Metope from the Temple of Heracles

Wall high relief to be placed in a frieze on a Greek temple between two triglyphs. The two figures seen here are a muscular male wrestling an animal: Heracles and the Cretan bull. The scene depicts the seventh Labour of Heracles, who had to capture this bull for King Minos. On this temple each metope corresponded to one of the Twelve Labours of Hercules.

The two figures are shown on a rectangular plinth. The bull, rising up on its back legs, is springing on Hercules, who counters the charge with his arms and his right foot placed on a rock. The skin of the Nemean lion can be seen over the shoulders of the figure, and his club lies behind his right leg.

Three metopes for their provenance appear published in a 1995 catalogue of Sotheby’s. Each depicts one of the Labours of Heracles, and in style appear to be from the same Greek construction, part of a group which has now been split up.

The bull was one that Poseidon sent from the sea to King Minos for the latter to offer as a sacrifice to the sea god. But the king found the bull to be too fine a specimen to sacrifice, and so instead, sent it to his herds to mate there. Enraged by this, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë, the wife of Minos, to fall in love with the beast, and subsequently give birth to the half-man, half-bull, the Minotaur, to whom the god also infected with his rage. Hercules appeared before King Minos, who authorized him to capture the bull with his bare hands. Heracles succeeded in doing this and took the bull across the Aegean Sea to Mycenae. When Eurystheus saw the imposing animal, he wanted to offer it as a sacrifice to Hera. But the goddess, on seeing how ferocious it was, refused the offer and Eurystheus let it roam free.

The Twelve Labours of the hero Heracles were frequently depicted in Greek architectural decoration, especially on the metopes that adorned the architrave of temples. The most famous example appeared on the twelve metopes of the 5th century BC temple of Zeus at Olympia.

Heracles is the most famous hero in Greek mythology and perhaps also in all classic antiquity. His name comes from the goddess Hera and the Greek word “kleos” (glory), meaning “the glory of Hera”. He was considered to be the son of Zeus and Alceme, a mortal queen, foster son of Amphitryon and great-grandson of Perseus on his mother’s side. At birth he was given the name of Alcaeus or Alcides, in honour of his grandfather. This very word evokes the idea of strength. It was as an adult that he received the name with which he is known, imposed on him by Apollo through the Pythia, to indicate his condition as a follower of the goddess Hera. In ancient Rome as in Western Europe, he is better known as Hercules, and some Roman emperors, Commodus and Maximian among others, identified with his figure.

His extraordinary strength is the most important of his attributes, but he is also known for courage, pride, a certain candour and formidable sexual prowess. He is considered to be the forebear of the kings of Sparta, and this was one of the reasons for the dissemination of his legend and cult, making Heracles the Dorian hero par excellence. There are many stories in mythology about him, the most important one is that of the Twelve Labours of Heracles. The stories in which he has the leading role form a cycle which is constant through all antiquity and for this reason it is difficult to give a chronological, or even a coherent exposition of them.

In classical architecture, a metope is a rectangular architectural element that fills the space between two triglyphs in a Doric frieze, which is a decorative band of alternating triglyphs and metopes above the architrave of a building of the Doric order. Metopes often had painted or sculptural decoration; the most famous example are the 92 metopes of the Parthenon marbles some of which depict the battle between the Centaurs and the Lapiths. The painting on most metopes has been lost, but sufficient traces remain to allow a close idea of their original appearance.

In terms of structure, metopes may be carved from a single block with a triglyph (or triglyphs), or they may be cut separately and slide into slots in the triglyph blocks as at the Temple of Aphaea. Sometimes the metopes and friezes were cut from different stone, to provide colour contrast. Although they tend to be close to square in shape, some metopes are noticeably larger in height or in width. They may also vary in width within a single structure to allow for corner contraction, an adjustment of the column spacing and arrangement of the Doric frieze in a temple to make the design appear more harmonious.


- Heracles wrestling with the Cretan bull, metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, circa 460 BC, Museum of Archaeology of Olympia, Greece.


- REINACH, S. “Repeteroire de la statuaire grecque et romaine, tome IV”. « L’ERMA » di BVRETSCHNEIDER. Rome.

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