In the first of these two articles, I looked at paintings telling the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece up to the moment that the hero has taken possession of his prize, which he needed to win a throne. In accomplishing this, he had been totally reliant on the help provided by King Aeëtes’ daughter, the sorceress Medea. She had fallen in love with Jason, and in return for that assistance, he had promised to marry her.
This is the situation painted by Gustave Moreau in Jason (1865).
In spite of her odd omission from the title of the painting, the almost naked woman behind Jason is Medea. The ram’s head at the top of the pillar on the left signifies the Golden Fleece, and the dragon which guarded it is shown as the eagle on which Jason is standing, with the broken tip of his javelin embedded in it. This is the more confusing, as in the original story the dragon was put to sleep by one of Medea’s potions, rather than being killed with a javelin.
Yet Medea holds a vial in her right hand, and her body is swathed with the poisonous hellebore plant, one of the standard tools of witchcraft. These may allude to Jason’s future rejection of Medea and her poisoning of his replacement bride, but there is a lot of story between this moment and that later episode.
Moreau provided some clues to his intentions in this painting, in the almost illegible inscriptions on the two phylacteries wound around the column. These bear the Latin:
nempe tenens quod amo gremioque in Iasonis haerens
per freta longa ferar; nihil illum amplexa timebo
(Nay, holding that which I love, and resting in Jason’s arms, I shall travel over the long reaches of the sea; in his safe embrace I will fear nothing)
et auro heros Aesonius potitur spolioque superbus
muneris auctorem secum spolia altera portans
(And the heroic son of Aeson [i.e. Jason] gained the Golden Fleece. Proud of this spoil and bearing with him the giver of his prize, another spoil)
(Cooke, pp 55-56.)
These could be interpreted as suggesting that the painting should be read in terms of the conflict between Jason and Medea: Medea expresses her subjugate trust in him, while Jason considers her to be just another spoil won alongside the Golden Fleece.
Still more puzzling is the spattering of other details, of hummingbirds, the sphinx on top of the pillar, medals decorating the shaft of that pillar, and more. Some appear merely to be decorative, but drawing the line between the decorative and the symbolic is impossible.
King Aeëtes clearly hadn’t expected Jason’s success, and decided that he wanted to repossess the Golden Fleece and stop his daughter eloping. As the couple sailed away in the Argo, he gave pursuit.
Herbert James Draper shows one account of the tactics employed in The Golden Fleece (1904): Medea throws her brother into the sea, forcing her father to stop to recover him, and allow the Argo to escape.
The journey of the Argo back to Iolcus was also eventful, with a series of storms taking them to be purified with Circe, an encounter with sirens whose songs are drowned out by the music of Orpheus, one of the Argonauts, and an encounter with the bronze giant Talos on Crete.
Richard Dadd’s watercolour of Jason and Medea, or The Flight of Medea with Jason – Chief of the Argonauts, which he dated 16 October 1855, refers to a subsequent myth. When the couple returned to Iolcus, Pelias was still king, so Medea used her sorcery to persuade the king’s daughters to kill him, and boil his dismembered body with ‘magic’ herbs, in the hope that this would turn him into a young man again. Medea then fled with Jason, to live in Corinth.
Dadd’s painting shows Iolcus in the distance, and Medea’s maid watching to see if they are being pursued. Medea’s very masculine appearance results from the artist’s inability to obtain female models while he was in Bethlem.
According to Euripides’ play Medea, she had two children by Jason, Mermeros and Pheres. Later Creon, the King of Corinth, offered Jason his daughter Glauce in marriage. When Jason left Medea for Glauce, Medea avenged his betrayal by killing their two children.
Anselm Feuerbach shows Medea with their two young children, watching as Jason and his crew push their boat back into the surf to depart. Presumably the woman in black is mother or mother-in-law. Medea appears almost an archetypal mother, a Madonna and infant plus one, not even looking at the departing boat. She is no sorceress, and the merest suggestion that she could ever kill those children in vengeance seems absurd.
Paulus Bor’s The Disillusioned Medea (The Enchantress) (c 1640) appears unique among the images of the sorceress. She sits, her face flushed, resting her head on the heel of her right hand. In her left, she holds a wand made from bamboo or rattan. The wand appears poised, ready for use as soon as she has worked out what to do next. Behind her is a small altar, very similar to Diana’s in Bor’s painting of Cydippe, and Walter Liedtke has identified the statue at the left as Diana.
Medea sent Glauce a poisoned wedding dress which killed her and her father horribly. She then killed her two children, and fled to Athens, where she had a child by King Aegeus. Ovid includes an imaginary letter from her to Jason in his Heroides (letter 12).
Evelyn De Morgan’s Medea (1886) shows her abandoned, staring wistfully as she walks along the polished stone floor of her palace. She holds a vial of potion in her right hand: might this be the substance which she impregnated the wedding dress which she sent Glauce, perhaps?
JMW Turner’s Vision of Medea (1828) is the first in a series of more modern attempts to tell Medea’s story, and one of Turner’s few uses (perhaps his only use) of multiplex narrative.
In the middle of the canvas, Medea is stood in the midst of her incantation to force Jason’s return. In the foreground are the materials which she is using to cast her spell: flowers, snakes, and other supplies of a sorceress. Seated by her are the Fates. In the upper right, Medea is shown again in a flash-forward to her fleeing Corinth in a chariot drawn by dragons, the bodies of her children thrown down after their deaths.
Jason was killed when part of the rotting hulk of the Argo crushed him, but no one knows what became of the Golden Fleece.