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As a Norfolk gal, albeit one in exile in Scotland,  the (relatively few) famous sons and daughters of my home county have always interested me. One such is the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) who unfortunately never made much of a living as an artist, despite exceptional talent. For a while Sandys shared Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s house until the latter fell out with him over what he felt was plagiarism of his own stunning portraits of the 1860s. Some of Sandy’s work certainly owes a debt to his mentor, but sometimes we see a glimmer of something quite different to Rossetti’s Paeans to unobtainable love, and one such painting is his glorious Medea.

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1866-68. Oil on board with gilded background, Birmingham Museums and Art gallery

Frederick Sandys, Medea, 1866-68. Oil on board with gilded background, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Here we see the Sorceress Medea, abandoned by her lover Jason after she has helped him capture the golden fleece in return for him promising to marry her. Medea used her herbal magic to drug the Dragon which guarded the fleece. Jason’s departing ship can be seen in the golden Japanese-influenced background- as can the golden fleece itself- and as her husband leaves her for Glauce the daughter of the King of Corinth, Medea begins to cast the spell which will destroy her rival and all of her rival’s loved ones, except Jason (she will ‘destroy’ him by murdering the two children she bore him). She has cast her magick circle with red thread which may symbolise the red thread of traditional Gaelic witchcraft practice, or possibly the red string of fate/ marriage which appears in both Japanese and Chinese legend (the late 1860s are the beginning of the period of the craze for all things Japanese and Chinese amongst Aesthetes and ‘Artistic’ types in Britain, hence the Japanese influence on he gold background). Medea is also wearing strands of coral around her neck which do act as protection and mirror the red circle, but were also a fashionable aesthetic device used by both Sandys and his mentor Rossetti.

medea-sandys detail

Within the magick circle we see two copulating toads representing the lust of Jason and his new lover. There are also the poisonous berries of the Belladonna/ Deadly Nightshade – a plant which bears the name of the Third Fate in Greek myth Atropos, who is the Fate who cuts the thread of life for each mortal with her shears. Next to the toads and berries is a ‘Jenny Hanniver’ which is a dried stingray fashioned into a monstrous folk art cryptozoological creature by sailors (a bit like a Feejee Mermaid) and which are believed to have magical powers and are used in magical rituals by the curanderos in Veracruz in Mexico.


A ‘Jenny Haniver’

There is also an iridescent Paua or Abalone shell, used as a ceremonial vessel in numerous coastal or island indigenous cultures; this one contains blood.The chafing dish (an item usually used in Solomonic Magick rituals) is decorated with a salamander, which can signify temptation and burning lust and which was believed to contain a deadly poison. Outside the circle standing protective guard over her magickal workings is a statuette of the Egyptian cat-god of protection Bastet, and the bottom of the gilded ‘Japanese screen’ decoration behind her is a row of hieroglyphs including owls and scarabs. The owl may be associated with death and the underworld and the scarab with funerary rites. Above them, cranes, usually associated in China and Japan with happiness, good fortune and longevity, are also departing as all hope for Medea is lost.