This relief, known since the Renaissance and considerably reworked, depicts the myth of Medea and the daughters of Pelias. Medea, of divine descent and the daughter of the king of distant Colchis, beyond the Black Sea, helped the Argonauts to win the Golden Fleece with her magical powers and fell in love with their leader, Jason. Returning to Iolcos, the hero delivered the Golden Fleece to his uncle, Pelias, but the latter refused to give him his royal inheritance. Medea undertook his revenge: in the presence of Pelias’ daughters, she cut up an old ram, cooked it in magic herbs and turned it into a young lamb. She convinced the young girls to do the same to their father. They cut him into pieces and cooked him, but Medea refused to give them the magic ingredients. The three-figured relief shows Medea on the left; turned towards the middle, she stands impassively, dressed in a pleated chiton and a cloak, whose sleeve hangs down to the side. This and the strange headdress she wears over her tiara, together with her sturdy shoes, show Medea to be a foreigner, a barbarian. Her left hand clasps a round container, which she makes as if to open with her right. From the right-hand side, one of Pelias’ younger daughters is dragging in the heavy three-legged cauldron; she is dressed in a peplos, which her efforts have caused to slip from her right shoulder. Contemplating the monstrous nature of what is afoot, the elder daughter stands at the right-hand edge of the scene facing forward, her head in her hand. She is wearing a double-girdled peplos, the folded-over portion of which falls across her left arm, which she holds across her body. Once, this hand held the sheath of a sword, but, like the sword itself, it has been chiselled away in modern times; the sword, which she held in the hand of the supported right arm, has been neutralized into a short olive branch. Along with these reworkings and the restoration of the triangular strip at the bottom left, following of a replica found in 1814 in Rome and now in the Vatican Museum, the relief shows evidence of other ‘corrections’, particularly in the area of the garments. Nevertheless, it bequeaths to us a high-quality neo-Attic copy, from around AD 100, of a Greek relief dating to the zenith of Athens. As early as seventy years ago, correlations were noticed between this three-figure relief and other reliefs which likewise survive in Roman copies. The trapezoidal shape, the masses and proportions, the compositional concept of the grouping and the stylistic vocabulary all link this work with three reliefs depicting the following scenes: Orpheus trying, with the assistance of Hermes, to rescue Eurydice from the Underworld; Theseus obliged to leave his friend Peirithoos behind in the Underworld, because Heracles can only free one of the two; and Heracles leaving the Hesperides consumed by love for him after he had stolen the apples of immortality from them. All four reliefs must originally have belonged to a single monument, presumably an enormous tomb, since all the images are linked by their reference to the afterlife and the hope of immortality. What they also all share, however, is the situation of a personal decision followed by inextricable consequences, as encapsulated by Sophocles and Euripides in the Attic tragedies of this period. Both poets dealt with the tragic fate of Medea and Jason, which are still used to express the fear of death and hope of an afterlife on Roman sarcophagi of the imperial period.


  • Title: Medea and the Daughters of Pelias
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: -420/-410
  • Physical Dimensions: w89 x h116,5 cm
  • Type: Relief
  • Medium: Pentelic marble
  • Inv.-No.: Sk 925
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Gertrud Platz-Horster || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Johannes Laurentius
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz

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