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Representations in Art

Heracles in Art.

In Greek Art. Heracles is the most popular hero in Greek art, appearing on many vases and in many architectural contexts. He kills Nessus in one of the earliest Athenian vases with a mythological narrative (the Nessus vase in Athens, ca. 620 B.C.), and there are representations of all his labors and parerga. Especially popular was the Nemean lion. An Attic vase, now in Boston, by the Andocides painter (ca. 530 B.C.), shows Heracles driving a bull to sacrifice, on one side in black-figure technique and on the other in red-figure. From the same period is an Etruscan vase showing Eurystheus jumping into a huge pot to hide from Cerberus, whom Heracles is bringing to him. The struggle with Apollo for the Pythian tripod is shown on several vases, for example, an Attic red-figure vase (ca. 480 B.C., now in Malibu) by the Geras painter.
The canonical representation of the twelve labors is the twelve metopes in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (ca. 460 B.C.), in which the local legend of the Augean stables was given pride of place as the final labor. Heracles appeared on the metopes of the temples at Selinus in Sicily: in one metope (ca. 540) he is carrying the Cercopes slung from his shoulders upside down. His labors were portrayed in the metopes of the Athenian treasury at Delphi (ca. 490). On the pediment of the temple of Aphaea on the island of Aegina (ca. 500) he appeared as an archer, probably during the expedition against Troy.
The most famous statue of Heracles from the Roman world is the so-called Farnese Hercules (now in Naples), a marble copy by Glycon of a statue by Lysippus (ca. 350 B.C.). Glycon made it especially for the Baths of Caracalla, built at Rome in the early third century A.D. The vast hero leans on his club (draped with the lionskin), weary from his labors and holding the apples of the Hesperides. The emperor Commodus (180–92) is portrayed in a bust as Hercules holding the apples of the Hesperides in his left hand, and the club in his right hand, while the lionskin is fitted over his head. Like the emperor Nero (54–68 A.D), Commodus wished to be identified with the greatest of Greek heroes, and was prevented from wrestling with a specially prepared lion in the Circus Maximus only by his assassination.

In Western Art. Hercules has been equally popular in art since Greek and Roman times, and from the great number of artists who painted the Labors and his other deeds, two seventeenth-century painters have been chosen here. Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) painted oil-sketches of several scenes from the life of Heracles for the decorations of the Torre della Parada in 1636–38, some of which were executed as paintings by his assistants after his death. Outstanding is the Apotheosis of Hercules (now in Brussels), which follows the narrative of Ovid. Rubens used Heracles as an allegory of virtue, for example, in the decorations for the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London, where in Heroic Virtue Overcoming Discord (the oil-sketch is in Boston), Heracles is portrayed as the muscular hero violently clubbing the female figure of Discord. Rubens used the allegory of the Choice of Heracles by representing the governor of the Spanish Netherlands, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, as Heracles choosing Virtue (representing the Catholic Church) over Pleasure: this scene was part of the decorations for Ferdinand’s entry into Antwerp in 1635. Thus Heracles was represented by Rubens in mythological narrative, and for the purpose of moral or political allegory. Rubens also painted him as a giant drunkard in The Drunken Heracles (1614, now in Dresden).
The second seventeenth-century painter selected is Francisco Zurbarán (1598–1664), who painted ten Labors of Hercules for the decoration of the Hall of Realms in the Palace of the Buen Retiro in Madrid (1634, now in the Prado). Heracles was especially important in Spain, as the mythical founder of cities and ancestor of many noble Spanish families. Zurbarán chose seven of the labors and three other scenes from the life of Hercules, including the creation of the Pillars of Heracles and his agony in the flames of Nessus’ robe.

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