BRONZE HERAKLES- The statuette is a masterpiece of ancient bronze casting. It is a work striking for both the beauty and the perfection in rendering of the human body: the naturalistic approach for the shapes is combined here with the knowledge of styles from the Classical period; the interest in details is stressed by employing additional techniques such as chiseling and inlaying. The figure represents Herakles, the most famous ancient Greek hero, in a dramatic moment of one of his labors – the right arm holding the club and raised high above the head is ready to slush, the right leg is advanced and bent at the knee, the torso is inclined forward following the same vigorous movement, the muscles of the entire body are rendered in great tension – everything showing the climax of combat before the hero’s victory over the adversary.
The first things to discuss are the subject matter and the composition. What precisely is the depicted labor? Was it chosen from the canonic twelve deeds of Herakles, or from the stories telling additional adventures of the hero? Was this figure connected to another one to form a sculptural group, or were they merely set side by side? Was Herakles represented alone, leaving the spectator to guess at the subject matter and to imagine the complete story?
The lion’s skin, the common attribute of Herakles along with his club and the bow, is not represented here in the usual way, bound around his shoulders, with a knot at the neck. This may suggest that the figure depicts the first labor, the fight with the Nemean lion; however, Herakles’ upward gaze, directed well above the lion’s figure, excludes this possibility. The remains of the shoulder and its position indicate that the arm was lowered and followed the diagonal line of the left leg, so the lion’s skin would be wrapped around the left hand as is attested to several similar compositions.
Greek art explored at length the thematic range of Herakles labors, making it especially popular in vase painting and sculpture from the late 6th and continuing through the 5th century B.C. Herakles appears in the sculptural decoration of the friezes and metopes of Greek temples, where he is represented on the side of the gods and heroes struggling against the enemies or executing his deeds. Sometimes there was a direct political reason in choosing a particular episode among his labors. One such became the scene of Apollo and Herakles struggle for the Delphian tripod: the motive was associated in the early 6th century B.C. with the outcome of the First Sacred War. As the composition of the bronze figure does not indicate that Herakles might have held the tripod, the struggle with Apollo was not chosen for this representation.
In studying the representations of Herakles’ labors from the point of view of their composition (keeping in mind the idea of the eye level of the figures and their interaction), the research should include the relief sculpture, because no sculpture in the round, especially the complete sculptural groups, survived from the Classical period. The metopes with Herakles and one of the mares of Diomedes from the temple of Zeus at Olympia (started in 456 B.C.) and the Hephaisteion in Athens (ca. 450 B.C.) appear to be the right choice. The arm holding the club is raised, the step is advanced; however closer comparison reveals the difference in the turn of the head: if we imagine that the bronze Herakles held the bridle in his left hand, the head is turned back and does not look at the mare. The frieze of the temple of Apollo in Bassae (420-400 B.C.) shows a similar pose, but reversed, of Herakles fighting against the Amazon Hippolyta, who is represented opposite him. This demonstrates that the statuette, although referring to the iconographic schemes in group arrangements in Greek Classical art, does not copy them in a precise way. As the statuette does not show any trace of a connection to a joint figure in the composition, we can conclude that the bronze was designed as a single figure. This idea is supported by the fact that, although the figure received complete three-dimensional modeling, the main position (the head seen strictly in profile while the torso is frontal) is sufficient to recognize the action.
This particularity of the composition is typical for Greek statuary of the Severe style and found in few surviving bronze pieces in the round of about 460 B.C.: the statue of Zeus/Poseidon from the Cape Artemision (Athens, National Archaeological Museum) and the statuette of Herakles from Mantinea (the Louvre). The male body type and the proportions are similar: a strong body build with broad shoulders, pectoral, and broad waist are characteristic. The structure is also defined by the strong, well-trained muscles of the back, buttocks, and legs.