Shakespeare's Myths

Early modern miniaturists and engravers have approached the Absyrtus episode from various angles. In some illustrations, Jason and Medea’s flight is pictured on land, others situate the scene at sea or on the seaside. Some capture the moment of Absyrtus’ dismemberment, others focus on Aeetes’ discovery and grief.

In a miniature in Laurent de Premierfait’s second translation (1409) of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, entitled Des cas des ruynes des nobles hommes et femmes (Bruges: c. 1479-1480, British Library, Royal 14 EV, fol. 24v), on the right, Medea sits behind Jason on horseback, holding Absyrtus still alive; on the left, Aeetes kneels to gather the disjointed limbs.


More dynamically, in Barthélemy Aneau’s emblem (Picta Poesis, 1552, p. 67), Medea is running away, her body leaning forward in the effort to escape, her head turned backwards to check if she is still followed. In her right hand, she is holding Anbsyrtus’ head, grabbed by the hair and in her left hand a forearm, ready to throw them one after the other to delay her father. Behind her, arms raised in the conventional attitude of despair, Aeetes kneels in front of the mangled body of his son.


René Boyvin engraved a series of twenty-six etchings after drawings by Léonard Thiry representing the story of Jason and Medea. They were gathered in Livre de la Conqueste de la Toison d’or par le Prince Jason de Tessalie, faict par figures avec exposition d’icelles, published in Paris (printer unknown) in 1563 (Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts décoratifs, Maciet 227/2/50-62; London, Victoria and Albert Museum, E. 2023-1908). Plate n° 15 shows the Argo setting out to sea. At the stern of the ship Medea, with her sword raised, is dismembering what remains of Absyrtus’ body; the head and a leg are already floating in the wake of the ship. In the distance, Aeetes’ ships are approaching.


Inspired by René Boyvin’s engraving, Martin Didier Pape depicted a similar scene on a plaque painted in grisaille that probably decorated a casket; it was made at Limoges between 1580 and 1600 (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, 44.281). Aboard the Argo, Medea continues hacking at Absyrtus body, whose two legs and left arm are already missing and are seen floating on the sea. From his boat that is sailing near, Aeetes  discovers them and raises his arms in dismay.


In Guillaume Fillastre’s La Toison d’or (1473), a miniature (Paris, BNF, Ms Fr 138) depicts Jason’s fight with the dragon and with the soldiers born of the dragon’s teeth in the back and middle ground while, in the foreground, Aeetes kneels in front of his son’s remains, gathering the cut off limbs.


It is on Aeetes that plate 16 in René Boyvin’s series concentrates. It inspired Pierre Reymond’s decoration of an enamelled plate painted on copper in grisaille, 1567-1568 (Limoges, Musée municipal de l’Évêché [inv. 93.500]). There, while the Argo sails off in the distance, two mariners in a small rowing boat collect Absyrtus’ limbs floating on the sea while a third one is holding towards Aeetes, who has stayed on board his ship, the severed head and another, less identifiable piece.



How to cite

Yves Peyré. “Absyrtus.”  2014.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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