The Invincible — Works about Hercules and Antaeus (1)

Legends of Greek classics have been explored in art through centuries, yet there is something special about the story of Hercules and Antaeus. First, two males are involved, both of whom are so masculine that they are almost invincible until one has to prove to be even stronger than the other. Secondly, nudity is a natural part of Greek athletics (although in some cases Hercules may wear lion skin or be armed with a club). The flesh of beefy males can be expressed and experienced directly and entirely. Lastly, here comes a wrestling match, which provides the opportunity of and necessitates physical contact in great tension. Those gripping hands, distorted body forms, and angry faces explore the extremity of human nature at the climax of the action. Sculptors, in particular, love the story and numerous sculptures have been created. It is of great interest to compare the works of different artists and hence obtain some insights into individual artistic styles.
The bronze statuette made by Antonio Pollaiuolo is probably at least one of, if not the most famous works about Hercules and Antaeus. The statuette was made circa 1475, in the Bargello of Florence.
The integration of motifs from classical sculpture and mythology into contemporary interests naturally found its niche in the Renaissance period when art focuses on the bodies and minds of human beings. Hercules, in particular, shone his glory in Florence intimately because he was the protector of Florence.
Meanwhile, from the Renaissance period realism and idealism began to be applied to the human body. It was reported that Pollaiuolo carried out dissections in order to gain a better understanding of human anatomy.
What differentiates Pollaiuolo from his contemporaries and even his student Botticelli is that the former is a master of the human body in MOTION. His tempera paintings of “Apollo and Daphne” and “Hercules and the Hydra” (which were possibly painted in the same year of the statuette) show his profound knowledge of muscle contraction under different strenuous actions. It is no surprise that he was fond of such a topic which enabled him unbridled exploration of the human body and form. (Besides this statuette, he made a tempera painting of the same topic in around 1478.)
However, it is still refreshing, almost stunning to look at Pollaiuolo’s work which was made more than 500 years ago. In “Hercules and Antaeus”, he not only excelled in what he is famous for but also masterfully associated body forms with expressions and emotions. The work gives the most exaggerated body form to Antaeus in history. The elevated right leg, the distorted left arm plus the lifted head form a big arc, purporting an eagerness of floating and freedom while he is suspended in the air.
Antaeus’ facial expression makes it obvious the desperate effort he is exerting for the last chance of survival. No matter what exact word he is uttering from his wide-open mouth, viewers can immediately sense his life will soon be gone in this cosmic human violence.Interestingly, unlike later works, Hercules does not stand effortlessly straight. Instead he firmly separated his legs to support the massive weight from his upper body, which has been forced to lean backward. Thus a complimentary body arc is established from Hercules, fulfilling both aesthetic and narrative purposes.

Pollaiuolo took advantage of the lion skin, a prize from the first of 12 Hercules’ labors, to balance the statuette. Without the solidity of lion skin, Hercules might seem unstable and who is up to grab victory would be unclear to viewers.
The genitals of both Hercules and Antaeus are not exposed since they are confronted face to face at the moment. Yet strikingly the two, are not communicating, even though flesh are gripping against each other almost inseparably. NO direct look is essential in the success of the works: it allows artists to describe violence without touching human feelings toward cruelty or sympathy.
Lastly, although Pollaiuolo may have created the most startling body language for Antaeus, he has prepared the most merciful way for his death. According to one version of the story, Antaeus becomes as weak as water when lifted. In Pollaiuolo’s interpretation, Antaeus, the son of the goddess of earth, does not die of strangulation; instead he dies of loss of his spiritual support. Hercules, calmly, almost in a detachment manner, claims his victory through his immense strength and mental independency.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s