Ancient Greek and Roman mythology are polytheistic religions that emerged in Western Europe thousands of years ago. Both cultures believe in mostly the same gods and demigods, also known as half-gods, but have different names to designate them. Perhaps the most famous demigod known most notably for his superhuman strength is Hercules, the Roman name for the Greek demigod Heracles. The superman-like figure is even more popular in mythology than certain gods and goddesses.
Over time, artists and sculptors have attempted to depict Hercules through different types of material and physical poses. Although each depiction has its own individuality in the material by which it was created and the stance the demigod is holding, almost all seem to depict a similar man. Almost every depiction of Hercules appears to describe the same person: a massive man holding and resembling the features of a human but the strength and muscle definition of something greater and far mightier.
The depiction of Hercules in an unknown sculptor’s Marble Statue of a Youthful Hercules, an unknown sculptor’s Marble Statue of a Bearded Hercules, and Francisco de Zurbaran’s painting Hercules and Cerberus 1634 all combine to show the same half-god through muscle definition and facial appearance. The story of Hercules tells of a mortal boy born by Zeus, king of the gods, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. He walks and talks like a human while withholding the god-like power of strength.
“Though he is a man, he is so far removed from the ordinary that the generic classification hardly contains him” (Eugene M Waith 1). In order to earn immortality and the respect of the gods up on Mt. Olympus Hercules is faced with many difficult tasks, each designed to test his strength, courage, and desire to become immortal. The completion of twelve humanly impossible labors, known as “The 12 Labors of Hercules” (Perseus), would allow not only for Hercules’s immortality and passage into Mt. Olympus but for his recognition as the greatest of all the Roman heroes in mythology.
Of the twelve excruciating tasks, the most difficult and dangerous is by far Hercules’s final labor: capturing Cerberus and bringing him back to earth. Using his strength and agility, Hercules drags the three-headed guard dog of the underworld all the way to the earth’s surface in order to satisfy the requirements of his task. This moment represents Hercules’s acceptance as an immortal among men, finally allowed to venture onto Mt. Olympus. The High Renaissance is one of several artistic styles in the emerging modern world that came to life during the early sixteenth century.
High Renaissance painting “sought a universal ideal achieved through impressive art, as opposed to over-emphasis on anatomy of tricks of perspective” (James Sporre 276). In doing so, artists during this time period reflected some Classical styles without copying its entirety by idealizing all forms in their work and maintaining their own identities. Francisco de Zurbaran was a Spanish painter who lived during the High Renaissance and painted with a realistic style that also reflected the time period in which he was living.
One of his many paintings is the depiction of Hercules trying to catch the guard-dog of the underworld, Cerberus (Fig. 1). The painting is created on a canvas using oil paint, a popular use of materials during the Renaissance period and even still today. This allows for the artist to create an intensely realistic and highly defined figure or composition. Zurbaran’s illustration depicts a struggling Hercules swinging a club at the three-headed dog. The background is dim and undefined, but contains darkness and fire which suggests that the hero is in Hades’s underworld.
At first glance, the painting is superficial and bland, without much substance other than a strong man fighting and a curious looking dog. It is easy to simply describe what is going on in a piece of art, but only one can discover its true substance when he or she is able to understand the artist’s motive in painting it. For instance, Zurbaran decides to capture a specific moment in Hercules’ battle with Cerberus, the moment of potential victory in finally subduing the beast. He also draws the viewer’s eye to Hercules in particular by using chiaroscuro (Sporre 60) and contrasting light and shade.
The artist highlights the hero with light colors for a skin tone and engulfing him with dark and gloomy colors. One of the most intriguing features of this piece of work is the muscle definition in Hercules’s body and Zurbaran’s ability to capture the demigod in motion. Hercules is shown as an extremely toned tall, young man with a dark beard and thick hair. By the creases in his leg muscles, Hercules is sent in motion and it is evident that the hero is using all his might to pull the beast towards him in order to control him.
Thousands of years ago, before artists’ work fell into the category and style of art that existed during their time period, art was portrayed mostly through carved slabs or marble or stone. Art has existed since years before the Common Era and date all the way back to prehistory. It has helped historians and scientists understand the lifestyles in which past civilizations had followed. In Ancient Rome and Greece, for example, many artists sculpted religious figures in accordance to their polytheistic, mythological beliefs.
Almost every artist, if not all, of these sculptures remains unknown to this day but their work lives on to inspire others. One work in particular that was sculpted by an unknown artist between the years A. D. 68-98 is the Marble Statue of a Bearded Hercules (Fig 2). The statue is a massive portrayal of the demigod Hercules with a lion head draped over his head and shoulders. Even without limbs, one can still capture the essence of the statue and even the artist’s potential motive in covering him with a lion’s skin. According to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, “He killed a lion when he was 18 and ever after, wore its skin as a cloak” (228).
Based upon this idea, it is highly probable that the sculptor created this statue in respect to Hercules’ defeating the invulnerable lion of Nemea as his first of the twelve excruciating labors (Perseus). The statue itself resembles the painting of Hercules fighting Cerberus in that both artists compose the same man: massive in stature and extremely defined with thick hair and a beard. Although it cannot be certain, the same artist who sculpted the Marble Statue of a Bearded Hercules almost definitely sculpted the extremely similar looking Marble Statue of a Youthful Hercules (Fig.3).
Constructed during the same time period, A. D. 68-98, and in the same location, the statue depicts yet another massive man in size with the same lion skin, this time with it draped over his left arm. In his right hand he is clutching a club or branch and in his left he appears to be clutching little spheres of some sort. Like the previously discussed statue, in substance the Marble Statue of a Youthful Hercules must have some sort of purpose or meaning. Both found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the statues give off such presence in their size and masculinity.
Compared to Fig 2, the statues looks alike in body structure and facial appearance, more evidence suggesting the same exact artist hand-sculpted both. Although the younger form of Hercules lacks a beard, he, like the elder, has a definitive jaw line and specifically characteristic bone structure in the long nose and the broad, bulky eye brows. The lion skin draped over his arm also recalls the myth of Hercules’s conquering the lion of Nemea. The idea the artist attempts to convey in both statues is expressed through the same lion skin they each don.
The skin of the lion of Nemea represents success in Hercules’s first of many labors and allows him to stand, with pride, in glory. The two herculean figures share so many similarities in appearance that they actually lead one to believe a younger version of the Marble Statue of a Bearded Hercules is, in fact, the Marble Statue of a Youthful Hercules. Through in-depth analysis of several different pieces of art that attempt to display the Roman demigod Hercules, it seems it is possible to finally capture the herculean hero.
The two statues of Hercules that were carved in the first century reveal a similar looking man who fights Cerberus in an oil canvas painting completed sixteen centuries later. The artists lived during different time periods, worked with different mediums, and resided in different countries, yet the final products of each look alike. Thus proving, that in choosing only three pieces of art that reflects the triumphs of Hercules, each composition combines to show the same half-god through muscle definition and facial appearance.
This is important in demonstrating that art and expressing oneself is timeless. Furthermore, although Hercules is a mythological figure told of by word of mouth throughout history, it is truly astonishing that completely different artists have been able to create the same looking man in almost every physical aspect. The concept is so provocative and open-ended it leads a person to ponder whether the greatest hero of Roman mythology truly was a myth after all.