Herakles in Hellenic Sculpture: A Hero for All

Among the icons sculpted during the Hellenic Age, no face nor contour is perhaps more recognized than that of the towering, muscled Herakles. However, the spirit of Herakles was larger than his mythological description and stronger than his brawn. Sculptors were drawn to the dramatic, yet inspirational adventures no ordinary man could endure for their raw narrative power. As a result, Herakles, the idyllic hero of brute force and luck, was an icon for emperors and civilians alike, as sculptors employed his story to fashion enduring compositions depicting success.

The son of illimitable Zeus and mortal Alkmene, Herakles begins his life as an object of contention between his parents and Zeus’s wife, the jealous, conniving Hera [1]. Zeus dreamt noble intentions for his child, namely as a protector of god and man alike. Unfortunately, this trajectory is diverted by a seemingly endless series of troubles and trials. As a toddler, Herakles defeats deadly snakes sent into his nursery by way of Hera’s retributive wrath, this just the first of many battles with fauna [2]. In his adolescence, he slays the Nemean Lion on Kithairon and acquires two significant symbols used in Heraklean iconography: the Lion’s pelt and a club made of wild olive [3]. With these attributes he carries on and begins his Twelve Labors, ordeals ascribed by Eurystheus after a conciliatory agreement between Zeus and Hera, and marches towards his apotheosis [4]. Scenes of these labors were common subject matter in Hellenic sculpture and form some of the great compositions of the time [5].

Heracles. Ancient Greece, Panticapaeum. 3rd century BCE. Clay, with traces of white coating. Approx. 6 in. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Purchased by K.E. Dumberg, 1891.
Ancient Greece, Panticapaeum.
3rd century BCE.

In fact, the lion’s pelt immediately identifies Herakles in Hellenic sculpture. We see this feature in a clay block carving from the 3rd century BCE, Heracles, from Panticapaeum, now in the collection of The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Intimately capturing a calm moment in the hero’s life, it is only six inches high with a pedestal approximately one-fifth of the composition’s height, a miniature counterpoint to typical towering constructions.

The composition depicts the hero wearing the lion’s pelt over his head, the top of the beast’s mouth resting upon his brow, fangs grasping his skin. The front legs of the pelt are thrown over Herakles’ shoulders, tied, knotted, a paw placed on each breast. The hind legs hang near Herakles’ ankles and the end of the pelt blends contiguously into the bottom plinth. The artist presents Herakles with an athletic body, a lithe torso one would expect of a young, modern-day Olympic swimmer, but without a pronounced musculature that suggests superhuman strength. Herakles gazes towards his path as his left foot crouches forward. Low-relief carving in the face, hands, feet, and pelt contrast smooth pockets of space around the torso and between the legs. The organic contours of this space capture light and gradating shadow, which reinforce a sense of movement and suggest the pelt’s resistance to air in stride, enlivening the character of the human figure. Though the composition is small and quiet, we are aware that Herakles is in transit, occupied by contemplation of that which lies ahead. Here, one senses Herakles is a man emerging from a void.

The real beauty of this delightful sculpture is that it integrates in miniature many of the best qualities of Hellenic art. As Gisela Richter discusses in her book The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks, Hellenic artists relied on simplicity of subject matter and the beauty of contour in an effort to “express action and emotion” with simple gesture [6]. With limited material and subtle definitions of form, the artist successfully imbues the sculpture with stilled emotions. Although the work has a sense of the hero’s inner contentment, it does not particularly embody what Richter categorizes as the quintessential moral depiction in Heraklean iconography, the defeat of evil [7].

Antaios and Herakles. Restored copy after 3rd-2nd century BCE original.
Antaios and Herakles
Restored copy after 3rd-2nd century BCE original
Photo: William McClung

However, the defeat of evil is wonderfully depicted in Antaios and Herakles, a marble sculpture dated 3rd to 2nd century BCE, at the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy [8]. The sculpture, approximately nine feet, six inches high, is perched on a pedestal that further lifts the moment towards the heavens, monstrously towering over viewers [9]. Beside the Hermitage Heracles, these two compositions illustrate the contrasting applications of the Heraklean myth throughout Hellenic sculpture.

