Greek Mythology and Hercules

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Capturing the Herculean Hero
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...
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