Vassilieva-Codognet Abstract Hercules in a Dress

Olga Vassilieva-Codognet

Hercules in a Dress: gender-inverted and Christianized variations on Hercules at the Crossroads in seventeenth-century emblemata 

Seated upon a grassy mound, the young girl is carefully playing with the tip of an arrow, from which she soon will receive the incurable wound of love. But who will be the object of her affection: amor saeculi, standing on the flat road leading to his terrestrial realm, or amor divinus, standing on the steep path leading upward to his lofty dwelling place? Only the girl’s soul knows the answer. Conscientia testis is the title of this picture, or rather the motto of Otto Vaenius’ 1615 emblem. Heir to both Annibale Carracci’s Ercole al bivio and Raphael’s Amore e Psiche frescoes at the Farnesina, this masterful creation by Otto Vaenius (1556-1629: pictor doctus, Justus Lipsius’s friend and Peter Paul Rubens’s master) inspired other emblems throughout the seventeenth century.This paper examines the tradition of gender-inverted and Christianized variations of Hercules at the Crossroads. Starting from Ercole al bivio painted by Federico Zuccari (Vaenius’ master during his formative years in Rome), with its top/bottom opposition of Virtue and Vice, absence of personifications and presence of an angel calling a prostrate, pleasure-exhausted Hercules to higher aims, the paper will assess Hercules’s centrality in Vaenius’ work (viz. paintings, emblems, medals) and review his various depictions of the Stoic hero, from allegorical portrait to symbolic hieroglyph. Finally, the paper will focus on the multiple offspring of Conscientia testis, thus shedding light on the forms and functions of a series of images that prove to be characteristic of the Counter-Reformation. In these by-products of Prodikos’ fable, the female personifications of Vice and Virtue have been replaced by male incarnations of Sacred and Profane Love, while the immortal hero has become a young girl who essentially functions as an identification figure for the reader. She does so all the more easily because the readership of emblem books was preponderantly female, from the Infante Isabella Clara Eugenia, dedicatee of the Amoris divini emblemata and co-ruler of the Southern Netherlands, to the more anonymous nuns who owned most of these books. Prodikos can be satisfied: although his three main protagonists have been altered, his love-triangle schema remains, as does the essence of his moral apologue: the world’s false allurements should be discarded in favour of more demanding but ultimately more rewarding goals.

Provisional content for The Exemplary Hercules