Depicting a moment after Herakles’ penultimate labor, the hero wrestles King Antaeus of Libya, whose notoriety is as a menace that challenges and kills strangers-in-transit after exhausting them through physical struggle. Antaeus, the son of Poseidon and Gaia, is reconstituted with extreme strength whenever he touches earth, the realm of his goddess mother. Accordingly, Herakles discovers during their battle that Antaeus must be lifted off the ground to bring defeat [10]. Here, one sees that moment when the hero draws him up into his chest to crush him to death.

In contrast to the miniature Heracles at the Hermitage, Antaios and Herakles depicts life-sized figures defined by rippling muscle and the integration of negative space; light that flows over their voluptuous bodies and through their struggling limbs dresses these men in vigor. This is especially prominent in Antaeus’ legs, spread at a near ninety-degree angle like two perpendicular sundials, creating a constant light/dark contrast across multiple planes in the round. Moreover, this use of design considers the philosophical dichotomy inherent between the two fighters as it asks whose intentions will prevail: good or evil?

As can be seen in this particular illustration, the importance of light continues at the plane where both bodies converge. Herakles’ wrapped arms draw Antaeus against his frame as he balances the lifted mass against his right shoulder. As Antaeus struggles to free himself from the grip, his left arm creates a right angle that frames Herakles’ face tucked behind his flank. This particular element of the work places the hero’s visage in shadow, prioritizing Antaeus’ embarrassment and loss, suggesting that use of his god-given advantage for menace is dishonorable. While Herakles, too, possessed a god-given brute force, it is his cunning wherewithal — honed during repeated battle with earthly animals — and quick thinking that enabled him to kill this unruly beast for noble reasons [11].

While the enraptured struggle of their muscular bodies draws a viewer towards the action, the distinct textures of the figures’ heads and the lion’s pelt lying underneath the men reinforce vertical movement, acting as separate and discriminate points of contrast to an otherwise smooth-surfaced composition. The pelt, which Herakles removed before the battle, is perhaps the most interesting element to this work, an implication that even man displaced from his advantages has the power to prevail. The skin of the Nemean Lion was impenetrable, rendering Herakles’ weapons unusable in his original battle with the animal. Therefore, killing the animal required strangulation, which is similar to how he killed Antaeus [12]. The narrative of wrestling with Antaeus is then a reprise of his first labor — success through ingenuity and perseverance.

Furthermore, as T. B. L. Webster suggests in his paper “Personification as a Mode of Greek Thought,” art was imbued with contemporaneous philosophical beliefs (often through mythology) to confront the burden “of taking hold of things which suddenly appear … uncontrollable” [13]. This was certainly necessary in Herakles’ chance encounter with Antaeus. Still, while sophist and Heraklean mythographer Herodoros associates courage with the lion-skin, this sculpture objects reliance on external crutches and affirms power from internal strengths [14]. Cynic and Stoic philosophers agreed, having revered Herakles as a paragon of achievement won through difficulty [15].

Finally, a visual repetition of form between Antaeus’ dangling left foot and the claw of the pelt, both hanging forward toward the viewer, connect the two figures and their defeat. Even the impenetrable strength of his skin couldn’t save the lion from Herakles’ grip. Antaeus ultimately had his machismo skinned away, too.

Yet, the demonstration of power to imply the impenetrable strength of a nation was important in Hellenic subjectivity. The revered ruler Alexander the Great lionized Herakles, making his myth choice subject matter for artists of that epoch. By supporting artists as a patron, Alexander funded work that created longstanding associations between himself and the hero, a prime example of which are the numismatics he ordered bearing his portrait in the likeness of Herakles [16].

