I decided to do an analysis of the Laocoon (see left) not due to any interest in Ancient Greek art, but because it has been the inspiration for artists down the centuries. The Laocoon comes from a period, the Hellenistic Era, when Greek sculpture moved from the rather stiff and immobile art and the idealised forms of previous periods, into a more natural free flowing art full of passion and emotion, whilst still retaining some of the features of previous periods. I have chosen the Laocoon because it best represents this change of style. When discussed by historians, the Hellenistic era is understood to represent the spread of Greek culture during and beyond the time of Alexander the Great, well into the Roman Republic. Most Hellenistic sculptures have not made the journey to the present day, and we are very much reliant upon Roman copies for our studies.
This might be the best point at which to characterize the Hellenistic style in sculpture. We can take, for example, the winged victory, Nike of Samothrace (see right), now resident in the Louvre, in Paris. Her wings are stretched out to catch the wind as she lands on the prow of a ship. This massive sculpture, which is approximately 11 feet tall, appears to be almost weightless, as is portrayed by the slight ruffling of the wings and the drapery being caught by the wind. This is a sculpture about action and emotion, two of the most important themes in Hellenistic sculpture. However, with the thrill of victory, there also comes the agony of defeat, another major theme in Hellenistic sculpture. A good example is the Dying Gaul (see left). This image shows a Roman copy of an original. The agony is apparent, as is the dignity of this suffering barbarian. I think that John Boardman sums this up nicely when he writes:-
The only step an artist could take beyond sheer idealized realism was to elaborate it for dramatic effect, and to dwell on the particular rather than the general, in other words, through expression of emotion and mood, and with a more lifelike treatment of portraiture, though not quite warts-and-all.
(Boardman, 1996, p.226)
The earliest reference, of which I am aware, to the Laocoon is by Pliny the Elder (23-79AD), who rated the work very highly indeed in his Naturalis Historia:-
Furthermore the fame of many is not great, for in certain instances the number of artists involved stands in the way of their achieving individual renown even in the case of outstanding works, since no single person received the glory and since many names cannot all be recognized equally. Thus it is with the Laokoon in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that must be considered superior to all other products of the arts of painting and sculpture. From one stone the eminent artists Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros of Rhodes, following an agreed-upon plan, made him [Laokoon], his sons, and the marvellous intertwining of the snakes.
(Quoted in Pollitt, 1990, p.114)
I think I would agree with Pliny when he states that this is “a work that must be considered superior to all other products of the arts of painting and sculpture”, although perhaps I would not be quite so praising. This sculpture is a very intense dramatization of the suffering of Laocoon and his sons, depicting in utter realism the agony that can befall man. The serpents unite the three figures, drawing the observer from one figure to the next. Every inch of Laocoon’s face depicts his pain, from his wrinkled forehead to the half shut eyes and parted lips. The figure cries out in pain. All three figures are portrayed in an evocative state of agony. There is not an inch of the sculpture that is free from pain and torment, from the basic human emotions.
The Laocoon is thought to have been created around 50 BC, although there appears to be a degree of debate about the actual date, and there are dates for this work ranging from 160BC to 20BC. However there are inscriptions at Lindos on Rhodes which date Hagesandros and Athenodoros to a period after 42BC, which makes the period 42BC – 20BC the most likely date of the creation of this work. This sculpture depicts Laocoon, a priest in Troy, and his two sons being attacked by two large serpents, which had been sent by the gods for angering them with his attempts to warn the Trojans about the danger of the Trojan Horse:
‘Do you imagine Greeks ever give gifts without some devious purpose? Is this all you know about Ulixes? I tell you there are Greeks hiding in here, shut up in all this wood, or else it is a siege engine designed for use against our walls, to spy on our homes and come down on the city from above, or else there is some other trick we cannot see. Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I am afraid of Greeks, even when they bear gifts.’
(Virgil (trans West D), 2003, p.26)
Due to evidence that the Aeneid appears to have been written later, between 29 and 19BC, than the Laocoon seems to have been created, it is unlikely that the artists of this work would have been aware of Virgil’s very powerful description of the attack upon Laocoon and his sons:
Laocoon, the chosen priest of Neptune, was sacrificing a huge bull at the holy altar, when suddenly there came over the calm water from Tenedos (I shudder at the memory of it), two serpents leaning into the sea in great coils and making side by side for the shore. Breasting the waves, they held high their blood-stained crests, and the rest of their bodies ploughed the waves behind them, their backs winding, coil upon measureless coil, through the sounding foam of the sea. Now they were on land. Their eyes were blazing and flecked with blood. They hissed as they licked their lips with quivering tongues. We grew pale at the sight and ran in all directions, but they made straight for Laocoon. First the two serpents seized his two young sons, twining round them both and feeding on their helpless limbs. Then, when Laocoon came to the rescue with his sword in his hand, they seized him and bound him in huge spirals, and soon their scaly backs were entwined twice round his body and twice round his throat, their heads and necks high above him as he struggled to prise open their coils, his priestly ribbons befouled by gore and black venom, and all the time he was raising horrible cries to heaven like the bellowing of a wounded bull shaking the ineffectual axe out of its neck as it flees from the altar.
