Hercules at the Crossroad Albrecht Durer Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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One of Albrecht Durer's more enigmatic woodcuts, this image, tentatively named Hercules at the Crossroad by Erwin Panofsky after it was found that Durer himself referred to the image as 'Hercules' in the diary in which he kept notes of his prints and to whom he had sold, exchanged or gifted them.

The issue with the image is that there was no known myth associated with Hercules that might possibly fit, aside from the following, mentioned, almost carelessly, from Socrates through his pupil Xenon. Hercules was travelling one day, when he came to a crossroads – which may, as so often in Greek myth, have been merely an allegorical crossroads – where two beautiful women were waiting. One, Vice, offered him an easy path, with plenty of riches and material success – but with the proviso of having to do some quite nasty things along the way. Virtue, on the other hand, offered Hercules a clear conscience and a good reputation in later – but her road, she warned, was narrow and difficult, filled with loose stones and thorns and all manner of painful snags and delays.

It would not be a Greek myth without some prevarication, so presumably Hercules gave serious consideration to going over to the dark side, before opting for the hard road and easy conscience offered by Virtue's hard road. This image though, seems to have some contradictory themes and notions. A satyr – symbol of lustfulness and debauchery – reclines near a naked woman, presumably Vice. Virtue, fully clothed with a neatly pruned and trimmed-to-a-point staff, perhaps pregnant given the tell-tale bulge of her belly (maybe with possibility?) stands over the couple, ready, it seems to assault the lustful pair. However, Hercules has snatched up a staff of his own, as evidenced by its rough and readiness, with the roots showing at one end, and the jagged edges of a break at the other, and he – also joyfully naked and giving Virtue quite an eyeful, given his positioning – seems to be defending Vice and the satyr from Virtue's violent intentions.

An alarmed cherub is almost fleeing off to the right of Hercules, but clutched in the baby's hand is a bird, trying desperately to escape that clutching grip, while on the lower left, the satyr is seen to be holding half a jawbone from a deer or goat of some kind. Of course, Durer could have been working from some Herculean story of his own, or that his family had told their children as they grew up, and it doubtless made sense to him, and his audience at the time, who would have received classical educations in Latin and Ancient Greek, during which even quite minor stories would have been memorised. The engraving, one of two known copies and measuring 32cm by 22cm, can be found in the Met Museum alongside many of Durer's other woodcuts, including those of the Apocalypse with Pictures series.