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Storytelling in Miniature

Hans Sebald Beham
German, 1500–1550

Hercules Killing Nessus

Engraving, 1542
2 x 3 1/8 in.
Museum purchase, 1923.3197

This image depicts the hero Hercules killing the Centaur Nessus, who had attempted to violate Hercule’s wife Deianeira.

As with many beasts in mythology, centaurs owed their existence to a coupling of a mortal with a god. While dining with Zeus and Hera and other Olympian gods, Ixion, the king of the Lapithae (a mythical race reputed to live in Thessaly), was consumed with lust for Hera, the wife of Zeus. In his delirium, Ixion coupled with a cloud (Nephele) that Zeus had created in the likeness of Hera. From this union the race of the Centaurs (part human and part horse) was born. As punishment for his impudence, Ixion was perpetually bound to a fiery wheel that revolves in the night sky.