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Hercules and the Hydra
Zurbarán, Francisco de
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Zurbarán, Francisco de

Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz (Spain), 1598 - Madrid (Spain), 1664

Zurbarán, Francisco de See author's file

Hercules and the Hydra

1634. Oil on canvas.
Room 009A

The inhabitants of Lerna were terrorized by a multiheaded serpent that left a path of destruction behind. The creature was impossible to defeat because every time it lost one head, two grew in its place. Drawing on his ingenuity, Hercules cornered the serpent with fire and killed it with his club, an episode pictured in Hercules and the Hydra. Grasping his club with a powerful gesture, Hercules is shown just moments before striking the monster.

This work is part of a series of ten paintings that Francisco de Zurbarán was commissioned to paint in 1634 as decoration for the Hall of Realms in the Buen Retiro Palace. Constructed in the 1630s on the outskirts of Madrid, the palace was a large suburban villa built for the leisure of Philip IV and his court. The Hall of Realms played a significant ceremonial and political role within this complex. The throne was located there, and leading official events were held there, along with plays and other literary performances. To highlight its representative function, the hall was decorated with allusions to the Spanish monarchy, including coats of arms of the King of Spain´s realms, twelve battle scenes that had taken place during the reign of Philip IV, and five equestrian portraits with likenesses of the monarch, his wife, parents, and the crown prince Baltasar Carlos (1629-1646). The series dedicated to the Labors of Hercules was included because that mythological hero was regarded as the founder of the Spanish monarchy, and in fact Non plus ultra (Nothing farther beyond), the famous slogan on the Spanish coat of arms, has its origin in the Hercules myths. The images of Hercules completed the genealogical discourse of the kings of Spain proposed by the equestrian portraits, while also publicly expounding the virtues required of a prince. In that respect, we should emphasize that the political theory of this period associated the monarch´s regal status not only with a long series of privileges, but also with concrete responsibilities to his subjects. Therefore, most iconographic discourse of an allegorical nature related to the Spanish monarch included allusions to the virtues that legitimated him for the exercise of power. These references were often embodied by the mythological hero par excellence -Hercules- whose labors exemplified shrewdness, prudence, faithfulness, a sense of duty, and selflessness, among other qualities. The stories of Hercules´s labors were quite well known in Spain, thanks not only to translations of the classical authors, but also to compilations of myths, literary works, plays, celebrations, and even sermons. Indeed, one of the first literary works of Spain´s modern era is the Marquis of Villena´s Los doce trabajos de Hércules (Twelve Labors of Hercules). This context guaranteed the intelligibility of Zurbarán´s paintings, which thus matched the narrative clarity that typified the rest of the paintings in the Hall of Realms. This series was important to Zurbarán´s career for various reasons. Though born in Extremadura, he had been living in Seville since at least 1626, working primarily for various convents. He knew Velázquez while still a student, and his commission to work on the decorations for the Hall of Realms was very likely due to the latter´s recommendation. Zurbarán´s call to Madrid can thus be understood in terms of both his friendship with Velázquez and the high quality of his painting at that time. It may also have resulted from the fact that he had already executed various series of paintings in Seville, including those at the San Buenaventura College, the Trinidad Calzada, and the Merced Calzada. This prior experience guaranteed a working method efficient enough to ensure that the Labors of Hercules cycle would be completed in the relatively short time frame allotted to him.

What distinguishes this series from Zurbarán’s earlier and later cycles is its subject matter. This is the only mythological group he ever realized, as his oeuvre is characterized mainly by religious works, along with some still lifes and a few portraits. In his approach to mythological subjects, he proved explicit in the narrative sense, and faithful to his sources. The latter were both literary and graphic, including the print series on the labors of Hercules by Cornelis Cort (1533-before 1578) and Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) from the 1540s. Zurbarán also showed great skill at adapting compositions to the circumstances in which they were to be seen. For example, all of the works in the present series were intended to be hung high on the wall, which is reflected in both their scale and perspective. To accentuate Hercules´s powerful physical personality and the dramatic nature of his deeds, Zurbarán decided to present him in the foreground, viewed from below in a manner that emphasizes his monumentality and physical strength. For Zurbarán, the fact that these were mythological scenes was not only new from the narrative perspective, but also had important formal consequences, involving the constant presence of nudity. Indeed, this is probably the most important series of male nudes in Spanish Golden Age painting. Yet in approaching the subject of the nude, Zurbarán did not start from scratch, as two masterpieces from the beginning of his career contain nudes -his splendid Crucifixion (1627; Art Institute of Chicago) and The Apostle Saint Peter Appearing to Saint Peter Nolasco (1629; Museo Nacional del Prado). These works comprise the starting point for understanding the Hercules series. In all cases, Zurbarán describes the human body with a naturalist technique that uses light and shadows to model the anatomy. As a result, he articulates the different limbs in a highly contrasting manner that brings out the musculature. This approach is very well suited to rendering the powerful and heroic physique of Hercules, whose nude male form becomes a metaphor for royal authority and power, befitting the Hall of Realms.

