not use the head against the sea-monster.

Various themes from Perseus’s myth have been very popular with artists especially from the second half of the 18th century and thereafter. Perseus turning Phineus and his followers into stone though, has to be one of my favourites.

Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, Sebastiano Ricci,
c. 1705–1710, J. Paul Getty Museum.

The most interesting part with Ricci’s painting is the playful contrast between colourful man and white stone. Phineus and his allies attack Perseus who shows them Medusa’s head. Some lie dead, some, including Phineus, are still fighting, and some others on the far-right have turned into statues. The scene takes place in a grand building with sculptures overseeing the action and indicating the fate that awaits the rest of Perseus’s enemies.

Perseus turning the Followers of Phineus into Stone, unknown French or Flemish artist, 1650s, National Gallery, London.

This is my favourite of the three paintings because of its depiction of the unrest and disorder of the fight as well as the vivid colours that were used for Perseus’s helmet and clothes. Worth noting here is that Athena is also flying above Perseus helping him in his battle by holding another version of Medusa’s head.

Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone, Luca Giordano, early 1680s, National Gallery, London.

Giordano’s version of the story has a unique detail; it depicts Phineus and his followers in the process of turning into stone. If we look closely we will notice that their legs are still in the colour of the human body while their heads are already petrified.

Phineus interrupting the wedding banquet of Perseus and Andromeda, Hugues Taraval, 1767, Private Collection 

I stumbled upon this while looking for the other paintings but I could not find a lot of information about it other than that provided by Christie’s. Just like Giordano’s painting, Phineus here has almost turned to stone but his feet and hands are still not completely petrified.

5 thoughts on “Four Paintings of Perseus turning Phineus and his Followers into Stone

  1. Fun write up. I wondered if Medusa’s would not work on the sea monster as art does not work on animals? Your post also had me reflect: I respond deeply to Ancient Greek myths, yet religious texts don’t resonate for me. That is an interesting puzzle. Why do some groups respond so intensely to one or the other? I wonder if humanity’s nature is split? Perhaps early key choices as children? I really don’t know, but this line of thinking was in response to your post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Michael. I think your interpretation on Keto and Medusa is very interesting! Medusa was something like the primitive Other or a representation of the raw, illogical force of nature. Keto must be similar, though I have not really read a lot on this specific being.

      Regarding your puzzle, maybe it has to do with the fact that we grow up in a christian society, at least in the west. We are more familiar with the ethics of Christianity and that may demystifies its religious texts. Greek mythology on the other hand is something of the distant (and exotic) past. Though we might think of it us a set of interesting stories, people in antiquity actually thought they were true. Mythology was the ancient religion. I really don’t have an answer but it is interesting to think about it…

      Liked by 2 people

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