This chapter examines the Medea of Roman painting. In some senses, this constitutes a crazy editorial decision: gems and sculpture, sarcophagi in particular, are a crucial part of the visual culture that pulls and pushes against text and theatre. But in other senses, a two-dimensional focus offers peculiar challenges that situate Medea firmly within the domestic sphere, in cubicula and peristyles; and yet also beyond this sphere. Unlike freestanding sculpture, which actively intervenes in the viewer's space, painting affords access to a parallel universe. Its figures are not cold to the touch like Pygmalion's statue. They are intangible, exciting different desires from those elicited by stone, desires which invite viewers to leave their world behind them; or at least to pause and take stock. In these ways, painting provides a commentary on everyday life—closer to performances on stage than to installation.
Ancient writers, Ovid included, recognised this analogy between painting and theatre. In defending his work against charges of immorality, the exiled poet cites the genre of the mime, asking whether it is the stage that makes its adulterous content permissible and reminding Augustus that his poems had often ‘detained his eyes’, accompanied by dancing. He continues:
scilicet in domibus nostris ut prisca uirorum
artificis fulgent corpora picta manu,
sic quae concubitus uarios uenerisque figuras
exprimat, est aliquo parua tabella loco,
utque sedet uultu fassus Telamonius iram,
inque oculis facinus barbara mater habet,
sic madidos siccat digitis Venus uda capillos,
et modo maternis tecta uidetur aquis.