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A Killer Look: Miniature Votive Shield with Head of Alexander the Great as Gorgoneion

by Rose Milnes, Curatorial Assistant for South Asian Art, Islamic Art, and Antiquities


Alexander the Great , gorgon , gorgoneion , Greek art , Ancient Mediterranean , Staff , CAM favorites , Curatorial Blog

As the new Curatorial Assistant for South Asian Art, Islamic Art, and Antiquities, finding my favorite piece here at the museum is a serious task! The possibilities for finding “the one” are endless.

The recently conserved Jain Shrine in the Anu and Shekhar Gallery (G146), for example, is a great option. Any object in the Ancient Middle East Gallery could work, too—stepping into the light-filled space took my breath away. I might have screamed—can’t remember. The Damascus Room is such an amazing part of the museum as well. Entering it for the first time reminded me of stepping into my aunt’s house in Casablanca, Morocco—right down to the gorgeous carved moldings, the detailed décor, and long, upholstered couches that line every wall. All I needed was some harira, and I could have stayed in that room forever.

After much deliberation, I decided to focus on a piece located in the Ancient Mediterranean World galleries (G101-102). In one case sits a small, unassuming object: the Miniature Votive Shield with Head of Alexander the Great as Gorgoneion.

Born in 356 BCE, Alexander the Great became King of Macedon at 18 years old following the assassination of his father, Phillip II. Taking up the mantle of ruler, Alexander expanded his father’s empire past the shores of Greece, into Egypt, Persia, and as far as India, until his untimely death in 323 BCE. Ever since, rulers of the ancient Mediterranean, including Julius Caesar, Cleopatra VII, and Pompey the Great emulated his expansion and rulership.

This votive shield, produced between 299–200 BCE in the century following Alexander’s death, displays many of the iconographic attributes associated with him: a faroff gaze, defined chin, and most recognizable, his wild, untamed hair framing his face. There is a small detail, however, that changes the meaning of this votive: the snakes encircling Alexander’s neck. With the addition of the entwined snakes, this disc becomes more than just a simple portrait of Alexander the Great.

Called a gorgoneion (after the mythological gorgons who had snakes for hair), this amulet bears a striking resemblance to a more famous shield, called the aegis. Worn by either Athena or Zeus, the aegis warded off the Greek gods’ enemies because the face affixed upon the shield, the face of a gorgon, was meant to terrify anyone who beheld it.

Alexander the Great’s portrait used as a gorgoneion makes this piece even more incredible and thought-provoking. As a votive shield, this small, snake-infested portrait of Alexander served much the same purpose as Athena’s own mythical shield—a means to ward off evil. Athena’s shield, however, bears the visage of the horrifying gorgon, while this votive depicts the youth who conquered much of the Mediterranean in the 4th century BCE. Understanding the similarities between Athena’s shield and CAM’s votive shield, then, begs a question: What it is about Alexander that makes him so terrifying?