Head of Bearded Herakles in Lion Skin. Amyntas III. Stater. c. 389-369 BCE.
Head of Bearded Herakles in Lion Skin
Amyntas III. c. 389-369 BCE.

The hero had already been used on coins before Alexander’s birth, as can be seen in Head of Bearded Herakles in Lion Skin, ordered by Amyntas III and dated 389-369 BCE, collection of The Cleveland Museum of Art. The stater, silver and 2.1cm wide, displayed on its obverse a bearded Herakles in profile, wearing the lion’s pelt over his head similar to the Hermitage Heracles. Alexander’s predecessor, his father Philip II, replicated this theme in his coinage by using a Heraklean depiction of himself, the notable difference being a clean-shaven face. This is demonstrated here in Gold Trihemiobol of Philip II, Macedon, collection of Wriston Art Galleries, Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. Once Alexander took rule, the imagery extended into his domain, as is the case in the 2.6cm wide Tetradrachm: Head of Youthful Herakles in Lion’s Skin, also at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Tetradrachm: Head of Youthful Herakles in Lion's Skin. Ancient Greece, Alexander period. 336-323 BCE.
Tetradrachm: Head of Youthful Herakles in Lion’s Skin.
Ancient Greece
336-323 BCE.

These two later examples are strikingly similar in their depictions. In both coins the right ear is framed by the open jaw of the pelt, lower fangs pronounced and sharp against the cheek, upper fangs lost in a thicket of textured hair. The ear of the lion is prominent and recognizable, as is the mane running down the left edge of the coin. However, visible differences exist between each mane’s form — length, volume, and division of clumps. Close examination reveals variations in facial geometry and proportion; Alexander’s nose and chin display signs of wear and disintegration from time, but other details, particularly their lips, have clear variation in shape. The arresting likeness of each eye and the thick, organic furrow of their brows, though, immediately suggest a kinship between these two men and their shared affinity for Herakles.

Gold Trihemiobol of Philip II, Macedon. Ancient Greece, Hellenistic. c. 359-336 BCE.
Gold Trihemiobol of Philip II, Macedon.
Ancient Greece, Hellenistic. c. 359-336 BCE.

The association of mythological hero with military might — Alexander’s expansion of Grecian influence through combat reached levels once only known through myth — also served as an honorific for soldiers fighting at the leader’s behest. Because soldiers were often paid bonuses for their retention, as was the case with the League of Corinth after Darius’ death in 330 BCE, remuneration for military service was dressed with symbolic heroism since a soldier’s take would be this coinage minted with the imagery of Herakles [17]. The instant identification with superhuman strength and prowess surely created a psychological affinity within re-enlistees whose mortal lives depended on these extra-mortal traits to quell internal fear. Furthermore, as classical scholar Timothy Gantz posits in his book Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, Herakles’ motivation to perform the requisite Twelve Labors was a desire to return to his family [18]. The hero’s tenacity was yet another thread tied to the heart of any soldier wishing a successful return home.

Although Alexander perished suddenly and unceremoniously in 323 BCE, the heft of his acclaim and the size of his achievements added a civic heroism to Heraklean iconography [19]. Heraklean imagery would remain prominent in the following centuries, often as imitations of earlier Alexandrian representations [20]. As the Hellenic Empire crouched towards its nadir in 30 BCE, the immortal god Herakles and the myths of his tumultuous life contrasted the defeat and decline facing the populace [21].

Hercules Farnese. (Front view) After Lyssipos. Marble. 3rd century CE.
Hercules Farnese.
After Lyssipos. Marble. 3rd century CE.

