Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Disillusioned Medea ("The Enchantress")

Paulus Bor (Dutch, Amersfoort ca. 1601–1669 Amersfoort)
ca. 1640
Oil on canvas
61 1/4 x 44 1/4 in. (155.6 x 112.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Ben Heller, 1972
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 631
The moody Medea of Greek mythology, with her magic wand, slumps at the altar in a Temple of Diana. A similar work by Bor in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, depicts the obscure Cydippe and is probably this picture’s pendant. In his Heroides the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17/18) tells the tales of Medea jilted by Jason, and of Cydippe and Acontius finding true love. Most likely a patron, proud of his classical learning, commissioned the artist to treat what is essentially the popular Dutch theme of good and bad marriages.
This painting, one of Bor's finest works, dates from about 1640. Its subject and its relationship to a similar picture in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, have been debated, but it is likely that the two canvases were painted as a pair and depict the complementary stories of the disillisioned Medea and Cydippe with Acontius's apple (see Additional Images, fig. 1), as told in Ovid's Heroides (letters 12 and 20–21, respectively).

In The Met's canvas, a woman holding a wooden wand sits below a statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt, identified by the crescent moon above her brow, a bow and quiver of arrows, and a hunting dog at her side (his head is visible just above the melancholy heroine's head). The graven image is draped with garlands of flowers, and is honored also by incense burning in the large urn at the center of the picture and in the elaborately carved torchère. The arrangement of temple props leading back to the right requires some explanation, since—as often in Bor's work—motifs are assembled with an eye to surface design rather than clarity of spatial disposition. The smoking urn, supported by a curved buttress crowned with a carved goat's skull, is meant to be right behind the seated figure. This form is festooned with flowers, which carry the eye from the woman's silhouette (enhanced by an elongated arm) and the flowing folds of her drapery to the ascending torchère, where climbing putti balance the form of the skull. The broad base of the torchère is ornately sculpted with two heads, apparently male and female. Behind the torchère is a second, larger urn, bowl-shaped and embellished by a winged sphinx in relief. The lower left corner of the composition is filled by a tasseled red velvet pillow and a plinth on which the faint trace of two heads in profile (overlapping, as on antique cameos) are visible under strong light. The woman in the foreground is set off from the olive tones of the somber background by bright light (looking very much like daylight rather than the torchlight one might expect), and by her white blouse and the shiny fabrics of her blue skirt and gold brocaded mantle (used by the artist in other pictures).

That the lady is Medea was first suggested by Mazur-Contamine (1981). The modern image of Medea is perhaps typified by Delacroix's large canvas Medea About to Murder Her Children of 1838 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille). Although the Romantic painter is thought to have been inspired by Corneille's play Médée, of 1635, his picture hardly prepares one for the different treatments that date from the seventeenth century.

It would be helpful to review the myth before considering Bor's interpretation. Jason, a youth of Iolkos, is ordered by the king to fetch the Golden Fleece, which is in the possession of King Aeetes of Colchis and guarded by a dragon that never sleeps. Accordingly, Jason gathers together the finest men of Greece and sets sail on his ship, the Argo. After many adventures Jason and his band of Argonauts arrive in Colchis, where Jason approaches the king. Aeetes promises to give up the Golden Fleece if Jason will yoke together two bronze-footed bulls, plow the grove of Ares, sow the earth with the teeth of the watchful dragon, and slay the warriors who will have sprung up from the ground. The king has a daughter, Medea, who is a sorceress. Medea falls in love with Jason and offers to assist him if he will marry her and take her with him to Greece. This Jason agrees to do, and with Medea's protection he accomplishes his tasks. But the king reneges on his promise. So Jason absconds with the Golden Fleece, and with Medea embarks on the Argo, pursued by the king and his henchmen. After many horrific encounters the couple arrives at Corinth, where they live happily with their two sons for ten years. But Jason wearies of Medea and, with an eye to the future, divorces her and takes another wife, Creusa (or Glauce), daughter of the king of Corinth. Medea, enraged, sends a poisoned gown and diadem to her rival. When Creusa puts on the garment, she is consumed by fire. Medea, in a passion of revenge against Jason, goes on to murder their sons.

