haunting painting Laocoön, El Greco depicts a violent Greek myth as if it had
taken place in his adopted city of Toledo, Spain. According to Virgil’s Aeneid,
Laocoön, the priest of Troy, recognized the monumental wooden horse proffered
by the enemy Greeks for what it was: a trick rather than a gift. Hurling his
spear at it, he implored the Trojans not to pull the horse into the city.
plea to Troy, Aeneid,
written by Virgil in the first century BCE:
Troy, what madness has come over you?
believe the enemy truly gone?
A gift from
the Danaans, and no ruse?
Ulysses' way, as you have known him?
must be hiding in this timber,
Or it was
built to butt against our walls,
them into our houses, pelt
The city from
the sky. Some crookedness
Is in this
thing. Have no faith in the horse!
is, even when Greeks bring gifts
them, gifts and all."
Minerva, who favored the Greeks, avenged his action by sending two serpents to
kill the priest and his two sons.
went on straight toward Laocoön, and first each serpent
its coils, his two young sons, and fastened
in those poor bodies. And the priest
to help them…
him, bound him with their mighty coils…
horrible cries, not even human
the bellowing of a bull, when wounded"
painting is a study of tumult and anguish. The bearded Laocoön, sprawled
awkwardly on his back, wears a look of terror as he struggles to fend off a
writhing serpent, jaws agape, which lunges at his head. One son lies dead
behind him. The second, at left, desperately twists and strains to keep the
other serpent from piercing his thigh. The wooden horse is visible in the
background (pointed to by the standing son’s outstretched hand) approaching
Toledo’s gates. At the far right, two unfinished standing figures, perhaps
Greek gods, witness the action without intervening.
of El Greco’s Laocoön remains obscure. The artist’s only extant mythological
scene, it likely represents a Christianized take on classical subject
matter. In substituting Toledo for Troy,
El Greco may have been warning his fellow citizens not to succumb to some
contemporary treachery, perhaps religious practices he viewed as antithetical
to Counter-Reformation edicts.