Jason with the Golden Fleece
By Trine Møller Madsen, art and culture writer, 2006
The white hero
Jason, the prince, has just brought down a terrifying monster and snatched a golden ram’s skin which is to bring him riches and the throne. Quite a feat of strength you’d think, but Thorvaldsen’s marble version of the legendary Greek hero doesn’t have a speck of sweat on his pale, cold brow.
Bertel Thorvaldsen loved the art and ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Like many other contemporary artists, he was obsessed with Rome where he lived for the most of life. In Rome he was close to the two ancient sculptures, The Spearman (approx. 450 b.c.) and the Belvedere Apollo (approx 140 b.c.). Both are obvious models for Jason.
Art of balance
Thorvaldsen froze Jason somewhere between calm and movement. The struggle is over, and the hero is on his way back with his spoils over his arm. Jason expresses both physical and mental calmness. He is the prototype of the classical hero.
The sculpture itself is in perfect balance. No matter where the eyes venture, you will find a corresponding element - vertically, horizontally or diagonally. Take for example the lance/the chest strap, the fleece/the tree stump and the curled tip of the helmet’s cockscomb/the ram’s horn.
Almost too sensual
Notice the contrast between Jason’s smooth, muscular body and the curly, loose fleece that nearly touches the thigh. It is sensual - and almost inappropriate in an era when sensuality was suppressed in favour of intellectual virtues. The art was to inspire people to become better human beings. With their heads - not their body. Thorvaldsen did shift to cooler expressions in his later works.
Although Jason was almost too sensual and exciting for the respectable citizens of the time, the sculpture immediately placed Thorvaldsen in the Premier League of European art. His pure neo-classicism was since to found a school both in Denmark and abroad. Jason’s beautiful, athletic body became the male ideal in art and set the standard for Danish sculpture far into the future.
Did you know?
The Jason sculpture became Thorvaldsen's ticket to stay in Rome, at a time when his scholarship had expired. According to histories, the English richman Thomas Hope visited Thorvaldsen's workshop the day before he was to travel home to Denmark. Hope ordered the Jason sculpture in marble and thus gave Thorvaldsen the opportunity to stay in Rome. However, it would take 25 years before he received the sculpture.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Visuel Art, 2006
White, sharp, intense, rhythmic, resting marble figures: Thorvaldsen’s sculptures thematise the heroic, the exotic and, at the same time, the introverted and the reflective. Thorvaldsen himself lived during the transition from enlightened monarchy to liberalism, with the citizen, as an autonomous individual, becoming the world’s new focal point. His works correspondingly and virtuously unite the large form and the monumental with the individual, i.e. inner self and experience – the public and the private.
The breakthrough work, Jason with the Golden Fleece, was finished in clay in 1803, and in marble in 1828. The mortal God Jason was a well-known mythological figure during the Enlightenment. Thorvaldsen’s design contains references to Polykleitos’ Spear Bearer and Canova’s Perseus Triumphant from 1800. Thorvaldsen has depicted Jason in accordance with the heroic process; the drama is complete, implicit. The sculpture contains juxtapositions and splendid contrasts.