The story of Medea is described variously by Hesiod, Pindar, Apollonius, Euripides, and other ancient authors. In the seventeenth century, Netherlandish artists who depicted Jason, his companions, or Medea usually drew upon Ovid's Metamorphoses (7:1–425). However, less familiar sources were also consulted, and modern versions composed, such as a play written and published by Jan Six in 1648, for which Rembrandt made a large etching, Medea, or the Marriage of Jason and Creusa, as frontispiece.

The story of Cydippe requires a temple of Diana, and yet the statue in the Rijksmuseum canvas (which has not been significantly trimmed) has no identifying attributes. The analogous scene in the story of Jason and Medea can be staged with or without reference to Diana, but Ovid's Heroides and, to a lesser extent, other classical sources provide ample reason for including her. Thus the two pictures clarify each other: Medea broods by the altar of Diana, where Jason had vowed fidelity, and Cydippe kneels at the same location, staring at the object that will bind her to her own object of desire.

For those not familiar with the story, Bor's patron could have seized the opportunity to enlighten them: Acontius had fallen in love with Cydippe, whose family was of higher social standing than his. One day, when she was worshiping at the temple of Diana at Delos, he tossed an apple (or an orange) in front of her. She picked it up and, noticing that the fruit was inscribed, read the words aloud: "I swear before Diana that I will wed Acontius." Cydippe's parents presented her with more suitable prospects, but whenever a marriage was arranged, Cydippe would become ill. Eventually, an oracle revealed the reason, and Cydippe was permitted to marry her intended. The story had been adapted by Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17) from the Aetia (Causes), by the Hellenistic poet Callimachus (ca. 305–ca. 240 B.C.), but in the seventeenth century only Ovid's Heroides provided more than a passing reference to Cydippe and Acontius. Bor would have used the Dutch translation by Camelis van Ghistele, which was published in Antwerp in 1559.

As noted above, the story of Medea was more widely available. Diana's name, however, is rarely invoked. The goddess is mentioned only once by Euripides, when Medea exclaims, "O mighty Themis [guardian of oaths] and my lady Artemis [Diana], do you see what I suffer, I who have bound my accursed husband with mighty oaths?" (Medea, lines 160–63). Diana has even less to do with Medea in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Medea is portrayed as a witch and murderess too preoccupied to pause for reflection. Bor's Medea comes from a very different text by Ovid. In Medea's letter to Jason, as imagined in Heroides 12, she remembers where their story began: "There is a wood . . . in [which] there is—or certainly there / was—a shrine to Diana; The golden goddess stands there, / made by a barbaric hand. Do you know the place? Or have / places disappeared from your mind, along with me? We / came there. You began to speak first, with unfaithful lips." Jason begs Medea, "by the three-fold face and hidden rites of Diana," to save him and his men. If she does, "then my soul will vanish into thin air before any woman, but you will be a bride in my chamber. Our accomplice will be Juno, ruler of sacred marriage, and the goddess in whose marble temple we are." Jason's faulty iconography appears not to have influenced Dutch poets and painters; in Six's Medea (line 36), for instance, Jason himself remembers that he promised to marry Medea "before the altar of Diana."

That Bor based Cydippe with the Apple of Acontius on Ovid's Heroides is beyond doubt, and the same text is by far the most likely source for the New York picture. In her letter to Jason, Medea describes how she beat her breast and tore the wreath from her hair (12.153–57), and in the painting, though she can hardly be described as overwrought, her hair does fall and flowers dangle behind the upraised hand that cradles her head in the conventional pose of melancholy. Obviously the artist conveys these ideas in the most understated manner, which is rather what one expects of Bor (there is almost no action in his entire oeuvre), and what best suits the comparison with his figure of Cydippe. Both women are lost in contemplation, Cydippe of her uncertain but probably happy future, Medea of a past and a future that are all too clear (the two infants, carved on the torchère, hint of her grotesque resolve). The one woman is innocent, a maiden, the other experienced with men. The paired stories offer more than the sum of their parts: there is the irony, for example, that both Cydippe and Creusa become too ill to marry, but with very different consequences. Cydippe finds love with a man of lesser station; Medea, a princess, is betrayed by one.