(Virgil (trans West D), 2003, p.31)
However, given Virgil’s prose description and the visual representation, there is a very distinct similarity between the two.
In the Laocoon we have a marvellous example of the techniques that the artists employed to create the stunning baroque effect. Laocoon cocks his head to one side as he looks to the skies, with furrowed brow, slightly open mouth and his beard and hair in complete disarray. Laocoon’s facial expression communicates despair, pain, and astonishment at the reason for such a brutal attack, his younger son has his head tilted backward, obviously from the pain of the serpent biting into his torso. Meanwhile, the older son looks on, a serpent wound around his arm, but he is concentrating on removing the coil of the other serpent from his leg. He is looking at his father and brother with an expression can best be described as ‘terrified’, although in his eyes we see a degree of pity, and the faint hope that if he could just unwrap the coils, he could escape. The bodies also transmit their suffering, the muscles in Laocoon’s legs and arms are taut, and the veins in his extremities bulging to the surface. His left hand grasps at a serpent as it bites him, the knuckles showing the tightness of his grip, as he is being bitten, the muscles in his torso contract and show the outline of his ribs. The intricate details of the sculpture extend all the way down its base; the toes on Laocoon’s right foot are curled in pain, and the right foot of the younger son is pressed in pain against his left foot. This group, both through the facial contortions and the intricacy of the bodily details, portrays emotions of fear, pain, not only that but also a sense of disbelief as Laocoon looks to the gods and seems to be asking “Why me?”
By the time of the Laocoon, Hellenistic art had lost, or rejected, any connections with religion or magic. Artists and artisans were becoming increasingly aware of the problems involved in their craft for its own sake. The problems of how to represent such a dramatic conflict, with its tension and movement, would have challenged their skills, with any thoughts of the morality of the story far from their minds. This was aided by social and political changes, and increased migration during the Hellenistic Age, bringing artists and artisans into contact with other cultures and styles which they would eagerly adopt, adapt and incorporate into their own working practices. J J Pollitt makes this point quite well:
…whether one embraced or shrank from the social and political changes of the Hellenistic world, they compelled those who experienced them to adopt attitudes toward life that were markedly different from the group-oriented values of the Classical period.
(Pollitt, 2006, p.1)
This led to much more naturalistic works than those of the past, such as the very rigid and stiff forms of works like Cleobis and Biton (see left) from the Archaic period, or the more idealised forms of works like Discobolis (see right below) from the Classical period. Overall, in comparison to these earlier works, the Hellenistic baroque provides us with a much more aesthetically naturalistic representation.
The Laocoon was probably commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman and was rediscovered in 1506 on the site of Emperor Nero’s Golden House. Upon hearing of this wonderful discovery Pope Julius II ensured its acquisition and had it installed in the Vatican’s Belvedere Garden. The work also had a profound effect on the art of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo, in particular, is known to have admired not only its massive scale, but also its aesthetic sensuousness, particularly the depiction of the male figures. I think that works like the Rebellious Slave (see left below) demonstrate the influence of the Laocoon upon Michelangelo. It has since had quite a chequered history, having been seized by Napoleon after his conquest of Italy and transported to the Louvre where it became a source of inspiration for French neo-classicism. It was later returned to the Vatican by the British after the fall of Napoleon.
In conclusion, I have shown why I think that Laocoon is a fine example of the Hellenistic baroque. The depictions of action and emotion, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat all combine to present a much more naturalistic, realistic and aesthetically pleasing work than those from the earlier periods. The inspirational effect that it had on later artists, such as Michelangelo, is also part of the significance of this work. This work, in my opinion, could easily have been created by one of the great Renaissance artists.
Boardman, John. 1996. Greek Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
Pollitt, J. J. 1990. The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pollitt, J. J. 2006. Art in the Hellenistic Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Virgil (trans West D). 2003. The Aeneid. London: Penguin Classics.