Ruiz Gómez, Leticia, En El Palacio del Rey Planeta, Úbeda de los Cobos, A. (ed), Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2005, p.149


Technical data

Inventory number
Zurbarán, Francisco de
Hercules and the Hydra
Height: 133 cm; Width: 167 cm
Serie Trabajos de Hércules, Salón de Reinos, Palacio del Buen Retiro
Royal Collection (Buen Retiro Palace, Madrid, 1701, no. 265; Buen Retiro Palace, 1794, no. 536).

Bibliography +

Ponz, Antonio, Viage de España. Vol. I, VI, Joachin Ibarra, Madrid, 1776, pp. 130.

Inventario Real Palacio del Buen Retiro, Madrid, 1794, pp. 16009(536).

Catálogo oficial ilustrado de la exposición de las obras de, J. Lacoste, Madrid, 1905.

Tormo y Monzó, Elías, Velázquez y el Salón de Reinos del Palacio del Buen Retiro, Imprenta San Francisco de Sales, Madrid, 1912, pp. 69.

Tormo y Monzó, Elías, Pintura, escultura y arquitectura en España: estudios dispersos de Elías Tormo y Monzó, Instituto Diego Velázquez de Arte y Arqueología, Madrid, 1949, pp. 140/ lám.25.

Soria, Martin S., The Painting of Zurbaran, Phaidon, Madrid, 1955, pp. 155.

Nordenfalk, C., Stora Spanska Mastare, Natonalmusei, Estocolmo, 1959, pp. 88,89.

Exposición Zurbarán en el III centenario de su muerte, Ministerio de Educación Nacional, Madrid, 1965, pp. nº1.

Salas, Xavier de, Museo del Prado. Catálogo de las pinturas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1972.

Inventarios reales: testamentaria del Rey Carlos II : 1701-1, Museo del PradoPatronato Nacional de Museos, Madrid, 1975, pp. 298.

La obra pictorica completa de Zurbarán, Noguer, Barcelona, 1976, pp. nº137.

The Golden Age of Spanish Painting, Royal Academy of Arts, Londres, 1976, pp. nº42.

Gudiol, J.; Gállego, J., Zurbarán: 1598-1664, Ediciones Polígrafa, Barcelona, 1976, pp. 84/ lám.110.

López Torrijos, Rosa, La mitología en la pintura española del siglo XVII, Editorial de la Universidad Complutense, Madrid, 1982, pp. 369.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Catálogo de las pinturas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1985, pp. 790.

López Torrijos, Rosa, La mitología en la pintura española del Siglo de Oro, Cátedra, Madrid, 1985, pp. 139-146.

Splendeurs d'Espagne et les villes belges: 1500-1700, Europalia 85 EspañaCrédit Communal, Bruselas, 1985, pp. 445.

Barghahn, Barbara Von, Philip IV and the Golden House of the Buen Retiro in the Tradition of Caesar, Garland PublishingInc., Nueva York, 1986, pp. 231-233.

De Greco à Picasso, Ministerio de Cultura, París, 1987, pp. 213.

Fernandez Miranda y Lozana, Fernando, Inventarios Reales Carlos III 1789-1790, Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, 1988, pp. 297.

Guinard, Paul., Zurbarán et les peintres espagnols de la vie monastique /, Les Editions du Temps, París, 1988, pp. 277.

Alcolea, Santiago, Zurbaran, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 1989, pp. 13/ lám.28.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Museo del Prado. Inventario general de pinturas (I) La Colección Real, Museo del Prado, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1990.

Quesada, Luis, Luz y lumbre en la pintura española, Fundación Sevillana de Electricidad, Sevilla, 1992, pp. 71/ lám.77.

Caturla, Maria Luisa, Francisco de Zurbarán, Wildenstein Institute, París, 1994, pp. 114.

Anes, Gonzalo, Las colecciones reales y la fundación del Museo del Prado, Amigos del Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1996, pp. 205,206.

Pareja Lopez, Enrique, Francisco de Zurbaran. Guia de la Exposicion Conmemorativa d..., Junta de Andalucia, Sevilla, 1998, pp. 114.

López Torrijos, Rosa, Mitologia e Historia en las Obras Maestras del Prado, Scala Books, Londres, 1998, pp. 54.

