Sandys’ Medea: The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy

Medea, Frederick Sandys (1866-8), Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Frederick Sandys’ painting Medea (1866-8) is a divisive one: now as when it was first exhibited, opinions are very divided as to its beauty and power. Sandys was drawn to mythical, dangerous femme fatales (as were most of the Pre-Raphaelites), and Medea is certainly one of the most frightening. Her story – most famously delineated in Euripides’ play – is one of tragedy, and Euripides depicts her as a tragic victim who brings about more tragedy. A sorceress whose ancestry includes gods, she marries Jason (he of the golden fleece). In Euripides’ version, which begins after the couple marry, Jason has deserted Medea for another woman, and Medea, driven mad with jealousy and despair, murders the other woman, and her own two sons, to revenge herself upon Jason. Much is made of the tragedy and pathos of Medea’s love of her children and sorrow at their death in Euripides’ play, as the tragic mother says her last farewell to her sons:

I wish you happiness, but not here in this world.
What is here your father took. O how good to hold you!
How delicate the skin, how sweet the breath of children!
Go, go! I am no longer able, no longer
To look upon you. I am overcome by sorrow.
I know indeed what evil I intend to do,
But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury,
Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.

image1Medea is a strong woman, who addresses the women of Corinth on the wrongs men do to women, lamenting the restricted lives they must lead, and their fate when abandoned. In Sandys’ picture, she is enchanting a cloak which will destroy Jason’s new wife, Glauce, by bursting into flames. The expression on Medea’s face is what gives the picture its power: she looks not at what she is doing, but away out of the picture, as if frantically picturing the damage she can do. There is pathos and sadness as well as fury and even madness in her look, which may account for its rejection from the Royal Academy and the view of many that it verged on indecency.

It is a picture that engages with a very specific moment in the drama, then, image3depicting Medea as Sandys imagined her from his reading of the story. Yet his work also inspired: Alfred Bate Richards, after seeing the painting during its completion and afterwards, wrote Medea: A Poem (London: Chapman & Hall, 1869). Richards was a writer and journalist, previously a lawyer, who knew Thackeray and Dickens as well as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Richards says that ‘If enthusiasm could always command ability, my part would not be unworthily executed, for I certainly began to write con amore‘.His interest is in somehow describing and providing another dimension to Sandys’ work:

How far the story of Medea is a fable is immaterial to my treatment of Medea as a human being … I have dealt with a great artist’s conception of a flesh-and-blood Medea…

He admits that he can offer ‘but a suggestion of the beauties of the picture’ – but it is a image2very long suggestion (62 pages), and while it has some merit as poetry, and interest too, as ekphrasis, it is often rather old-fashioned even for its time, given to florid excesses of description, archaisms, cliches, and calling on various Muses. Yet the remarkably vivid descriptive passages do conjure shades of Medea, both woman and picture, particularly in describing the horror of her life and its tragic events.There is much digression considering the transience of life and love, treachery, fickleness and the evil hand of fate; these are often reminiscent of graveyard poetry, with lurid and bloody spectacles interspersed. (‘When o’er the treetops suddenly doth fall/Night’s mantle like black cyprus funeral pall’). The tale is not really outlined; it is a lyrical outpouring imagining the state of being Medea, whom he describes as ‘The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy’, and it is this ‘form’ and its soul with which he is concerned, alongside a contrasting of pagan and Christian, in terms of civilisation and morality.

Unsexed, unholy and abhorred
Men still shall shudder at thy name
Who blench not ‘neath the headsman’s sword
Mother of foul infanticide,
Curst parricidal daughter, bride
And toy of gilded shame.

Repeatedly Richards returns to the picture itself, sometimes addressing it and sometimes Medea, sometimes (possibly) a watching Chorus, in an ekphrastic performance of immediacy. There is a clear fascination with the horror of her act: he dwells on the fear of the children, the unnatural act of killing them, and implies he would never have Jason_and_Medea_-_John_William_Waterhouseconsidered writing such a ghastly tale if it weren’t for Sandys’ painting. He concludes with a moral, that God can still forgive and humanity should not condemn (which is rather hypocritical after what he has already said). The concluding couplet states: ‘It is our faithless frenzy to confess/Which Heaven might not forgive, if Heaven were less.’

Richards is interested in art and poetry, then, and this is exemplified in a footnote in which he explains that he has at certain points tried to conjure up the feeling of some of Turner’s paintings, in words: not any particular painting, just an impression of Turner. Here, however, he is much more specific, calling on aspects of Sandys’ picture in detail, ‘reading’ into the painting and putting it into words. Richards shows none of Sandys’ specificity; the particular moment Sandys chose is diffused in the poem, the clarity obscured, yet, somehow, the focus sharpened by the concentration on the woman herself. The art of Euripides, of Sandys and of Richards, though not all equal (in my view) illuminate each other and speak to each other.

Note: If you’re interested, I found Richards’ poem at The Hive in Worcester. There aren’t many copies around (one source I read said only 8 extant).


5 thoughts on “Sandys’ Medea: The stately form of Queenlike Tragedy”

  1. When we were going to see a production of “Medea” at the Almeida, we picked up a copy of the Standard. Among the news items, a report of a mother who had killed her two children. She’d put them in her car, in her garage, and connected a hose to the exhaust. Made the catharsis of Euripedes’s play not only extreme but oh so modern. These are not “classical” plays remote from our experience but very contemporary indeed.


    1. Absolutely; the power – and horror – of them is in their relevance, I suppose, as well as the writing. I’m very jealous you saw Medea at the Almeida! I saw a production with Diana Rigg when I was at school, I think.


      1. I trump your Diana Rigg with Fiona Shaw … no newspaper reports on the day we saw that production, though.

        And your Diana Rigg trumps a local production in Wellingborough played by … puppets!

        Liked by 1 person

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