Relief with Jason and the Golden Fleece
Egypt, 1st half 5th century
Limestone, 106 x 87.3 cm
Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum in Kansas City
The relief is broken into two pieces, and in places the surface has been damaged. The cuttings on sides and top indicate that the piece was originally inserted into another surface, perhaps a wall; the empty areas in the composition, which correspond to the ground of a low relief, are cut through, giving the effect of a grill. The figurative scene is framed by a meander pattern with rosettes. At the center is an oak tree, with the Golden Fleece in the uppermost branches. Coiled around the tree is a large serpent. At the left is Medea, seated on a high throne; she holds a branch of juniper and a bowl from which the serpent is unwisely drinking. Jason stands at the right, reaching with both hands for the fleece. Below are two diminutive armed Colchians, wearing Phrygian caps and sleeping. To the right of Jason is a male figure, evidently holding a weapon; he is probably Apsyrtos, Medea's unfortunate brother. Above him in the right corner is the Argo; in the left is a veiled woman reading from a scroll.
Proportions are distorted; Jason's torso seems to be stretched by the intensity of his effort to grasp the prize. Size is determined by narrative importance; both the Colchians at the bottom and the Argo at the top are shown at a much smaller scale than the protagonists. The figures are spread evenly over the field, emphasizing its flatness. Despite the stylistic tendencies toward abstraction, the narrative is clear. Figure style, flatness, and pagan subject matter are all characteristic of relief sculpture in Coptic Egypt in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The best parallels come from the city of Ahnas (Herakleopolis Magna) where numerous reliefs with pagan subjects have been found. A similar grill relief was found at Bawit.
The theme of the winning of the Golden Fleece had appeared on Roman sarcophagi but is unusual in Late Antique art. Apsyrtos and the Colchians do not belong in this scene, according to the Argonautika of Apollonius of Rhodes; but other lost poems told that Apsyrtos helped in the capture. It is this tradition that the relief rep-resents. In this account there must also have been a detachment of armed Colchians guarding the fleece along with the serpent. Who the veiled woman is, however, we are unable to say (possibly a muse?). A Roman terracotta plaque of the first century AD evidently belongs to the same pictorial tradition; there Medea is also seated and the Colchians are present.