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Storytelling in Miniature

Heinrich Aldegrever
German, 1502–about 1561

Hercules Killing Nessus, from “The Labors of Hercules”

Engraving, 1550
4 3/16 x 2 11/16 in.
Museum purchase, 1923.3214

Seemingly unrelated to the original Twelve Labors, this deed probably occurred sometime after Hercules had finished his servitude to King Eurystheus. The centaur Nessus offered to ferry Deianeira, the second wife of Hercules, across a wide river. While enroute, the centaur attempted to violate her. In anger Hercules pursued Nessus, killing him with an arrow poisoned with the blood of the many-headed Hydra that he had killed for his second Labor.

Before he died, Nessus convinced Deianeira to collect some of his blood as it would act as a strong love potion and insure the devotion of Hercules to her forever. Years later, when Deianeira suspected that Hercules was unfaithful, she put some of the blood on his tunic. Nessus’ blood, tainted with the poison of the Hydra, burned into the flesh of Hercules. To bring an end to his suffering Hercules had his funeral pyre prepared and he self-immolated.

Interestingly, Heinrich Aldegrever has rendered Nessus in the form of a satyr (half man and half goat). Also in this exhibition is a print of the same subject by the artist Hans Sebald Beham, in which Nessus is shown as a true centaur.