If Bor's Medea is unusual, there are obvious reasons why. First, the comparison with Cydippe, which was almost certainly assigned to Bor, perhaps by a patron who wished to treat with classical erudition the familiar Dutch theme of the contented marriage. It has also been observed that the Heroides was a difficult source for artists, since the main elements of each story have to be pieced together from often indirect references. But as painters treat subjects freely (so Six explains in his preface to Medea), according to their temperaments, so may poets too take liberties.

The Amsterdam and New York paintings serve as pendants in formal as well as iconographic terms. The Disillusioned Medea was almost certainly meant to be seen on the viewer's left, with Cydippe on the right, so that the statues of Diana close the space to either side. Medea slumps to the left, Cydippe leans to the right, and the various forms on the floor recede from the outside corners of the compositions. It would be expected in a Dutch interior of the time that the two works would have been installed at either side of an architectural element such as a fireplace. The open spaces and rhythms that flow between the two compositions would have suited such an arrangement; the smoking urns may have flanked an actual hearth. Significantly, both scenes are illuminated from the right, the Amsterdam picture more brightly, an unusual approach that implies a real source of light to the right of the two canvases. Several motifs—the garlands, the goats' skulls, the red pillows—link the pictures together; they are also consistent in color scheme. It has been noted that the figures differ in scale, but the difference is not great (one might imagine Medea on her knees, like Cydippe), and the observation expects of Bor a consistent handling of proportions not found elsewhere in his oeuvre. In any case, whatever shortcomings the pictures may have, they are slight considerations compared with their conceptual novelty and the quality of their execution.

[2017; adapted from Liedtke 2007]
principi Chigi, Castelfusano, Rome (by 1824–1941; as by Salvator Rosa; sold through Steno Cecconi to Busiri Vici); Andrea Busiri Vici, Rome (1941–at least 1955); Ben Heller, New York (until 1972)
Utrecht. Centraal Museum. "Caravaggio en de Nederlanden," June 15–August 3, 1952, no. 17 (as "Sibylle," lent by N. U. l'Architetto Andrea Busiri-Vici, Rome).

Antwerp. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten. "Caravaggio en de Nederlanden," August 10–September 28, 1952, no. 17 (as "Sibylle," lent by N. U. l'Architetto Andrea Busiri-Vici, Rome).

Rome. Palazzo delle Esposizioni. "Mostra di pittura olandese del Seicento," January 4–February 14, 1954, no. 15 (as "La sibilla," lent by Arch. A. Busiri-Vici, Rome).

Milan. Palazzo Reale. "Mostra di pittura olandese del Seicento," February 25–April 25, 1954, no. 13 (as "La sibilla," lent by Arch. A. Busiri-Vici, Rome).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Dutch Painting: The Golden Age," October 28–December 19, 1954, unnumbered cat. (ill. p. 10, as "Sibyl," lent by Andrea Busiri Vici, Rome).

Toledo Museum of Art. "Dutch Painting: The Golden Age," January 2–February 13, 1955, unnumbered cat.

Art Gallery of Toronto. "Dutch Painting: The Golden Age," February 18–?, 1955, unnumbered cat.

London. Wildenstein. "Artists in 17th Century Rome," June 1–July 16, 1955, no. 9 (as "The Enchantress ['The Sibyl']," lent by N. U. L'Architetto Andrea Busiri Vici, Rome).

Raleigh. North Carolina Museum of Art. "Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers," September 27–December 13, 1998, no. 9.

Milwaukee Art Museum. "Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers," January 29–April 18, 1999, no. 9.

Dayton Art Institute. "Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers," May 8–July 18, 1999, no. 9.

Berlin. Neue Nationalgalerie. "Melancholie: Genie und Wahnsinn in der Kunst," February 17–May 7, 2006, not in catalogue.

Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne," June 23–November 12, 2006, no. 12.

Barcelona. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. "Grandes maestros de la pintura europea de The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nueva York: De El Greco a Cézanne," December 1, 2006–March 4, 2007, no. 9.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008, no catalogue.

Lady [Sydney] Morgan. The Life and Times of Salvator Rosa. London, 1824, vol. 2, p. 373, lists it as "A Sorceress" by Salvator Rosa in the Ghigi [sic] Palace, Rome.

