Laocoon and his Sons
Last night while browsing through a photo book on Greek Art, I came across this startling picture of Laocoon and his children, strangled by sea snakes. I must have seen this famous picture a dozen times before, but somehow I never did have the time to examine it in detail. Upon close inspection, Laocoon really seems to stand out from the other Grecian sculptures I have seen, which now seemed transparent and placid in comparison.
This marble sculpture of Laocoon and his Sons (or the Laocoon Group) is a epic work of art first discovered during the Italian Renaissance in ruins of Titus’ palace in Rome. A Trojan priest, Laocoon was attacked punished by gods favoring the Greeks because he warned the Trojans against allowing the famous Trojan horse into the city. He was attacked by sea snakes while performing a sacrifice at the altar of Neptune.
Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid describes Laocoon’s struggle:
Clamores simul horrendos ad sidera tollit:
quales mugitus, fugit cum saucius aram
taurus, et incertam excussit cervice securim.
"At the same time he raised to the stars
hair-raising shouts like the roars of a bull
when it flees wounded from a sacrificial altar
and shakes the ineffectual axe from its neck"
However, prominent 18th century German critic Johann Winckelmann suggested that Virgil's description could not be applied to Laocoon. Winckelmann in “Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture”(1750), also introduced his famous motto of "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” (Edle Einfalt und stille Größe) through an analysis of Laocoon:
“Ultimately the distinguishing characteristic of the great Greek works is that of a noble simplicity and quiet grandeur, as much in stance as in expression. Just as the depths of the ocean are ever calm, however wildly the surface rages, so the expressions on the faces of the Greeks, for all the passion behind them, reveal only great, tranquil souls. It is this soul that is portrayed in the figure of suffering Laocoon, and not only in his face.
The pain that is visible in every muscle and sinew of the body, which one can almost feel as one examines the horribly contorted lower body, not to speak of the face and other parts of the body; this pain, I repeat, is borne on the face without a hint of rage, as is true of the figure's whole bearing.
Here there is no cry of horror, as Virgil imagines; the position of the mouth clearly precludes that. In its place, there is only an anxious yet stifled sigh. Physical pain and magnanimity are, as it were, balanced throughout the figure. Laocoon suffers, but it is suffering like of Sophocles' Philoctetes; his misery pierces our very soul, but even more we are made to envy his awesome attainment of dignity in misfortune.”
Goethe, in his 1798 essay Ueber Laokoon, emphasized on the diametrical style of motion inherent within the statue’s form:
“The serpent has not yet bitten; it is biting only now, in the soft part of the body, above and slightly behind the hip... the body shudders and contracts, its shoulders tense, causing the chest to jut out, while the head bends towards the afflicted side; and as the burden of the preceding action or situation is revealed to us in the immoblized legs and flailing arms, there arises a unique complex of contrary states: of confrontation and flight, activity and passivity, strain and slackening — combinations that might well be possible under no other circumstances.”
Goethe then proceeds to suggest an interesting way to experience the statue:
“To grasp the sculptor's intent it helps to walk a good distance away from the statue, shut one's eyes, and then quickly open and close them again, setting the whole work in motion. This almost gives one the fearful impression that the group has completely changed. It leads me to think of the statue as it stands as fixed lightning, as a wave halted and turned to stone in its rush against the shore.”