Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 28 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1610 and 1614
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Laocoön is the bearded man lying down on the dark rocks in the center foreground. He is attacked by a sea serpent (a type of dragon in mythology). He grabs the serpent with both hands, but, nevertheless, the serpent bites him in the head. This serpent has already killed Laocoön’s son who lies to the right of him. On the left side stands the other son of Laocoön. He also struggles to fend off a serpent while the serpent is about to bite him in his abdomen. The three people on the right are unidentified witnesses to the killing of Laocoön and his two sons, though one of them looks away from the scene. They may represent Greek gods who were behind the punishment of Laocoön and his sons, but this is uncertain. The horse behind Laocoön represents the Trojan horse. The horse is on the way to Toledo, the fortified city in the background depicted under a gloomy sky. The entrance gate to the city is directly behind the horse. It is called the Puerta de Bisagra Nueva and still exists. This gate is decorated with a double-headed eagle.
Backstory: El Greco finished this painting in the year of his death. An inventory of the paintings in his house when he died contained more than 250 paintings, mostly with religious themes, portraits, and city views of Toledo. There were only three works with a mythological theme and all three of those dealt with the killing of Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. Laocoön is the only known mythological theme that El Greco has ever painted. The three people on the right side of the painting in the National Gallery of Art seem unfinished. It seems likely that El Greco did not have the time to finish their faces before his death.
Mannerism: El Greco was a Mannerist painter, which means that he did not paint the figures in his paintings in a realistic way. He often exaggerated or elongated certain body parts and did not care about the symmetry of his figures. This is nicely illustrated in the current painting. The first signs of mannerism appeared around 1520 and the style was applied until the beginning of the 17th century. Artists like Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Tintoretto used the Mannerist style. One of the most famous Mannerist painting is Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: This painting probably contains a deeper meaning. El Greco painted the scene of Laocoön and his sons in front of Toledo, the city where he lived and the former capital of Spain. He painted Toledo instead of Troy, which is the city where the horse is sent according to Greek mythology. The killing of Laocoön and his sons takes place on a hill just outside Toledo. This would be the same place where prisoners and people who did not agree with the Catholic Church were executed during that time. The painting of El Greco may have been a protest against these actions. However, there is no substantive evidence to back up this interpretation, so the real meaning of this painting remains speculative.
Laocoön and His Sons? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans. A famous statue from antiquity of Laocoön and His Sons is in the Vatican Museums, and a 16th-century copy by Bandinelli is in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco, which means ‘the Greek.’ During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto. He eventually moved to Toledo, which is near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso.
Fun fact: El Greco often included nude figures in his paintings. While in the current painting, nudity is somewhat functional as it is based on a mythological story in which people were often depicted nude, he also often included nude figures in his religious paintings. A good example is The Vision of Saint John in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interestingly, El Greco grew up in Greece where he was exposed to Byzantine art which contained very little nudity. However, he got inspired by the nude figures painted by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists during his travels through Italy in the 1560s and 1570s.
Written by Eelco Kappe