What’s Behind this Woman’s Enigmatic Expression?

Uncovering the story captured in this notorious painting

Christopher P Jones
6 min readApr 21, 2023

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Medea (1868) by Frederick Sandys. Oil on wood panel with gilded background. 61.2 x 45.6 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK. Image source Birmingham Museums Trust (open access)

Love stories in Greek mythology are often marked by doomed or tragic outcomes. The story of Medea and Jason is no exception, and is among the most emotive of them all.

This outstanding painting made by Frederick Sandys, shows a tormented Medea as she prepares a poison for her rival, Glauce, whom Jason has deserted her for.

Clawing at the beads around her neck, her eyes gaze out in mesmerised horror. Behind her, scenes from her ill-fated love affair play out like gilded memories that time won’t dislodge.

This highly-charged portrait of Medea was one of the greatest paintings Sandys ever made. It also achieved notoriety. But why?

Medea and Her Doomed Love

Detail of ‘Medea’ (1868) by Frederick Sandys. Oil on wood panel with gilded background. 61.2 x 45.6 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK. Image source Birmingham Museums Trust (open access)

Medea was known in Greek myth as an intelligent and passionate woman who had the power of sorcery.

Her story is recounted in several ancient texts, but it is most notably featured in the epic poem Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes, detailing Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece and offering the most comprehensive version of Jason and Medea’s tale.

The Greek author memorably described Medea’s dominion over the magical arts:

“The goddess Hecate taught [Medea] to handle magic herbs with exceeding skill all that the land and flowing waters produce. With them is quenched the blast of unwearied flame, and at once she stays the course of rivers as they rush roaring on, and checks the stars and the paths of the sacred moon.”

When Medea fell in love with Jason, she employed her magic to help him overcome various obstacles in his attempts to retrieve the fleece — a symbol of kingship and possessor of magical properties.

The background tableau in the painting gives us the seed of their love affair: in blazing gold, Jason and his crew of Argonauts sail on the Argo to complete their quest to retrieve the fabled fleece with its ram’s head, shown hanging among a grove of oak…

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