Laocoön and His Sons: Art and Myth (Guest post by Analisa Soverns-Reed from Accessible Art History)

Throughout history, myths and legends have provided endless subject matter for works of art. The stories of gods, heroes, war, and love have served as inspiration for many of the great works we have come to know and love! One of these great works is a sculpture group called Laocoön and His Sons. Created during the Hellenistic period, it shows the torment and agony of a Trojan priest and his sons. Even thousands of years later, we can read their expressions and feel their pain. It is as the Trojan War has come to life before our very eyes! 

Laocoön and his sons (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Story

The story of Laocoön appears in several ancient texts, including Virgil’s Aeneid, Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica, and Sophocles’ lost tragedy, Laocoön.  In the myth, the title character was a Trojan priest and he was wary of the Greeks bearing gifts. As you may know, during the Trojan War, the Greek forces were having trouble breaching the walls of Troy. So, they decided to build a giant horse and hide their troops inside. The Greeks then offered the horse as a gift to the unsuspecting Trojans. 

Laocoön begged his fellow Trojans not to bring the horse into the city. But, the goddess Athena (who had sided with the Trojans), caused an earthquake and blinded him. This scared the Trojans and they believed that the divine retribution meant that they should, in fact, accept the horse. He continued to protest despite the divine punishment. This angered Athena even more and she sent two sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his two sons on a beach near the city. 

Their divine murder was the nail in the coffin for Troy because its citizens saw it as a clear sign that they must accept the Greeks’ gift. As we know, in the dark of night, the Greeks broke out of the horse and attacked the city from the inside out. Troy falls and the war is over. If only they had listened to Laocoön. 

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Domenico Tiepolo 1773 (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The Statue – Description

This statue captures the pain, frustration, and angst of Laocoön’s final moments. The sea serpents wind themselves around the three figures’ bodies, making it impossible for them to escape their fate. We can see their muscles straining as they try to free themselves. Laocoön’s facial expression is one of utter despair. He has already been blinded by Athena, but he could still hear the anguish of his sons’ screams. The one on our left leans back in pain, while the one on our right looks at his father in confusion. The sheer emotion in this piece has led to it being called “the prototypical icon of human agony in Western art.

The Statue – Ancient History

Art historians generally agree that this statue is one of the finest examples of Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque“. Dating from around 200 BCE, it was likely first cast in bronze and then copied in marble. Fascinatingly, Pliny wrote about this work in his Natural History,

Such is the case with the Laocoön, for example, in the palace of the Emperor Titus, a work that may be looked upon as preferable to any other production of the art of painting or of [bronze] statuary. It is sculptured from a single block, both the main figure as well as the children, and the serpents with their marvelous folds. This group was made in concert by three most eminent artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes”. 

Unfortunately, Pliny doesn’t tell us how the Lacoön statue group made its way from Greece/Asia Minor to the Italian peninsula. But, with the Roman penchant for conquering and looting, that is likely the way it came into the imperial art collection. 

The Statue – Rediscovery

At one point, the Laocoön statue group was lost to history. But, that changed in February 1506. That month, it was unearthed in the vineyards of a Roman winemaker named Felice De Fredis. He alerted the government and news reached the ears of Pope Julius II. He was an enthusiastic art collector and passionate classicist. Wanting to add the statue to his personal collection, Julius immediately sent emissaries out to the winery to examine the statue. Part of that group was none other than Michelangelo! The sculptor Francesco da Sangallo tagged along with his father and wrote an account of the discovery sixty years later: 

I climbed down to where the statues were when immediately my father said, “That is the Laocoön, which Pliny mentions”. Then they dug the hole wider so that they could pull the statue out. As soon as it was visible everyone started to draw all the while discoursing on ancient things, chatting as well about the ones in Florence.” 

After the statue group was dug up, Julius II had it installed in his new Belvedere Garden at the Vatican. (Today, that space is a part of the Vatican Museum). However, about 250 years later, the Laocoön group was stolen by Napoleon and his troops during the invasion of Italy. He installed it in the new Musée Central des Arts at the Louvre. Eventually, after the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, the statue was returned to Italy. Today, it is in the collection of the Vatican Museum in Rome, Italy. 

Pop Julius II (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Influence

Pliny wrote that the Laocoön statue group “a work to be preferred to all that the arts of painting and sculpture have produced” and the art history world tends to agree with him! For many people, the depiction of the human form in agony in this work gives it the title of the best work of art ever created. Its composition inspired works by great names such as Michelangelo and Peter Paul Rubens! 

Conclusion

The Laocoön statue group is one of the most influential in art history. Not only does it help us to understand a great myth from the past, but it allows us to experience the agony of divine intervention.

Sources

BBC Culture: Laocoön and His Sons: The revealing detail in an ancient find

My Modern Met: All About ‘Laocoön and His Sons’: A Marble Masterpiece From the Hellenistic Period

Smart History: Athanadoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his Sons

Wikipedia: Laocoön, Laocoön and His Sons,

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