Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna, Zurbarán

Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna, Zurbarán
Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna, Zurbarán

The fight between Hercules and the Hydra of Lerna is an oil on canvas made by the Baroque artist Zurbarán, it is a canvas with a mythological theme that represents one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, but which in turn has a strong allegorical and political background.

Zurbarán is one of the great Spanish artists of the Baroque period, his artistic figure has been overshadowed by being a contemporary of perhaps the best painter of Spanish origin of all time, Diego de Vázquez. Francisco Zurbarán (1598 – 1664) is one of the most outstanding figures of the Spanish Golden Age, born in the Andalusian town of Fuente de Cantos, it seems that the young Zurbarán will move to Seville to form together with the artist Pedro Díaz de Villanueva. Both from this stage and from his following years in Extremadura, hardly any work is preserved since his great revelation as an artist was not until the end of the 1920s. For a decade the artist triumphed in Seville and was called to Madrid by the Court to participate in the decoration of the Casón del Buen Retiro.


From this time, in the year 1634 specifically, it is precisely the canvas that concerns us here. It is a horizontal format work of more than a meter and a half in width and one hundred and thirty centimeters in height that is currently exhibited in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Zurbarán represents on canvas one of the Twelve Laborsfrom Hercules: his fight against the Hydra of Lerna.

King Eurystheus commissioned Hercules to destroy the monster created by Hera and that had terrified the town of Lerna, a priori the destruction of the hydra -a monstrous animal with seven heads and a reptilian body- seemed impossible since when one of its heads was cut off, two new ones grew. To carry out this task, Hercules asked for help from his nephew Iolao, who appears to the right of the composition holding the torch they used to burn each of the heads that were cut off from the monster. Zurbarán remains faithful to the literary sources in his composition in such a way that Hercules appears in the center of the composition, half-naked and with an ax in his hand. His clothing is only made up of the skin of the Nemean lion that he had already defeated in one of the previous works. On the left the monstrous animal defends itself inside his lair

The light is gloomy, projected from an external spotlight, it illuminates the main hero while the rest of the composition remains in shadow. Special mention deserves the anatomical study that the artist represented in the figure of Hercules.

In this canvas Zurbarán intends to pay tribute to the Spanish monarchy of the Habsburgs and more specifically to the figure of Felipe IV establishing an analogy between the figure of Hercules and that of the monarch as the savior of Catholicism against the protestant threat.

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