El mundo de Carlos V : de la España medieval al siglo de Oro, Sociedad Estatal para la Conmemoración de los Cent, Madrid, 2000, pp. 122.

Elliot J.H., Historia y mito en el Salón de Reinos. En Historias inmortales, Barcelona, 2003, pp. 211-228.

Brown, Jonathan, Un palacio para el rey: el Buen Retiro y la corte de Felipe de Felipe IV, Taurus, Madrid, 2003.

Ruiz Gómez, Leticia, En El Palacio del Rey Planeta, Úbeda de los Cobos, A. (ed), Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2005, pp. 149.

Simal, Mercedes, El palacio de Buen Retiro y sus colecciones durante la Guerra de la Independencia. Antecedentes y consecuencias, Jornadas de Arte (14ª. 2008. Madrid) Arte en tiempos de guerra, 2009, pp. 445-455.

Delenda, Odile, Francisco de Zurbarán, 1598 - 1664: catálogo razonado y crítico, Fundación Arte Hispánico, 2009, pp. 274.

Cano, Ignacio, 'Zurbarán (1598-1664)' En:, Zurbarán (1598-1664), Fondazione Ferrara Arte - Centre dex Beaux Arts de Bruxelles, Ferrara, 2013, pp. 16-35 [29].

Finaldi, Gabriele, 'Zurbarán, il 'Caravaggio spagnolo' e la pittura italiana' En:, Zurbarán (1598-1664), Fondazione Ferrara Arte - Centre dex Beaux Arts de Bruxelles, Ferrara, 2013, pp. 48-59 [53].

Cano, Ignacio, 'Zurbarán (1598-1664)' En:, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), Bozar Books - Fonds Mercator, Bruselas, 2014, pp. 10-29 [20].

Delenda, Odile, 'Vida y Obra de Francisco de Zurbarán 1598-1664' En:, Zurbarán : una nueva mirada, Fundación Colección Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid, 2015, pp. 15-29 [22].

Delenda, O., 'Zurbarán, Herkules lKämpft mit der Hydra' En:, Zurbarán, Museum Kunstpalast ; Hirmer, 2015, pp. 100-101 n.21.

Portús Pérez, Javier, Francisco de Zurbarán. Hercules and the Hydra, En: Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado, Clark Art Institute; Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, pp. 146--151 n.19.

Portús Pérez, Javier, Velázquez and the Celebration of Painting: The Golden Age in the Museo del Prado, The Yomiuri Shimbun: The National Museum of Western Art, Tokio, 2018, pp. n.29.

Other inventories +

Inv. Testamentaría Carlos II, Buen Retiro, 1701-1703. Núm. [265].
[265] Ottra [pintura] del mismo tamaño [siete cuartas de largo y vara y media de alto] y calidades [] quando Hercules mato la Hidra lernia tasada en Veintte y Cinco doblones ... 1500

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1872-1907. Núm. 1130.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1910. Núm. 1249.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1942-1996. Núm. 1249.

Inv. Real Museo, 1857. Núm. 223.
Zurbarán. / 223. Hércules matando a la hidra de los lagos de Lerna. / Alto 4 pies, 9 pulg; ancho 6 pies.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1854-1858. Núm. 223.

Inv. Testamentaría Carlos III, Buen Retiro, 1794. Núm. 536.
Otra [pintura], igual á los anteriores [Escuela de Lanfranco ... de 7 quartas de largo y vara y media de alto] de quando Hercules matò a la Hidraluma...1000

Exhibitions +

Velázquez and the Golden Age
16.11.2018 - 03.03.2019

Velázquez and the Celebration of Painting: the Golden Age in the Museo del Prado
13.06.2018 - 14.10.2018

Velázquez and the Celebration of Painting: the Golden Age in the Museo del Prado
24.02.2018 - 27.05.2018

Velázquez and the Celebration of Painting: the Golden Age in the Museo del Prado
20.02.2018 - 27.05.2018

Splendor, Myth and Vision: Nudes from the Prado
Williamstown MA
12.06.2016 - 10.10.2016

Francisco de Zurbarán
10.10.2015 - 31.01.2016

El palacio del Rey Planeta. Felipe IV y el Buen Retiro
06.07.2005 - 30.10.2005

Carlos V entre dos mundos culturales. De las tres culturas de la España medieval al Siglo de Oro
México D.F.
03.11.2000 - 28.02.2001

Francisco de Zurbarán
09.10.1998 - 08.12.1998

Cinco Siglos de Arte Español
05.10.1987 - 05.01.1988

Location +

Room 009A (On Display)

Update date: 09-04-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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