Hercules and Omphale, painted by Pinturicchio (c. 1454–1513)

The Italian artist, Pinturicchio (c. 1454–1513), created this painted panel to adorn the palace of Pandolfo Petrucci, who held despotic power in Siena, Italy, at the beginning of the 16th century. Depicted in the artwork is the famous ancient hero, Hercules (or Heracles to Greek sources), seen wearing his trademark lion’s pelt. Across from him, the woman dressed in red and white is the character, Omphale, who was said to have been a queen of the ancient kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia.

According to myth, Hercules and Omphale had an incredibly awkward relationship. Their story followed the typical model of Herculean stories. Step one: Heracles is found in a situation where he causes death and destruction. Step two: Heracles seeks out prophecies or oracles about how to atone for his sins. Step three: Heracles overcomes trials and tribulations to expiate himself of his misdeeds and mistakes.

In the prelude to the tale of Heracles and Omphale, Heracles had wrongfully killed a man named Iphitus and, while consulting with the Oracle of Delphi about this killing, he worsened the situation by sacrilegiously trying to steal from the temple. After these antics, the angry gods and their messengers decided to inflict on Heracles a humbling punishment—for him to atone, the Greek hero would have to live for three years as a slave. Hermes, the messenger god, saw to the arrangements, eventually selling Heracles to Queen Omphale of Lydia. The proceeds of the sale were sent to the family of Iphitus, the man that Heracles had killed.

Despite the peaceful, pastoral scene shown in Pinturicchio’s painting, Omphale let Heracles do what he did best during his years of bondage in Lydia—the slaying of men and beasts. An ancient scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st and 2nd century) briefly summarized some of the myths linked to Heracles’ three captive years in Lydia, writing, “While serving Omphale as a slave, Heracles captured and bound the Cercopes at Ephesus, and at Aulis he killed Syleus—who compelled strangers to dig [in his vineyard]—and also his daughter, Xenodice, and burned his vines to their roots” (Apollodorus, Library, 2.6.3). Such were the quests that Heracles was undertaking in Lydia when he was not lounging with Queen Omphale in her pastures.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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