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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hercules  

Hercules is an exemplary hero, personifying bravery, fortitude, and strength. His myths are a reminder that such a supreme manifestation of virility and physicality can also encompass sexual deeds outside the .

Hercules is complex and multivalent. He was dual by birth, fathered by Jupiter with the mortal Alcmene. His feats thus had a godlike quality, and apotheosis after death ensured his place on Olympus.

But his path was far from smooth, and he especially suffered bouts of madness. After murdering his children, Hercules undertook Twelve Labors as penance. These and other feats came to stand for moral triumph as well as physical victory.

In the Greek tradition, according to Nicole Loraux, his insanity and painful death "constitutes a means of experiencing femininity in his body."

One of his exploits particularly enabled depiction of close physical contact with another male body. The giant Antaeus drew his strength from Mother Earth and thus was defeated when Hercules wrestled him off the ground. Many artists--such as Mantegna and Michelangelo-- enjoyed the challenge of representing two naked, muscular, male bodies grappling at close quarters.

Usually, Hercules lifted Antaeus up so that the giant's buttocks were near or touching the hero's genitals. Sometimes, Hercules stood directly behind the elevated giant.

Intimations of are especially clear in a Florentine "Picture Chronicle" attributed to Maso Finiguerra or the workshop of his pupil Baccio Baldini, and dated to the 1460s or early 1470s (British Museum). The entwined couple of a beardless youth and a mature adult seem to share the same torso. Conquered Antaeus is in the throes of orgasmic "death."

Alongside his heroic exploits, Hercules was a man given to pleasures. He had several affairs with women, but was most often pictured with a Lidian queen, Omphale. As her slave and lover, Hercules cross-dressed and took up spinning. Images of this effeminized Hercules illustrated the adage "Love conquers all."

But Greek legend also claimed that Hercules loved the golden-haired youth Hylas. Poliziano's Orpheus, first staged in 1480, has its chief protagonist repudiate women and praise male-only love since it is practiced by the gods: "To this holy love did Hercules concede."

Patricia Simons


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Hercules and Cacus by Bartolommeo Bandinelli (1493-1560).
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arts >> Overview:  Classical Art

Ancient Greek and Roman art represents a variety of homoerotic experience in several different ways.

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The Greco-Roman myths concerning same-sex love have been of crucial importance to the Western gay and lesbian literary heritage, both as texts and as icons.

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The various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented, provide a great deal of evidence about Renaissance sexuality and art.

arts >> Michelangelo Buonarroti

The most famous artist who ever lived, Michelangelo left an enormous legacy in sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture, and poetry; while the artist's sexual behavior cannot be documented, the homoerotic character of his drawings, letters, and poetry is unmistakable.

literature >> Poliziano

The fifteenth-century Italian scholar and poet Poliziano wrote many homoerotic Greek and Latin epigrams, published when he was seventeen.


Loraux, Nicole. "Herakles: The Super-male and the Feminine." Before Sexuality: The Construction of Erotic Experience in the Ancient Greek World. David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin, eds. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. 21-52.

Reid, Jane Davidson. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Simons, Patricia  
    Entry Title: Subjects of the Visual Arts: Hercules  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 18, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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