However, skillful representations of Herakles examine this counterpoint to success, the inherent and eventual recession of power and elation from any high point. Sculptor Lysippos, who Grecian art scholar and historian J. J. Pollitt credits as “the single most creative and influential artist of the entire Hellenic period,” extracted elements from the Heraklean narrative to broaden the hero’s ubiquitous image as the pinnacle of strength by revealing the internal labor of a man reckoning with his fate [22]. We see this reflective side in the Heracles Farnese, a 3rd century CE Roman copy of the 4th century BCE original, in the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Fashioned from marble, the statue stands ten feet, four inches high [23].

The work depicts Herakles at rest. He leans against his club, over which hangs the lion’s pelt, the club inserted into its open mouth. His left armpit rests on top of one end of the club, the opposite end balanced against a rock adjacent to the hero. Herakles stands in contrapposto: his left foot forward and right foot drawn back, angled in opposition, knees brought together as the ankle and heel cross the plane of the left leg. Lysippos instigates two specific structural geometries with this positioning: first, the angling of his left leg creates with the balanced club an implied isosceles triangle, the bottom pedestal as its base; second, the angling of his right leg creates with the balanced club an implied rhomboid. These two intersecting shapes create an illusion of a pyramidal volume of negative space underneath his armpit at their convergence and emphasize movement over opposing planes in space.

Lysippos continues by layering this structure with sensuality. Although the sculpture’s underlying structure is angular, both Herakles’ serpentine posture and the organic modeling of his body with rhythmic, undulating lines infuse the composition with spirit, as the titillating, inflated musculature suggests the finest athlete in a moment of his prime [24]. The hero’s shift of weight causes slinky curvature up through his right flank, over his abdominals, and towards his shoulder. Perpendicular to this, a delicious, plane-shifting line begins at his outstretched left index finger and gracefully spirals over the upper contour of his body, behind his neck, down his bent right arm, and terminates at his right hand placed behind his back. The layering of these snaking lines over his contrapposto stance shift Herakles’ body into a pose full of torsion. This tension of crisscross movement in design not only causes constant shifts of light and shadow, but agitates a viewer to question from all sides the complexity of this completely in-the-round composition.

Herakles. After Myron. Marble. 117-138 CE
After Myron. 117-138 CE
Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Photo: theoi.com

Herakles’ rest is truly fascinating since myth underscores him as a man of endurance, and the fact that the Heracles Farnese is one of the most popular and timeless representations from the Hellenic age underscores its allure [25]. This representation even typifies a category of subject matter often called Farnese Type, Herakles at Rest, or the Weary Herakles [26]. One should note that while Lysippos may have created the standard for the mortal dilemma of Herakles, archaeologist Ernest A. Gardner asserts that Myron’s Herakles from the 5th century BCE demonstrates a prevision of the style [27]. Art historian Christine Mitchell Havelock agrees with Gardner’s position and expounds the idea by stating the Farnese was the first of such kind to express great “melancholy and moral weariness, such reflective potential” [28]. Writing in the American Journal of Archaeology, Cornelius Vermeule goes even further, calling the type a “symbol of man’s salvation” in a world of disintegrating values [29].

These observations are undeniable as one analyzes the modeling of Herakles’ face and glance. As he leans on his club, Herakles tilts his head down and looks towards the perched club and hanging pelt. Displaying quintessential Hellenic pathos, Lysippos sculpted Herakles with an internalized, almost sullen gaze [30]. The hero offers us his silent, solitary concentration, a man collecting his thoughts and counting through history the steps of his journey. Here, Herakles looks into the shadows of his past. In the small clay Heracles we see this concentration, a gaze towards the earth and an atmosphere of uninterrupted quiet, but the miniature expresses an internal concentration in-transit, whereas the towering Farnese stands with the weight and stillness of a mountain, locked in self-immersion. This heavy heart encrusted by a mass of inertia multiplies the overall gravity of the composition and the gravitas of its emotion.

