In the quest for the Golden Fleece the mythological figures Jason and the Argonauts must travel to Colchis to attain the treasure. The fleece comes from a magical golden ram and is the most prized possession of Aetes, King of Colchis. Once in Colchis, Jason meets the King's daughter, Medea, upon whom Eros has cast a love spell. Medea falls in love with Jason, and as a result helps him to defeat the dragon that guards the Golden Fleece. Medea, a priestess of Hectae (a goddess associated with magic and witchcraft) uses her magic to put the dragon to sleep, allowing Jason to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the tree in which it hangs. Once Jason has obtained the fleece, he sails away with Medea and her younger brother, Apsyrtis, with King Aetes in close pursuit. To throw off the chase, Medea kills her brother by dismembering his body and tossing the pieces into the sea, knowing her father will have to stop to retrieve them for proper burial.
The Golden Fleece, which Herbert James Draper painted in 1904, illustrates the scene of Medea discarding her younger brother into the sea to save the Argonauts. To depict this highly emotional scene, Draper employs dramatic shadowing and highlights to create a main stage for the climactic action. With the glowing Golden Fleece in the background, and shadowy figures in the foreground, the powerful figure of Medea, dressed in a billowing white robe and eye-catching red dress, immediately captures the viewer's attention as the central figure. Seemingly stable, despite the rough sea and the struggles of her brother, Medea stands as an image of determination. She stares back, at the impeding sails of her Father's ship, giving little notice to Apsyrtis' pleas as he is sacrificed to the sea.
Like Draper's other works, The Golden Fleece focuses upon the dangerous femme fatale. His later work, Ulysses and the Sirens, painted in 1910, is another dramatic composition in which Ulysses struggles against the alluring song of the sirens. Unlike Apsyrtis, though, Ulysses prevails over these dangerous women and guides his ship to safety.
Draper's depiction of a crazed Medea negates her earlier deeds in the quest for the Golden Fleece and literally highlights her fatalness. As seen in the painting, Medea stands up against the men and takes control of the situation. It is Medea's intelligence and knowledge of witchcraft that enables Jason to capture the Golden Fleece and her familial sacrifice that allows them to escape to safety. Medea represents the power and destruction of the story, which characterize the femme fatale, yet she acts not for herself but for her love for Jason. She does not use seduction, like the sirens, to destroy men, but rather uses her intellect to help the man she loves.
1. What are the possible reasons Draper has chosen to depict Medea in this scene, rather than one of the earlier ones, i.e. the defeat of the dragon?
2. Has Medea encountered a dreaded wardrobe malfunction, or has Draper exposed her for other reasons?
3. Is Jason present in the painting? If not, why would Draper have left him out?
Last modified 19 March 2002