Roberto Longhi. "Ultimi studi sul Caravaggio e la sua cerchia." Proporzioni 1 (1943), p. 29, fig. 66, as in the collection of Andrea Busiri-Vici, Rome; attributes it to Paulus Bor and dates it about 1620–30.

Vitale Bloch. "Orlando." Oud-Holland 64 (1949), pp. 107–8, figs. 3 and 4 (overall and detail), identifies an Enchantress in a private collection, Zürich (now Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), as the pendant to this work.

J[ohan]. Q[uirijn]. van Regteren Altena. "Paulus Bor of Jacques de Gheyn Junior?" Oud-Holland 64 (1949), pp. 108–9, notes a strong resemblance between the MMA painting and its companion published by Bloch [see Ref. 1949] and the works of Jacques de Gheyn the Younger, suggesting that a close relationship may have existed between Bor and de Gheyn.

G[offredo]. J. Hoogewerff. De Bentvueghels. The Hague, 1952, p. 151, pl. 13.

Roberto Longhi. "Caravaggio en de Nederlanden." Paragone 33 (September 1952), pp. 57–58.

Vitale Bloch. "I Caravaggeschi a Utrecht e Anversa." Paragone 33 (September 1952), p. 19, believes that it probably dates from the same period as the artist's "Soothsayer" (Centraal Museum, Utrecht), which is dated 1641.

Benedict Nicolson. "Caravaggio and the Netherlands." Burlington Magazine 94 (September 1952), p. 252, dates it "very shortly before" the Utrecht "Soothsayer" of 1641.

E[llis]. K. Waterhouse. "Artists in Seventeenth-Century Rome." Burlington Magazine 97 (July 1955), p. 222, calls it "Après-midi d'une sorcière".

Denis Mahon and Denys Sutton. Artists in 17th Century Rome. Exh. cat., Wildenstein. London, 1955, pp. 11–12, no. 9, ill., suggest that the subject may be Circe, relating it to Dosso Dossi's painting of the same subject (Galleria Borghese, Rome); note that the figure's shoulder and arm echo those of Caravaggio's "Saint Catherine" (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid); observe that similar decorative motifs occur in the 1642 title page for a set of eight etchings of dogs by Jan Fyt (Bartsch IV, nos. 9–16), considering that Bor and Fyt may have contributed to Piranesi's style.

Denis [sic] Sutton. "Artisti nella Roma seicentesca." Paragone 6 (November 1955), p. 25.

Günter Bandmann. Melancholie und Musik: Ikonographische Studien. Cologne, 1960, p. 76, pl. 29, dates it about 1620–30.

Jakob Rosenberg and Seymour Slive in Dutch Art and Architecture: 1600 to 1800. Baltimore, 1966, p. 170, pl. 151A, tentatively date it about 1640; call the figure characteristic of draped women in Bor's work: "plump, neckless, and rather lethargic".

Jakob Rosenberg and Seymour Slive in Dutch Art and Architecture: 1600 to 1800. rev. ed. Harmondsworth, England, 1972, p. 298, fig. 237.

Malarstwo Obce z zasobów magazynowych: Katalog Wystawy. Poznan, Poland, 1972, p. 10, under no. 6.

John Walsh Jr. "New Dutch Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum." Apollo 99 (May 1974), pp. 346, 348–49 n. 17, fig. 11 and ill. on cover (color), suggests that "Bor may well have intended her as a nameless member of the species enchantress, traditionally melancholic"; does not believe that the Amsterdam picture is a pendant to this work.

Anthony M. Clark in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1965–1975. New York, 1975, p. 93, ill.

Joachim Wolfgang von Moltke. "Die Gemälde des Paulus Bor von Amersfoort." Westfalen 55 (1977), pp. 150–51, 157, 159, no. 9, fig. 102, considers it the pendant to the Amsterdam painting; notes that the same brocade material is seen in Bor's "Magdalen" (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and "Jesus in the Temple" (Centraal Museum, Utrecht).

Benedict Nicolson. The International Caravaggesque Movement. Oxford, 1979, p. 24 [2nd ed., rev. and enl. by Luisa Vertova, "Caravaggism in Europe," Turin, 1989, vol. 1, p. 66; vol. 3, pl. 1639], as "Sorceress (?Circe)" and possibly the pendant to "Mythological Figure (?Pomona)" in Amsterdam.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 322, 333, fig. 579 (color).