Hercules Farnese (Rear view), saholc
Heracles Farnese
Rear view
Photo: saholc

Lastly, the rear view of Lysippos’ composition provides the viewer with the key to fully understanding the work. Displaying more of Lyssipos’ omnipresent, curvilinear sensuality, the rear shows Herakles holding in his right hand — the terminus of Lysippos’ plane-shifting spiral — three apples of the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas. These symbols then identify the work as amidst his penultimate labor: in transit to deliver the apples to Eurystheus. The labor requires Herakles to bear the weight of the celestial globe on his own back, having deceived Atlas into retrieving the apples. Once he completes the labor, he then proceeds towards Libya and his battle with Antaeus [31].

Hercules Farnese, Detail, d0gwalker
Heracles Farnese
Photo: d0gwalker

Lysippos, resting the back of Herakles’ hand on top of his buttock, creates an interesting conceptual contrast. His rear hand positioned in the past holds objects of success while his unclenched front hand of the present is empty, suggesting the polarity of thought in the hero’s mind. Brunilde Sismondo Ridgway seems to agree, suggesting the hand’s position on the buttock is the sign of a “challenged hero … not a triumphant Alexander” [32]. Momentarily, Herakles’ strength of a nation wanes.

In conclusion, we can interpret the Farnese as a monument to the hero’s life, one that marks a succession of triumphant endeavors as it honors the bittersweet recognition of mortality. Yet, the Farnese was only one of many stylistic depictions of hero-nature throughout Hellenic times. Like the Farnese‘s position as an exemplar in sculpture, Herakles would eventually take his place amongst the gods after his apotheosis; however, Herakles and his iconography in Hellenic sculpture are the apotheosis of successful living — the persistence to labor through life’s challenges, whether quotidian ritual or immortal quest, and find one’s inner heroism — an inspirational model for citizens of any century.

[1] T. Gantz. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1993) pg 374.
[2] R. Graves. The Greek Myths. (London: Penguin, 1990.) pp 90-91.
[3] Gantz pg 379; Graves pp 95-97.
[4] Graves pg 86.
[5] W. Burkert. Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual. (Berkeley: University of California, 1979.) pg 78.
[6] G. Richter. The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks. Fourth Edition. (New Haven: Yale University, 1970.) pp 19-23.
[7] Ibid, pg 26.
[8] R. R. R. Smith. Hellenistic Sculpture. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1991.) pg 107.
[9] Ibid, pg 120.
[10] Graves pp 146-147.
[11] Burkert pp 94-95.
[12] C. Hemingway. “The Labors of Herakles.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2000.
[13] T. B. L. Webster. “Personification as a Mode of Greek Thought.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Vol. 17, No. 1/2, 1954. pp 10-11.
[14] Ibid, pg 13.
[15] J. J. Pollitt. Art in the Hellenistic Age. (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1986.) pg 52.
[16] Ibid, pp 25-26.
[17] J. A. Evans. Daily Life in the Hellenistic Age: From Alexander to Cleopatra. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2008.) pp xv-xvi.
[18] Gantz pg 382.
[19] Pollitt pg 28.
[20] O. Palagia. “Art and royalty in Sparta of the 3rd century B.C.” Hesperia 75.2, 2006.
[21] Evans pp xxv-xxx.
[22] Pollitt pg 47.
[23] Ibid, pg 50.
[24] Ibid, pg 50.
[25] C. Vermeule. “The Weary Herakles of Lysippos.” American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 79, No. 4, Oct. 1975. pg 324.
[26] C. M. Havelock. Hellenistic Art. (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1970.); J. Charbonneaux, R. Martin, F. Villard. Hellenistic Art. (New York: George Braziller, 1973.)
[27] E. Gardner. Six Greek Sculptors. 1910. (New York: Books For Libraries, 1967.) pp 230-231.
[28] Havelock pg 120.
[29] Vermeule pg 332.
[30] Pollitt pg 51
[31] Graves pp 145-146.
[32] B. S. Ridgway. Hellenistic Sculpture II: The Styles of ca. 200-100 B.C. (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1989.) pg 306.

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