Medea in Painting and Sculpture
For thousands of years, artists in a variety of media have depicted Medea, her skills in magic, and the murder with which her name is now synonymous. Below are three such works of art.
Medea Sarcophagus, Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany (140–150 CE, 25 x 89, marble)
This is a fragment from an early sarcophagus—a stone container that holds a coffin—carved at a time when the Roman society started to shift from cremation to burials. Glauce is wearing the garments gifted to her by Medea, which start to burn as soon as she puts them on. Her face looks desperate, and her hand is reaching up as if begging for help. The carving in the marble is so deep that her arm is completely detached from the background. Devastated by his daughter’s tragedy, King Creon is pulling his hair out—he, too, will burn. Wrenching her dagger (once held in her lost right hand) from its sheath, Medea looks down at the grisly scene—as her ill-fated children scamper around her feet.
Charles-André van Loo, “Miss Clairon in Medea,” New Palace in Potsdam, Germany
(1760, oil on canvas, 31 x 23)
La Clairon was a French actress. As the daughter of an army sergeant, she faced numerous obstacles on her way to the famous stage of the Comédie-Française, but her debut role at the theater—that of Medea—earned her instant and wide-reaching fame. Charles-André van Loo was a French painter of Dutch origin. After studying in Italy, he returned to Paris, where he joined the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and enjoyed the patronage of the French court.
Van Loo’s painting depicts the final scene of Euripides’s play (and Cherubini’s opera), in which Medea, having killed her children and set the temple ablaze, flies away—in this case, on a chariot drawn by dragons. Jason, depicted with a sword, is unable to help his children, who lie dead at his feet.
Anthony Frederick Sandys, “Medea,” Birmingham City Art Gallery, United Kingdom
(1868, oil on canvas, 24 x 18)
At first glance, it may seem that English painter Anthony Frederick Sandys has chosen to focus on Medea’s powers as a sorceress rather than the infanticide that made her famous. In his painting, Medea casts a spell and mixes a deadly potion. Yet the painting also contains a subtle reference to her children’s murder: With her right hand, she pulls off her necklace of coral beads—a gemstone that was believed to protect children from evil. The model for Medea was Keomi Gray, a Romani woman whom Sandys featured in many of his paintings.