Lacoon and His Sons: An Analysis
Introduction and Description
The statue of Laocoön and His Sons can be presently found in Vatican Museum in Rome. The sculpture is believed to be made around 42 to 20 BC. The carvers of the statue are attributed to three artists who lived in the island of Rhodes: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus. Pliny the Elder, a famous Roman author, states that the sculptor Agesander is the one who carved the father while his son, Athenodoros and his pupil, Polydorus, made the boys ( Herder 109).
Pliny the Elder specifically states that this statue stands in the bath of Emperor Titus. After many years of silent oblivion, it was discovered in 1506 in Rome in Emperor Nero’s golden house. Pope Julius II bought the sculpture and displayed it in Belvedere in Vatican Garden now part of the Vatican Museum. During the discovery, the right arms of Laocoon and the two sons were missing so that a restoration to original “look” was undertaken (Herder 109).
The statue is composed of three naked figures, a father and his two sons with two serpents intertwined around their bodies. When it was found, many concluded that the three figures were carved out of one marble but Michelangelo proved that it was made from three separate marbles: the son in the left is made of one piece, the upper part of Laocoön the second piece, and the rest of the group made up the third piece. That is why it is also called the “Laocoön group” (Wilder & Garton 88).
The sculpture is enormous; it stands 8ft (2.44 m) high (Honour 198). It was produced during the period of Hellenistic Greek. The Hellenistic Era is the period characterized by an art movement from the classical serene and rigid artwork to one that is charged with powerful emotionalism and realism, especially regarding the depths of human suffering. The artists who lived in this period were therefore more concerned how to depict powerful emotions in their arts, even at the point of disregarding the restrictions of religion and morality in their portrayals, as figures were presented as naked ( Laocoon and His Sons are naked) . The interest in naturalistic or realistic representation was also influenced by a wider contact with other cultures as encouraged by the expanding Empire of Alexander the Great (Wilder & Garton 86).
The story of Laocoon can be read in the book of Virgil, the Aenied. Laocoon, a priest of Apollo, together with his two sons, was killed by serpents from the sea. Virgil mentioned that Laocoon was sacrificing a bull to the god Neptune, believing that the Greeks will withdraw its siege of Troy, when the serpents killed them. Laocoon was punished by the goddess Athena (who favors the Greeks) when he tried to warn the Trojans of the danger of letting the wooden horse , offered as peace offering by the Greeks, to enter the city of Troy(Herder & Gaiger 109). There was, however, much debate on the issue whether the sculpture was based on Aeneid or whether Virgil of Aenied based the story on the sculpture, or that perhaps the Laocoons of both works of art (literary and sculpture) were independently made from each other yet the source of their subject is the popular legend of Laocoon from which the authors were probably both familiar with. Whatever is the case, the sculpture is especially celebrated for the pain and agony of the soul that human figures realistically expressed in the face of impending death( Murray 88). To the Romans, the struggles and sacrifice of Laocoon symbolizes the sacrifice in the founding of Rome ( Honour 198) .
The sculpture is freestanding so, therefore, it is three-dimensional. It is surrounded by space, allowing a thorough inspection of the art from every side and angles. In whatever side one looks, the message of pain can be felt (perhaps, in a lesser degree than the front) due to the body contortions. Moreover, one can see the tight grip of the serpents on the figures, visibly intertwining its bodies to its victims, from back to front.
The choice of marble is unmistakably appropriate for the realistic portrayal not only of the gracefulness of human anatomy but also of intense emotion that the sculptors are trying to communicate through their subject. To convey an effective facial expression of pain and to show the resistance of the physical body (e.g. furrowed brows and strained muscles) to the suffering requires intricate detailed carving which is made possible using the marble. Moreover, the marble is translucent and soft like the human skin so that it is the best medium for realistic representation. The powerful emotion of pathos from the figures would not have been as powerfully portrayed if it is carved from wood and also it will not be as large since wood is limited in size (length or width).
The volumetric form that is basic to the sculpture is the cylindrical form of the human figure. Combining the three, however, with the taller father in the middle and two shorter sons in each side, the whole group forms a triangular geometry, creating the impression of one united desire to reach out for help above. There is no color added to the sculpture, what it has is the natural yellowish white color of marble that speaks of centuries of existence. The surface texture, however, is polished to smoothness enabling the sculpture to shine when light is reflected on it; thereby intensifying its intense representations of emotional expressions. Because this is a rounded sculpture , light can be focused on it anywhere (depending on the source of light) but , because of many contortions, shadows are created on the surfaces no matter where the source of light came from ,which helps to cast an impression of despair. Moreover, with faces that are turned upward, the expressions of agony in the faces are very visible when light is reflected on it. In this way, the artists easily communicate to the observer the suffering of the figures.
The use of line is of major importance in the Laoocon. It has an open silhouette with one direction pointing upward. Diagonal, curved, parallel and horizontal lines emphasized the graceful male form but more importantly it depicts the emotional intensity of the subject. For example, the inner struggle of the soul is reflected in the body contortions and the tilting of the heads that are created through the dominant use of diagonal and curved lines. Lines are also incised in the surface of the figures to show strained or contracted muscles and veins, expanding chest , open mouth , and furrowed brows, emphasizing intense suffering and fear. Yet perhaps one of the interesting use of line here is to lend a narrative story to the sculpture; the line created by the snake directs the observer to look from one figure to the next, suggesting a narrative story of the three doomed figures.
The “Laocoon and His Sons” is a grouped, free-standing sculptural work of art of enormous size found in Vatican Museum. It is made of marble and primarily portrays the Hellenistic interest on human emotions of despair, fear, pain and suffering in the face of impending death. The artists chose a familiar as well as mythical subject of their time and using a body and facial contortions, contractions of muscles and veins and expansion of the chest, they were able to communicate that intense emotion. They primarily achieved this through the masterful use of the lines, the creation of united triangular volumetric form that reaches upward for help, and the play of light and texture on the surfaces to create an air of despair and highlight the agony.
The intertwining of the snakes on the bodies and the agonizing and fearful expressions on the faces of the three figures as well as the painful contortions of the body easily conveys the inner struggles and suffering experienced by these subjects. They help me understand that in front of me are three individuals who are trying desperately to free from the doom that awaits them. Here is a struggle of life and death. It is interesting to note that the figures are naked, especially exposing the private parts of the father. Since this is made in the Hellenistic era where the artist are reported to have disregarded the restrictions of morality in favor of realistically portraying the emotional expressions of human nature, this sculpture then clearly illustrates that fact. Depicting the three figures as naked, the artists are able to convey the inner struggles going on in their souls through the exposed restraint of the muscles and the expansion of the chest, indicating that they are trying so hard to escape from the snakes’ tight grip. The choice of subject, on the other hand, from mythical legends also clearly illustrates the popularity of Greek and Roman characters as subjects of that era.
Personal Response I particularly selected these work because of its realism, not only in portraying emotion but most importantly in depicting human anatomy. I really appreciate the talents of the artists in making a detailed carving in marble to form a true representation of the human figure as well as to effectively express the human emotions of fear, agony and despair.
Wilder , Jose Bryant and John Garton. Art History for Dummies. New York: Wiley and Sons , 2007.
Herder , Johann and Jason Gaiger. Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. A World History of Art. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2005.
Murray, Chris. Key Writers on Art: From Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, 2002.
 See page 39 for the story Laocoon in The Aeneid by Virgil, C. Lewis and Jasper Griffin published in 1988.