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Medea by Frederick Sandys

Medea by Frederick Sandys

Medea by Frederick Sandys

“Medea” by Frederick Sandys depicts a half-length seated figure with her head tilted slightly to her right. She claws at her necklace whilst pouring liquid from a beaker into a lit burner as she calls on her powers. 

Her long hair is loose. She wears a headband, long earrings, and white clothing. On the left in the foreground is a pair of copulating toads and a small Egyptian sculpture.

The two copulating toads in the front left of the picture symbolize her lover’s infidelity. The Egyptian cat god, abalone shell, and the dried sting ray signify her use of dark magic. 

She sits in front of a gold background decorated with a ship and the golden fleece hanging in a grove of trees, which echo her adventures with Jason and the Argonauts.

Her necklace is made of coral; the stone is thought to protect children from evil. Her clawing action of the necklace symbolizes her hatred of Jason, who has abounded her. 

“Stronger than a lover’s love is lover’s hate. Incurable, in each, the wounds they make.”
– Euripides, Medea

Medea’s hatred eventually overcomes her maternal instinct with tragic consequences for her children.

The flying cranes in the gilt decoration and the dragon below show the influence of Japanese screens. Frederick Sandy’s interest in Japanese art is evident in the gold background and numerous Oriental motifs, such as the cranes and the dragon. 

Medea was modeled on Keomi Gray, a Romani woman whom Sandys had met in Norwich, England, and taken back to London to sit for many of his paintings.

The picture caused much debate and was not shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1968, as it was considered an affront to public taste. However, it was hailed as a masterpiece by many critics.

After protests and arguments in the press, the picture was exhibited the following year, thanks to Frederick Leighton’s intervention with the committee.

In 1911 the picture was among paintings representative of the best British art sent to Italy for the international exhibition at Rome held in honor of the jubilee of the Kingdom of Italy.


In Greek mythology, Medea is the daughter of a King, a niece of Circe, and the sun god Helios’ granddaughter. Medea figures in Jason and the Argonauts myth and is known in most stories as a sorceress and depicted as a priestess.

She aids Jason in his search for the Golden Fleece out of love, assisting him with her magic and saving his life in several quests. She abandons her native homeland to marrying Jason and flees with him.

Euripides’ tragedy “Medea” depicts the ending of her union with Jason when he abandons her to wed another king’s daughter after ten years of marriage.

Medea and her sons by Jason are banished, and in revenge, she murders Jason’s new lover and the king with poisoned gifts. Later, in her growing hatred, she murders her own sons by Jason. 

Many scholars view Medea as a “helper maiden” to Jason’s quest. A helper maid is typically personified as a young woman who helps on a hero’s quest, usually out of love.

Her main purpose is to help the hero with his quest. Jason would never have been successful in his quest without Medea’s help.

In Euripides’ play Medea she is a woman scorned, rejected by her husband Jason, and seeking revenge. 

Frederick Sandys

Frederick Sandys (1829 – 1904) was an English painter and illustrator associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and Norwich School of painters.

Sandys specialized in half-length figures of beautiful but often destructive women. Sandys’s meticulous attention to detail is typical of the Pre-Raphaelite school.

Sandys’ images of female beauty are iconic renderings of alluring and mysterious women representing his unique style.


Frederick Sandys

Medea: The Powerful Sorceress of Greek Mythology

A Virtual Tour of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Medea by Euripides

A Virtual Tour of Pre-Raphaelite Artists

John Everett Millais

William Holman Hunt


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

John William Waterhouse

Marie Spartali Stillman

Ford Madox Brown

Henry Holiday

Edward Burne-Jones

Frederick Sandys

Frank Dicksee

John Collier

William Dyce

Pre-Raphaelite Art Objects

Medea Lecture


“Stronger than a lover’s love is lover’s hate. Incurable, in each, the wounds they make.”
– Euripides, Medea


Photo Credit: Frederick Sandys / Public domain

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