H. E. C. Mazur-Contamine. "Twee 'tovenaressen' van Paulus Bor." Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 29, no. 1 (1981), pp. 6–8 nn. 7, 10, fig. 2, identifies the subject as the disillusioned Medea and dates the work about 1640; considers it the pendant to the Amsterdam painting, which he identifies as depicting another subject from Ovid's "Heroides": "Cydippe with Acontius's Apple".

Peter C. Sutton. A Guide to Dutch Art in America. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1986, p. 180.

Cornelia Moiso-Diekamp. Das Pendant in der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. PhD diss., Universität Köln. Frankfurt, 1987, pp. 307–8, no. B1, tentatively adopts Mazur-Contamine's [see Ref. 1981] identification of the subjects of the MMA and Amsterdam pictures and agrees that they are probably pendants.

Ad Bercht. "Paulus Bor: De Schilderijen." Master's thesis, Rijksuniversiteit te Utrecht, 1991, pp. 27, 29, 31–33, 35–40, no. 12, fig. 16.

Peter van den Brink in Het Gedroomde Land: Pastorale Schilderkunst in de Gouden Eeuw. Exh. cat., Centraal Museum, Utrecht. Zwolle, The Netherlands, 1993, pp. 132, 135 n. 7, fig. 16.1, under no. 16, agrees with Mazur-Contamine's [see Ref. 1981] identification of the subject as the disillusioned Medea and dating of about 1640.

Seymour Slive. Dutch Painting 1600–1800. New Haven, 1995, p. 230, fig. 310.

Quentin Buvelot in Jacob van Campen: Het klassieke ideaal in de Gouden Eeuw. Amsterdam, 1995, p. 252 n. 47, calls it the disillusioned Medea and notes J. G. van Gelder's unpublished attribution of the picture to Jacob van Campen.

Dennis P. Weller. Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers. Exh. cat., North Carolina Museum of Art. Raleigh, 1998, pp. 90–92, 212, no. 9, ill. (in color and black and white), rejects the identification of the figure as Medea as well as the idea of the work as pendant to the Amsterdam picture; dates it to the late 1630s.

Jeroen Giltaij in Dutch Classicism in Seventeenth-Century Painting. Exh. cat., Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam, 1999, pp. 144, 146, fig. 20b, under no. 20, calls it "The Disillusioned Medea" but questions the idea of the MMA and Amsterdam pictures as pendants.

Old Master Paintings. Sotheby's, Amsterdam. May 14, 2002, p. 70, under no. 48, calls it "Medea Mourning over the Desertion of Jason" and notes that it includes the same pedestal seen in Bor's "The Annunciation" (no. 48).

Görel Cavalli-Björkman. Dutch and Flemish Paintings. Vol. 2, Dutch Paintings c. 1600–c. 1800. Stockholm, 2005, p. 101, fig. 2.

Pierre Rosenberg. Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Milan, 2006, pp. 13, 102–3, 228, ill. (color).

Walter Liedtke in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006, pp. 76–80, no. 12, ill. (color, overall and detail) [Catalan ed., Barcelona, 2006, pp. 46–49, no. 9, ill. (color, overall and details)].

Esmée Quodbach. "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65 (Summer 2007), p. 59, fig. 67 (color).

Walter Liedtke. Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, vol. 1, pp. xi, 54–61, no. 12, colorpl. 12, calls it "The Disillusioned Medea ('The Enchantress')" and concludes that it is a pendant to the "Cydippe with Acontius's Apple" in Amsterdam.

Jonathan Bikker in Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Ed. Jonathan Bikker. Vol. 1, Artists Born Between 1570 and 1600. Amsterdam, 2007, pp. 72–73, fig. 24a, supports the possibility that the MMA and Amsterdam works are pendants, suggesting that "Bor, whose iconography and figure style are so idiosyncratic, was not overly concerned about producing mirror-image pairs"; states that both works "could be from as late as the end of the 1640s or the beginning of the 1650s".

Frans Grijzenhout. "Ferdinand Bol's 'portrait historié' in the Hermitage: Identification and Interpretation." Simiolus 34, no. 1 (2009/2010), p. 46, fig. 10.

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