Heracles and Antaeus


The masks of Heracles and Antaeus are a variation on the bas-reliefs gracing houses in Pompeii, or, more precisely, a piece of decoration from the Nymphaeum of the House with the Large Fountain (from the second century BC). As in the ancient prototype, the twin masks relate a story of “the victor and the vanquished”. This explains the anguished look in anticipation of imminent death on Antaeus’s face, as well as Heracles’s countenance – a frowned brow and frighteningly wide eyes, the face of someone who, while still in the heat of struggle, knows he is winning. The arrangement of the forms, resembling a solid rectangle, in itself gives an air of assertiveness to Heracles, who is easily recognizable by his lion skin on his shoulder. The elliptic contour of Antaeus’s mask, meanwhile, is unstable in its egg-shaped curve. The modelling and the treatment of details and characters are likewise differentiated: the mask of Heracles is dominated by geometrical lines and shapes, that of Antaeus by whimsical twists and circular forms. What the masks share in common is a stylized design with crisp edges, an ornamentality of details, and nearly graphic contours. An aestheticised treatment distinguishes the modern masks from their ancient prototypes and makes them original pieces of work rather than copies.

 

Brief annotations to the image

HERACLES AND ANTAEUS are characters from an ancient Greek myth about the struggle between the hero and the giant. Walking to the Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles met Antaeus. Antaeus challenged Heracles to a wrestling match, confident that he could beat anyone who did not know his secret: when he was losing his strength, he only had to touch the ground (his mother was Gaia, the goddess personifying the Earth) to regain vigour. Heracles could not defeat Antaeus by throwing him several times to the ground, and only when he held Antaeus aloft could he crush him by strangling or breaking his backbone.