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Storytelling in Miniature

Heinrich Aldegrever’s The Labors of Hercules

Heinrich Aldegrever was born in northwest Germany and was active in the town of Soest, about 250 miles northwest of Nuremberg. He specialized in ornamental designs, mythology, and religious imagery and is primarily known today for his small format engravings. Consequently, his work is often shown in exhibitions with the Kleinmeister (Little Masters) of Nuremberg: Georg Pencz and the brothers Barthel and Hans Sebald Beham. However, there is no evidence that Aldegrever had any direct contact with these artists or with Albrecht Dürer, the preeminent German painter/engraver of the day. By the time of Aldegrever’s first dated engravings (1527), the works of Dürer and the Beham brothers were known and admired throughout Europe. There is no doubt that Aldegrever’s early works were directly influenced by the earlier artists. He produced approximately 300 engravings and was known also as a painter and metalsmith.

In ancient Greek mythology, the demigod Hercules (son of the ancient Greek god Zeus and a mortal woman) killed his wife and children during a state of violent delirium. As penitence for his regretted action, Hercules was sentenced to 12 years of labor in service of Eurystheus, king of Tiryns and Mycenae. As part of his punishment, Hercules was assigned at first 10, and later, 12 epic tasks, or Labors. The Labors were so dangerous they were thought to be impossible.

The Labors of Hercules have provided rich subject matter for artists since the ancient Greek world, and in 1550 Heinrich Aldegrever did a series of engravings depicting Hercules completing the difficult feats.