A Hundred Snakes and One Salamander

Frans Snyders’ scene-stealing amphibian

Bronwen Scott

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Detail from Rubens’ (and Snyders’) Medusa. A yellow and white Fire Salamander ignores writhing snakes and two crawling spiders.
Salamander, spiders, scorpion, snakes and…something. Detail from Peter Paul Rubens’ ‘Medusa’. Public Domain.

Flemish artist Frans Snyders (1579–1657) specialised in painting wildlife. Best known for his elaborate works depicting hares, partridges and other game laid out on crowded tables and for his hunting scenes where dogs chase deer and wild boar, he also collaborated with other artists. Among them was Peter Paul Rubens.

When Rubens painted Prometheus Bound (c. 1612), he sought Snyders to portray the eagle tearing out Prometheus’ liver. When he painted Medusa (c. 1618), Snyders created the snakes.

Medusa. Made a monster by angry Athena. Murdered in her sleep by Perseus, with the help of gods. After death, her body mutilated and her severed head brandished to win squabbles. Then transformed into a talisman, Gorgoneion, worn on Athena’s shield.

The sculptures of Perseus are heroic. The paintings of Medusa are tragic.

Rubens’ Medusa has skin so pale it is almost luminous. In her moment of death, her serpents turn on one another, while new snakes are born from her pooling blood, watery like amniotic fluid.

Full image of Rubens’ painting Medusa depicting the severed head of Medusa with blood and marble white skin and a look of horror. Snakes are trying to escape, while others are being born in her blood.
‘Medusa’ by Peter Paul Rubens. Public Domain.

In myth, Medusa’s serpents are venomous, but the most frequent species depicted by Snyders is the non-venomous Grass Snake (Natrix natrix) with dark body and yellow collar. There is a second species of snake in the painting. This species is more slender than the Grass Snake and has a line below the eye. One of these snakes is biting Medusa’s temple. Another is consuming a Grass Snake. They have been interpreted as Common Adders or Vipers (Vipera berus) but I think they more closely resemble the Smooth Snake (Coronella austriaca). The Smooth Snake preys on other reptiles, holding its prey in its coils. It also retains its eggs inside its body until they hatch.

Close up on head of Grass Snake showing characteristic yellow collar. Snake has its tongue out.
Smooth Snake feeding on a Grass Snake. Smooth Snake is partly coiled around its victim and has started to swallow the Grass Snake.
Grass Snake (L) © Darius Bauzys, CC BY 3.0. Smooth Snake feeding on a Grass Snake (R) © Conrad Altmann, CC BY 4.0.

Other creatures are present: a European Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra), two orb-weavers (Araneus, probably A. diadematus), and a scorpion. There is also…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com