An "Earthly Paradise"?


Full image.



Gabriel Salmon
French, active 1504–1542
Hercules Attacking a Three Satyrs and a Nymph
Gift of Paul Ehrenfest (Class of 1932) and Elizabeth K. Ehrenfest


As one of the chief heroes of classical mythology, Hercules was naturally a common subject in Renaissance art.  However, in sixteenth-century France, Hercules embodied a variety of meanings—for example as a precursor of Christ, or as a symbol of moral fortitude. Perhaps most interesting of all is the development of the uniquely French concept of the “Gallic Hercules,” crafted from blending Roman historical and pseudo-historical accounts of two personages: the Gallic Hercules-Ogmios, and the Libyan Hercules, tenth king of the Gauls. The idea of a French Hercules (despite its spurious historical origin) allowed French scholars to assert a French parallel to the classical roots of Italian culture.


One such Gallic Hercules was presented in the decorations for the festive entry of Henri II into Paris in 1549.  Atop a triumphal arch fabricated for the occasion stood a figure of Hercules, standing for Henri’s deceased father, François I; as such, François was lauded as the epitome of learning and refinement, and as a patron of the arts. Chains emanating from the Hercules’s mouth literally drew towards him four figures representing the church, the nobility, good counsel, and hard work, symbolizing François’s capacity for eloquent and compelling speech.


This woodcut, from a series of twelve prints by Salmon depicting the Labors of Hercules, is certainly related to the French interest in this topic.  In addition, the fact that Hercules here attacks satyrs and a nymph—considered lustful and base creatures—may be a statement about the moral superiority of Hercules as well as purity and gentility embodied in the Gallic version of the hero.