Week 3: Ancient Art & The Met’s Medea
Hey everyone! Since last week’s blog was very text-heavy, I’m hoping this week’s will be a bit more visual. I’ll show some cool vase art depictions of Medea, briefly cover the role of women in antiquity, and end with some of my notes from a Met Opera performance I watched on Medea.
Red-Figure Calyx-Krater (Mixing Vessel): Medea in Chariot (A); Telephos with Baby Orestes (B)|url=https://clevelandart.org/art/1991.1|author=Policoro Painter|year=c. 400 BC|access-date=22 March 2023|publisher=Cleveland Museum of Art
This wine mixing bowl, believed to be painted around 400 BC, shows how the artist was influenced by Euripides’ tragedy, which was first produced around 431 BC. The scene includes the following elements: Medea in her chariot (center), the death of her two sons (bottom right), Nurse crying over their bodies (right), Jason watching her leave (left), and two Furies witnessing the scene (top left and right).
Medea is pictured in the upper center, demonstrating her divine power and influence over the events in the play. The sun in the background references her direct lineage to Helios, while the dragon-drawn chariot implies support from the gods. The winged figures to her left and right are the Furies, or the Erinyes, the goddesses of vengeance and retribution. This may be a reference to the Furies following Medea after she had killed her brother, however, Circe had purified this crime in the original myth. Another interpretation is that the Furies are gaining their vengeance through the events that followed, where Jason betrayed their marriage and Medea was led to kill her own children; her children’s death may have compensated for her brother’s. The depiction of Medea’s sons on an altar may symbolize their death as a sacrifice to the gods, rather than a cold-blooded murder.
The gods play an odd role in Euripides’ play since many characters (mostly Corinthians and Jason) call out to them, yet the only divine intervention seen is the arrival of Medea’s sun chariot, indicating that the gods are on her side. In the pursuit for the Golden Fleece, Hera was Jason’s patron as she wanted vengeance against his uncle, Pelias. Though in Euripides’ play, she may no longer support him since he betrayed his marriage to Medea, a sacred event that the gods watched over. One of the last lines in the play is the Chorus (representing Corinthian society) saying, “In all that Olympian Zeus watches over, much is accomplished that we don’t foresee. What we expect does not come about; the gods clear a path for the unexpected,” (Euripides, 37). While the characters and audience expect Medea to receive punishment for her crimes, no such justice is delivered, implying that her revenge was deserved.
Red-Figure Greek Vase Painting: Dragon-Chariot of Medea. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/M26.2.html. Late Classical Period. Accessed March 2023. Heraclea Museum. Theoi.
Here’s another vase painting of Medea and her chariot from the late Classical period. Though this image isn’t as clear as the previous one, some common elements include Medea’s ornate headdress, the rod she holds, and similar serpent-like depictions of the dragons. A cropped-out element of the above image includes Jason weeping over his children while Medea’s chariot flies above them. This reveals both the physical and metaphorical position Medea holds as an independent enchantress who is “above” Jason’s infidelity and their past life together.
Apulian Red Figure: Medea and Triptolemus. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/O28.7.html. Attributed to the Underworld Painter. Ca 330 – 310 BC. Accessed March 2023. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich Catalogue No. 3296.
In this image, Medea is preparing to kill one of her sons and plans to leave with the Eleusinian demigod Triptolemus. The altar is a common element in these vase artworks, again portraying the children’s murder as a sacrifice for an intended purpose rather than death purely due to grief or anger. The above representation of Medea is similar to that seen in the first image, her headdress and flowing robe representing her culture from Colchis and contrasting the wardrobe seen in the rest of Greek society. Instead of her driving her own chariot, however, this image displays Triptolemus on the serpent-drawn chariot he uses to aid agriculture and sow the harvest. His presence still demonstrates divine intervention to aid Medea, establishing a meaning similar to the previous paintings that hinted towards Medea’s divine lineage to Helios. Here, her supernatural abilities are represented through her larger size, comparable to that of the demigod, whereas her son is painted smaller and represents an ordinary citizen.
Apulian Red Figure: Jason and the Dragon. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/M20.3.html. C4th BC. Accessed March 2023. National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
This image shows Jason obtaining the Golden Fleece (events occurring before Euripides’ play) while Medea (partially pictured at left) puts the Dragon of Colchis to sleep. It depicts one of Medea’s pivotal roles in aiding Jason, bringing attention to how her efforts are later ignored by Jason as he remarries.
Role of Greek Women:
I’ll briefly cover the current reading I’ve done on the role of Greek women in antiquity, mostly focusing on the Classical Age of Greece (around 500 – 336 BC) since Euripides’ play was first produced in 431 BC. The following details describe the expected role of Greek women, however, they may have acted beyond these restrictive roles depending on economic and family circumstances. As described by Colette Hemingway in her Met article, women’s expected roles in antiquity were mostly limited to childbearing and taking care of the house. Some of the few roles outside of the house included tending to the tombs of family members and briefly socializing with other women while completing chores like collecting water. They rarely had a choice in regards to marriage since they were merely passed from father to husband. This highlights the unique nature of Medea’s marriage to Jason as she, herself, chose to leave with Jason while her father forbade the union. This betrayal of the social norm would have further antagonized her character during Euripides’ time. While women were seen in lesser respect than men, female goddesses were respected by all. Some notable unmarried deities include Artemis, Athena, and Hestia, while goddesses like Hera, Aphrodite, and Hecate were still well-regarded independently from male figures. The goddesses instilled religious respect among all citizens, though were also valued for their unique powers. Although Medea also possessed certain magical abilities, she walked among mortals (specifically Corinthians) and was more feared than revered.
