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Hercules, Deianira and the Centaur Nessus

Bartholomeus Spranger1580/1582

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Apart from Hans von Aachen, it was primarily the Netherlandish artist Bartholomäus Spranger who dominated the art of painting at the court of Emperor Rudolph II. Spranger had spent ten years (1565–1575) in Milan, Parma and Rome before coming to Prague in 1580. The present painting was one of his first imperial commissions and probably part of a series of mythological depictions. Spranger reduced the dramatic action to an obvious arrangement of the participating characters set against an almost neutral background. The powerful physiognomy of the figures and their twisted postures reflect the influence of sculptors such as Giambologna and Adriaen de Vries. On the way to their home, Hercules and Deianira reach the river Evenus, which is in flood. The Centaur Nessus offers to help the newly weds cross the river. While Hercules can easily master the floods on his own, Nessus is supposed to carry Deianira to the other side. Too late does Hercules realise that Nessus wants to abduct and seduce his wife; he can save her only by shooting the traitor. As he lies dying, however, the Centaur – depicted with extreme foreshortening at the bottom left corner of the painting – sets the stage for his deadly revenge: he tells Deianira that his blood holds the power of love. If ever in need, she should dip a piece of cloth into it (which can be seen here between the lovers, foreboding Hercules’s fate), sew Hercules a tunic from it, and give it to him as a present. When Deianira makes use of it in despair a few years later, the cloth, which contrary to the Centaur’s promise has been soaked in poison, clings to Hercules’s body, setting his flesh afire. He chooses to commit suicide, immolating himself on a pyre, and Deianira follows him into death. The erotic allusions are obvious: Amor appears at the upper left of the painting as the figure responsible for their sorrow and looks ironically at the doomed couple. © Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2010

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