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Λαοκόων). A son of Priam and Hecuba, or, according to others, of Antenor , and a priest of Apollo during the Trojan War. While offering, in the exercise of his sacerdotal office, a bullock to render Poseidon propitious to the Trojans, two enormous serpents issued from the sea, and, having first destroyed his two sons, whom he vainly endeavoured to save, attacked Laocoön himself, and, winding themselves round his body, crushed him to death in their folds. This dreadful punishment was inflicted by the goddess Athené for the part Laocoön had taken in endeavouring to dissuade the Trojans from admitting into Troy the famous wooden horse, which the Greeks had consecrated to Athené (Verg. Aen. ii. 40 foll.).

An enduring fame has been gained for the story of Laocoön, from its forming the subject of one of the most remarkable groups in sculpture which time has spared to us. It represents the agonized father and his youthful sons, one on each side of him, writhing and expiring in the folds of the serpents. The figures are naked, the drapery that is introduced being used only to support and fill up the composition. This superb work of art, which Pliny describes inaccurately as consisting of only

Laocoön. (Group in the Vatican.)

a single block of marble, originally ornamented the baths of Titus, among the ruins of which it was found in the year 1506. The names of the sculptors who executed it are also recorded. They are Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, natives of Rhodes. Pliny (Pliny H. N. xxxvi. 5) says: “The Laocoön, which is in the palace of the emperor Titus, is a work to be preferred to all others, either in painting or sculpture. Those great artists, Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus, Rhodians, executed the principal figure and the sons and the wonderful folds of the serpents out of one block of marble.”

This group is justly considered, by all competent judges, to be a masterpiece of art. It combines, in its class, all that sculpture requires, and both admits of, and may truly be studied as, a canon. The subject is of the most affecting and interesting kind; and the expression in every part of the figures reaches, but does not exceed, the limits of propriety. Intense mental suffering is portrayed in the countenances, while the physical strength of all the three figures is evidently sinking under the irresistible power of the huge reptiles wreathed around their exhausted limbs. One son, in whose side a serpent has fixed his deadly fangs, seems to be fainting; the other, not yet bitten, tries to disengage one foot from the serpent's embrace. The father, Laocoön, himself, is mighty in his sufferings: every muscle is in extreme action, and his hands and feet are convulsed with painful energy. Yet there is nothing frightful, disgusting, or contrary to beauty in the countenance. Suffering is faithfully and strongly depicted there, but it is rather the exhibition of mental anguish than of the repulsive and undignified contortions of mere physical pain. The whole of this figure displays the most intimate knowledge of anatomy and of outward form; the latter selected with care, and freed from any vulgarity of common individual nature. Indeed, the single figure of Laocoön may be fairly referred to as one of the finest specimens existing of that combination of truth and beauty which is so essential to the production of perfect sculpture, and which can alone insure for it lasting admiration. The sons are of a smaller standard than the proportion of the father—a liberty hardly justifiable, but taken, probably, with the view of heightening the effect of the principal figure by the so-called “pyramidal” arrangement. The right arm of Laocoö is a restoration; but so ably done, though only in plaster, that the deficiency is said to be scarcely a blemish. Some antiquarians have thought that the original action of the arm was not extended, but that this limb was bent back towards the head; and they have supported their hypothesis by the fact of there being a rough and broken surface where they think the hand, or perhaps a fold of the serpent, may have come in contact with the hair. This view is rendered still more probable by a smaller figure of Laocoön, now in the Museum at Naples. Though much mutilated, it is evidently copied from the famous group, and is sufficiently preserved to show that the arms were drawn back, as described above.

For a criticism of the work, see Lessing's Laocoön (1766, new ed. by Blümner, 1880); the monograph by Kekulé (1883); and Perry's Greek and Roman Sculpture, pp. 520-527 (1882).

hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 2.40
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 36.5
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