Hercules and Lichas

Hercules and Lichas  (click on link to access picture)

Title: Hercules and Lichas
Artist: Christoph Unterberger
Date:1784-86
Medium: Fresco
Location: The Borghese Gallery, Rome
Dimensions: not recorded

The scene of Hercules and Lichas, painted by the little-known Christoph Unterberger, spreads across the lower right side of the ceiling in one of the several rooms in the Borghese Gallery.  Though difficult to find online and impossible to take a picture of, this fresco is a fascinating subject of study.  It was created between the years of 1784 and 1786, a time in which neoclassicism (Enlightened Classicism) was spreading across Europe.  This fresco, which portrays two ancient, mythological figures, is a perfect example of neoclassicism.  In the 18th century, artists often took Classical themes and reworked them, particularly focusing on heroism, courage, and moments of high intensity.  In this scene, Unterberger does just that.  The ancient story goes like this: Upon hearing of another female who might present some competition, Deianira (Hercules’ lover) sends him a blood-soaked robe; the monster Nessus once told her that the cloth would re-excite his love for her if ever the need be.  However, Nessus was lying, and the blood on the robe is actually terribly poisonous.  Lichas, Hercules’ servant, brings the robe to Hercules upon Deianira’s orders, and Hercules lays the cloth over his shoulders.  In the blinding agony that ensues when the poisonous robe touches Hercules’ skin, Hercules assumes Lichas was trying to kill him.  In a fit of rage and pain, he tosses Lichas into the sea.  This is the moment that is pictured in this fresco.

Though not exactly a moment of heroism, Hercules’ brute strength and intimidating power is certainly pictured here in utter clarity.  Even in agony, the half-man, half-god stands taller and stronger than his opponent.  In Classicism, Hercules was admired and emulated for his ability to dominate his opposition.  Clearly, the subject matter of this fresco is solely Classical, and the techniques—fresco medium with humanistic characters—also have strong Classical influences.  As to the presence of water in this piece of art, the wild sea stands as a significant backdrop to the turmoil-filled domination that plays in the forefront.  The sea is quite possibly the personification of Hercules’ physical distress, fury, and ultimate power.  Roaring waves and foam crash behind him as Hercules tosses Lichas into the ocean to be consumed by those same waves.  Though water is not directly involved in the action, without it, the fresco would seem flat, boring, and out of context.  By adding this element to the one-sided battle between the Hercules and Lichas, Unterberger not only frames the event, but he also emphasizes Hercules’ anger, pain, and brute strength.  In this instance, water is on the same side as man—the perfect man, that is—and it is no surprise that this is the team who finds a certain victory over the weak and unprepared servant.  This subtext adds a deeper layer of harmony to this neoclassical painting, further highlighting its Classical influence.  It may seem strange that artists were retelling old mythological stores in the 18th century, but they often used these stories to encourage traits that were still valued by the Enlightenment thinkers, traits such as heroism, revolution, strength, and courage.  Here, though in a somewhat weird situation, Hercules is displaying these traits that were so prized by thinkers in the 18th century.

“Hercules.” Online-mythology.com. Mythology Guide. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

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