Hercules

 

Albrecht Drer

1471 Nuremberg 1528

Hercules ca. 1498

engraving; 324 x 223 mm (12 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches)

Bartsch 73; Meder 63 second (final) state, before the scratch on the right calf of Hercules b (Meder lists further editions with the scratch from a to f); Schoch/Mende/Scherbaum 22

watermark

small jug (Meder 158; dated ca. 1525)

provenance

P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London (their stock nos. in pencil verso C3437 and C14119)

A richly inked impression, even displaying tonal wiping in some of the darker areas, most notable on the body and shawl of the female nude; trimmed on the plate mark all round; the sheet is untreated with only some faint browning along the left edge.*

With this print Drer revisits the subject of Ercules about two years after he had created the woodcut that bears this title on a small cartellino (Meder 238) The engraving is not titled but scholarship has generally followed Panofskys identification of this somewhat mysterious image. Some scholars saw it as an allegory of jealously or cuckoldry while others believed that it was the print referred to in the artists Netherlandish Diary as Der Hercules. Panofsky noted that while The title Der Hercules proved puzzling rather than helpful so long as one attempted to identify the subject of the engraving with one of the heros recognized labors. It represents, however, not an act of physical bravery but a moral dilemma. According to a parable first recorded by Xenophon, the youthful Hercules, not yet resolved about his future, encountered two attractive and eloquent though very different ladies. One of these, Pleasure, lasciviously dressed and carefully made up, tries to lure him into a life of luxury and self-indulgence; the other, Virtue, simple and honest, described the moral satisfaction to gained by hardships and gallantry. Hercules, of course, decided for Virtue, and forth he went to kill his first lion. (Panofskys of course inevitably tells us as much about the sexual mores of 1945 as it does the Hercules story).

Yet inconsistencies remain: Why does the hero not wear the lions skin that is one of his most recognizable attributes? Does his fantastic headgear have any disguised symbolic meaning? Why does Hercules, who will choose virtue over vice, defend the latter against the strike that chaste virtue is about to unleash? It is equally plausible, therefore, that what we see is not a neat illustration of one or many classical parables unearthed by iconological detective work. Instead Drer might have created a pasticcio of pathos figures against which the learned humanistic viewer could test his knowledge of the classical literary tradition.