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By Alex Keyes
In the museum database item A97 is listed as a “Nude figure half seated with outstretched arms and curly hair, possibly a lar statue. Roman”. Like the statuette of Mercury from my last article, it formed part of the collection of the Rev W.H ‘Jumbo’ Mills, however the identity of this piece is far less certain.
It was probably used for religious devotion in a family home, see Article IV: A Statue of the God Mercury, and formed part of a private shrine. Beyond this there is little to speculate on, the statue could represent a lar, an anonymous guardian deity unique to a particular household, however I consider the most likely candidate to be Hercules (or Heracles), in Greek mythology the son of the god Zeus and the mortal woman Alcmene.
For Greco-Roman authors and artists, the childhood of Hercules provided a panoply of dramatic material. In most versions of the story the young Hercules is tormented by the goddess Hera, who angered by the adultery of her husband Zeus seeks revenge on his illegitimate offspring. In one account Hera sent two giant snakes into the crib of Hercules and his mortal twin Iphicles. While Iphicles wept in fear, the infant Hercules strangled the serpents and played with them like toys. This is the scene which I believe Item A97 represents.
Basalt statue dating from the 2nd-3rd centuries CE
Hercules’s childhood battle with the snakes was a common motif in Greek and Roman sculpture. One of the finest surviving depictions of the subject is a basalt statue dating from the 2nd-3rd centuries CE, now displayed at the Capitoline museum in Rome. While executed on a much grander scale than Louth museum’s example the two artworks share a number of similarities: both date from approximately the same period, the two figures are prematurely muscular toddlers probably about two-three years old, both have distinctive curly hair and both have their arms out stretched. Sadly, A97 is missing any trace of snakes, however its hands are severely damaged, meaning that they could once have been attached. A snake would have been one of the finer pieces of detail, and on such a small work, one that could have been broken off.
Even closer parallels can be seen between other miniature bronzes of the period, including the three below.
Exhibited at the Musée de Metz
Exhibited at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art
Exhibited at the British Museum
While this certainly isn’t the last word on the statuette’s identity, I believe that I have demonstrated at the very least that Hercules is a viable candidate.
© Alex Keyes 2017
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