The Thorvaldsens Museum Archives

An Ancient Jason Model and the Battle for the Golden Fleece

  • Torben Melander,, 2003
  • This is a re-publication of the article:

    Torben Melander: ‘An Ancient Jason Model and the Battle for the Golden Fleece’, in: Meddelelser fra Thorvaldsens Museum (Communications from the Thorvaldsens Museum) p. 2003, p. 80-89.

    For a presentation of the article in its original appearance in Danish, please see this facsimile scan.


An Ancient Jason Model and the Battle for the Golden Fleece

The Vatican Apollo Belvedere has often been presented as a model for Thorvaldsen’s Jason with the Golden Fleece. Since the 1970s, especially the balance in the work has been compared to Roman copies of Polycletus’ Doryforus (Herbert von Einem) or Roman copies after Greek works in the Vatican, which make use of the Doryforus schema (Hartmann/Palasca). All this is in keeping with Thorvaldsen’s own statement in his old age that during his work with Jason he was constantly going to and fro between his studio and the Vatican Museum to find inspiration for the work.

Apart from J. B. Hartmann, no one has considered the classical images of Jason. And in reality, Hartmann only does so in order to note that no classical representations of Jason show him carrying off the Golden Fleece, as is the case with Thorvaldsen’s Jason. – After an ultra-short review of classical statues of Jason, the article refers to a number of Roman sarcophagus reliefs depicting the legend of Jason with scenes from the events both in Colchis and Corinth. In particular some of the latter are interesting in the present context, as we here find a figure of Jason which has a basic pattern in common with Thorvaldsen’s Jason. There is of course no question of a model in a narrow sense, but perhaps a fundamental schema with which Thorvaldsen has been able to continue work. Several of the reliefs have been known since the Renaissance, and some of them were directly accessible to Thorvaldsen (The Vatican); others he was forced to make the acquaintance of through books (the Mantua sarcophagus). It is assumed that if Thorvaldsen not himself was aware of the sarcophagi, then his mentor during the first ten years or so in Rome, the Danish archaeologist Georg Zoëga, with his interest precisely in the reliefs in Rome (main work Li bassirevlievi antichi di Roma, 1808) would scarcely have omitted to draw his attention to the reliefs.

The second subject in the article concerns the question of why Thorvaldsen should choose such an unfortunate hero as Jason. The question is answered with the suggestion that the choice had perhaps been made for Thorvaldsen. As an icon, Jason with the Golden Fleece had served European princes since the 15th century, when the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece was established, originally as an distinction awarded to the princes who undertook to attempt to liberate the sacred Christian sites from Saracen rule. Later, it was probably more as a sign of fitness to rule, confirming the prince in his right to the realm, and precisely as such eagerly desired by Napoleon. During the period of Classicism it became of significance to win back these icons, among others Paris, another of the unfortunate heroes of antiquity to whom the princes had likewise given the status of an icon. Icons which once, it was believed, had belonged to the people. Here, the artists were pioneers with the possibility of making for instance Jason’s acquisition of the Golden Fleece perceptible in its own optic; in the same way Thorvaldsen had aimed and conquered and could now return with the trophy of victory. Two years after Jason was completed, the German sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch came to Rome in 1805. His first work, or one of his first works, shows Jason in the process of taking possession of the Golden Fleece in the sacred grove in Colchis. In general essentially copied after a relief on the side of a Roman sarcophagus in the Ludovisi Collection in Rome. The question asked at the end of the article is whether this was Rauch’s attempt to gain admission to the artist fraternity in Rome in 1805.

Last updated 11.05.2017