By Simon Davies, Painted Hall tour guide

2 February 2018

Hercules or Heracles was the son of Jupiter (King of the Gods) and the mortal Alcmene. Despised and constantly tormented by Juno, the wife of Jupiter, he nevertheless obtained immortality and a place amongst the constellations through the completion of his twelve tasks or labours. As an icon of Greek/Roman mythology, the artist Sir James Thornhill rewards Hercules with several appearances across the ceilings of the Painted Hall.

We first catch a glimpse of Hercules on the lower hall ceiling. Here Thornhill paints a traditional and vigorous image of our hero battling the Vices alongside his half-sister Pallas Athena. He captures Hercules’ strength and courage as he raises his club to overcome the earthly vices (including Calumny, Detraction and Envy), ready to bludgeon these twisted and dispirited souls from the kingdom of William and Mary. On his back he wears the impenetrable hide of the Nemean Lion, the spoil of his first labour, as protection. To the left of Athena, the serpent-headed Hydra of Lerna, a water monster in Greek and Roman mythology, reminds us of Hercules’ second labour. The martial King William III, weakened by bouts of asthma and pictured in close proximity on the ceiling, liked to associate himself with the strength and heroic virtue of this Roman demigod.

Hercules brandishing his club with the serpent-headed Hydra visible to the left

Hercules also plays a prominent role in the upper hall, where he supports the golden roundel that contains portraits of Queen Anne and her husband, Prince George of Denmark. Seated, with his gnarled club beneath him, this is a much calmer and more benign Hercules, representing the Heroic Virtue of the royal couple. The face of the Nemean lion and a prominent white tooth are clearly visible on his headdress.

A friendlier looking Hercules resting on his gnarled club

I was intrigued to spot what may be a third, and less obvious, depiction of Hercules around the central oval on the lower hall ceiling. Here Thornhill includes the representations of the four seasons and twelve signs of the zodiac, symbolising the passage of time. Next to the zodiac sign of Leo (traditionally associated with the Nemean lion slain by Hercules) is a ruddy faced and muscular bearded man in a red cloak. His left arm rests on two ripe looking melons, symbolic of the season of summer. Could this be our hero reunited with his old adversary? To the left of Leo, is the zodiac Cancer, represented by Karkinos, the giant crab sent by Juno to harass Hercules during his fight with the monster Hydra. After nipping Hercules on the toe, the crab was brutally dispatched underfoot. Is Hercules extending his leg and toe forward to taunt the eager crab?

From left to right could this be Iolaus, Megara and Hercules?

The crab may help us identify two further mythological characters. Iolaus was the nephew, companion and some would say lover of Hercules, who assisted his uncle in his fight with the Hydra. When Hercules was sent temporarily mad by the vindictive Juno, he murdered his own children and his first wife Megara, although alternative accounts say she was ‘gifted’ to the young Iolaus to avoid painful reminders of his terrible crime. Has Thornhill depicted Iolaus as the youth attending the crab and Megara as the lady peering over the knee of Hercules? Both it seems are casting admiring glances in his direction!

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