The Laocoön

I have been reading an interesting book “The Mirror of the Gods” by Malcolm Bull.  The author discusses the revival of Greco-Roman mythology during the Renaissance and how those myths show up in art.  In the book he briefly discusses the stunning Laocoön sculpture group, one of my favorite sculptures.  It would be worth taking a trip to Rome just to see it.  Bull mentions this sculpture when he is talking about the sources that Renaissance artists and patrons had for referencing mythology.

Laocoön, Roman copy from 1st c. AD after 2nd c. BC Hellenistic original, Vatican Museums

Laocoön (pronounced lah-ock-o'-own) was a figure in the Trojan war, he was a priest who warned the Trojans not to accept the Trojan horse as a gift.  However the goddess Athena wanted to see Troy defeated so she sent serpents to strangle Laocoön and his sons, it is that moment which is being shown.  This is an extremely powerful image and a good example of the Hellenistic style in Greek sculpture.  This was marked by an extreme realism and often with a dramatic subject matter.  The struggle for life and death is evident in all figures, both in their contorted poses and in their expressions.

Dying Slave, Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1513-15, Louvre

The original Greek statue was lost but a Roman copy (today in the Vatican) was discovered in Rome in an excavation in 1506.  Michelangelo was in Rome at that time and was one of the first to see it.  The sculpture was a huge influence in Michelangelo’s own work, the twisting torso showed up many times in his sculptures.  He was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos at the time and the musculature and anatomy seen in the Laocoön group can be seen in the Sistine Chapel ceiling figures.  A good example is seen in the figures surrounding God Separating Darkness and Light.

God Separating Darkness and Light, Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1509,
Sistine Chapel Ceiling fresco, Vatican, Italy

This was a well known and highly praised work of art in the Renaissance, so I found it surprising when I found that it never became a popularly represented myth in painting or sculpture. 

There were very few original images I could find from the 16th through 19th centuries, such as this painting by El Greco.  

Laocoön, El Greco, c-1610, National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.)

Ancient Rome, Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1757, Metropolitan Museum of Art

However there were quite a few works of art during that same time period which referenced the Laocoön in the Vatican.  There were several sculptural copies, many prints and etchings and more than a few paintings which included the work.  One example is Panini’s painting gallery of Ancient Rome (he painted three versions) that show a variety of ancient sculptures and buildings in Rome.

The Finding of the Laocoön, Hubert Robert, 1773, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

Another example is 18th century French Neoclassical painter Hubert Robert’s The Finding of the Laocoön, where the scene of this discovery is imagined in a romanticized scene.  In The Mirror of the Gods, Bull does wonder why some scenes from mythology are popularly represented in art and why some are not.  He discussed that usually this happens with a little known myth or where the original representations of it aren’t well known.  That is clearly not the case with the Laocoön.  Were there few other original interpretations because the sculpture is so striking that it set too high a standard for other artists to compete with?  Even if other original depictions of the Laocoön story did not commonly show up in art, this sculpture had a definite influence on art centuries after it was unearthed.

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