Met Opera Medea:
Now, to describe my first (and probably last) opera experience! At the beginning of the year, when my project involved multiple media sources like movies and live performances, I watched a theater screening of the Met Opera’s version of Luigi Cherubini’s Medea, starring Sondra Radvanovsky. While I won’t be analyzing it as closely as I originally planned, I thought I would share some of the notes I took while watching the performance and may include some comparisons across literary and visual depictions of the play in my future paper. While I had no prior experience with opera, I knew enough about Euripides’ play to see that the performance closely followed the original story (just add in cool scene design and Italian singing). A benefit of watching a screening rather than a live performance is the addition of subtitles, so I could actually comprehend the story and take note of significant quotes.
The performance opened with Glauce, Jason’s new bride, preparing for her wedding. She states that she doesn’t feel guilty for breaking up the marriage since Medea uses “evil arts,” sharing the sentiments of many Corinthians as they want her exiled (or dead). When Jason walks in, he tries to calm Glauce’s nerves concerning Medea and declares that, “no human power will tear [him] from Glauce.” I found this line interesting in that it specifies “human” power, drawing attention to the fact that Medea has a divine lineage and has supernatural powers of sorcery, thereby foreshadowing her future acts of revenge.
When Medea first enters, she’s shrouded in a black veil that matches her floor-length black gown, while her dark eye makeup is smudged and she holds a haunted expression. She pleads with Jason, reminding him of all the ways in which she has remained loyal to him and betrayed her family and kingdom for his affection. He physically pushes her aside and avoids eye contact. Medea states that she doesn’t fear the Corinthian’s wrath, rather she is concerned for her sons and only fears that the Greeks will teach her children to hate her. Dramatizing her emotions, she expresses profound grief and pleads with Creon (the king of Corinth) to allow her to stay one more day and to see her children once more. In this scene, she may be playing on the female stereotype of being overly emotional, yet it places her at an advantage as Creon agrees, thinking she can do little harm in one day (big mistake).
Towards the end of the play, Medea has the crucial inner struggle scene where she feels conflicted between her maternal love and her hate for Jason. She argues back and forth with herself, angered that her sons resemble Jason though acknowledging their innocence. Her actions scare the children as she hugs them one minute and searches for her dagger the next. Although she is able to restrain herself, telling the nurse to protect the children from her, she is finally consumed by her resentment towards Jason and kills her sons to wound their father.
Here are two images I took while watching the performance (sorry if they’re a bit hazy). The first shows a grieving Jason kneeling before an angered Medea, their dead children pictured behind them. The second shows her embracing her son’s bodies and weeping over the act she has just committed while flames encircle them. These flames (projected on the stage floor and reflected in a wall of mirrors) are the Met’s representation of her sun chariot as they physically separate her from Jason and the mob of Corinthians.
An interesting detail I noticed is that Medea’s performance involved a lot of floor-work, the actress Sondra Radvanovsky describing it as “snake-like.” As Ms. Banga informed me, snakes were a symbol of fertility in ancient Greece as they were considered chthonic, or connected to the ground. This representation, also seen in the images of Medea’s dragon-pulled chariot, is ironic in that Medea kills the result of her fertility. A few other details that the production incorporated in order to separate Medea from the Corinthians, and further establish her as an foreigner, include her deep red hair (as opposed to brunette, blonde, etc.), her all-black wardrobe (versus Glauce’s rose ballgown), her gaunt appearance and dark makeup, and her exclusion from the wedding ceremony as she stood outside the grand doors while the festivities finished within (don’t know why, but it reminded me of Maleficent).
I had a great time examining different visual representations of Medea, from ancient vase paintings to modern operas. While I don’t plan on attending another opera anytime soon, it was a great first experience involving expressive actors, creative set design, and an enthralling plot. For the days ahead, I plan on reading more about feminist theory as it can be applied to my contemporary texts, as well as scholarly articles further describing women’s role during the Classical Age of Greece.
Thanks for reading!
- cite Web|Title=Red-Figure Calyx-Krater (Mixing Vessel): Medea In Chariot (A); Telephos With Baby Orestes (B)|Url=Https://Clevelandart.Org/Art/1991.1|Author=Policoro Painter|Year=C. 400 BC|Access-Date=22 March 2023|Publisher=Cleveland Museum Of Art
- “Erinyes.” ERINYES – The Furies, Greek Goddesses Of Vengeance & Retribution, Https://Www.Theoi.Com/Khthonios/Erinyes.Html.
- Euripides. Medea. Norton Critical Editions, 2018
- Red-Figure Greek Vase Painting: Dragon-Chariot Of Medea. Https://Www.Theoi.Com/Gallery/M26.2.Html. Late Classical Period. Accessed March 2023. Heraclea Museum. Theoi.
- Apulian Red Figure: Medea And Triptolemus. Https://Www.Theoi.Com/Gallery/O28.7.Html. Attributed To The Underworld Painter. Ca 330 – 310 BC. Accessed March 2023. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich Catalogue No. 3296.
- Apulian Red Figure: Jason And The Dragon. Https://Www.Theoi.Com/Gallery/M20.3.Html. C4th BC. Accessed March 2023. National Archaeological Museum Of Naples.
- Hemingway, Colette. “Women In Classical Greece: Essay: The Metropolitan Museum Of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline Of Art History, 1 Jan. 1AD, Https://Www.Metmuseum.Org/Toah/Hd/Wmna/Hd_wmna.Htm#:~:Text=In%20addition%20to%20childbearing%2C%20the,Responsibilities%20of%20a%20Greek%20woman.
- Cherubini, Luigi. Medea, Conducted By Carlo Rizzi, Produced By David McVicar, Performed By Sondra Radvanovsky, Janai Brugger, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani, And Michele Pertusi. 28 Oct. 2022. The Metropolitan Opera.