Greek, 1541 - 1614
In his 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.
Laocoon's plea to Troy, Aeneid,
written by Virgil in the first century BCE:
"O my poor people,
Men of Troy, what madness has come over you?
Can you believe the enemy truly gone?
A gift from the Danaans, and no ruse?
Is that Ulysses' way, as you have known him?
Achaeans must be hiding in this timber,
Or it was built to butt against our walls,
Peer over them into our houses, pelt
The city from the sky. Some crookedness
Is in this thing. Have no faith in the horse!
Whatever it is, even when Greeks bring gifts
I fear them, gifts and all."
The goddess Minerva, who favored the Greeks, avenged his action by sending two serpents to kill the priest and his two sons.
"But they went on straight toward Laocoön, and first each serpent
Seized in its coils, his two young sons, and fastened
the fangs in those poor bodies. And the priest
Struggled to help them…
They seized him, bound him with their mighty coils…
He uttered horrible cries, not even human
More like the bellowing of a bull, when wounded"
Virgil, The Aeneid
El Greco’s 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.
The meaning 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.