Reading visual art: 17 Medea as sorceress

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Jason and Medea (1907), oil on canvas, 131.4 x 105.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The myth of Medea is long and complicated, and centres on her relationship with Jason, who with his Argonauts completed a quest to steal the Golden Fleece. Without Medea’s sorcery he couldn’t have succeeded: it was she who provided him with the intelligence he needed, and the magic potion required to put the guardian dragon to sleep, so he could steal the fleece. She did this on the promise of marriage to Jason.

During their voyage home, Medea and Jason married, and she then bore him two children. Ten years later, Jason divorced Medea in favour of the King of Corinth’s daughter Glauce. Divorce was too much for Medea, who sent Glauce a poisoned wedding dress which killed her and her father horribly. She then murdered her two children, fled to Athens, and had a child by King Aegeus.

Paulus Bor (c 1601–1669), The Disillusioned Medea (The Enchantress) (c 1640), oil on canvas, 155.6 x 112.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

From the Renaissance on, paintings of the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts have been frequent and popular. It fell to the obscure Dutch artist Paulus Bor to tackle The Disillusioned Medea (The Enchantress) in about 1640. Believed to have formed a pair with his painting of Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple, Bor comes closest to capturing Medea’s intriguing psychology.

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, a subtle reference to her sorcery. The wand appears poised, ready for use as soon as she has worked out what to do next. Behind her is a small altar to Diana, the goddess of contradiction (the hunt and nature, chastity and childbirth) and the irrational (the moon and nature).

Paired with the story of Acontius and Cydippe, Bor can only be referring to Ovid’s fictional letter from Medea to Jason, letter twelve in his Heroides. Jason has told Medea of their divorce, but she has not yet murdered their children. Medea gives a potted summary of their relationship, her crucial role in Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, and how she had turned her loyalties to him and betrayed her own family. Ovid ends it with portentous lines about Medea following her wrath, and of great forces acting on her soul.

After Bor’s painting, there is a gap of almost two centuries before the next significant attempt to depict Medea at this troubled time.

Vision of Medea 1828 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Vision of Medea (1828), oil on canvas, 173.7 x 248.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. Image © and courtesy of The Tate Gallery,

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 an incantation to force Jason’s return from Glauce. 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.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Jason (1865), oil on canvas, 204 × 115 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

In spite of her odd omission from the title of Gustave Moreau’s painting of Jason from 1865, the almost naked woman behind the hero 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 and sorcery. These may allude to Jason’s future rejection of Medea and her poisoning of his replacement bride.

Almost illegible inscriptions on the two phylacteries wound around the column 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.

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham England. Wikimedia Commons.

Frederick Sandys’ painting of Medea (1866-68) is possibly his best-known work today. Medea is seen at work, preparing a magic potion for one of Jason’s missions. In front of her is a copulating pair of toads, and other ingredients. Behind her, in a gilt frieze, is Jason’s ship the Argo. Despite the fine depiction and Medea’s intense stare, this painting was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1868, whose jury may have taken exception to the toads?

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Medea (1886), oil on canvas, 148 x 88 cm, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead, England. The Athenaeum.

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: could this be the substance with which she impregnated the wedding dress which she sent Glauce to kill her?

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Etruscan Sorceress (1886), oil on canvas, 34 x 17.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Although identified as being Etruscan, a civilisation which preceded Rome in central and northern Italy, Elihu Vedder’s sorceress has all the symbolic associations of Medea. She is holding a vial used by Jason to capture the fleece, and at her feet is an open fire associated with preparation of the potion in the vial.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Jason and Medea (1907), oil on canvas, 131.4 x 105.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse’s Jason and Medea from 1907 shows Medea preparing the potion for Jason to give to the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. She wears a dress suggesting by its bold icons her role as sorceress. In front of her, a flame within a tripod heats ingredients for the potion, which she is adding to a chalice, and there’s a toad on the stone floor. Jason appears anxious, and is dressed and armed ready to go and fight the dragon.

By any account, Medea was a femme very fatale indeed.