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A Spooky 19th-century Recreation of a Hellenistic Classic

In 1850, Josef Hyrtl recreated the iconic ancient Greek sculptural group “Laocoön and His Sons” using real human and snake skeletons.

Left: Three human skeletons displayed with a snake skeleton, representing Laocoön and his sons, photograph of a staging by Josef Hyrtl, ca. 1850, destroyed in 1945 (photo via Wellcome Images); right: “Laocoön and His Sons” (ca. 323 BCE – 31 CE), marble

At the peak of pandemic lockdowns this year, when museums closed their doors indefinitely, art lovers began to recreate famous paintings and sculptures from the comfort (or confinement) of their own homes. Suddenly, the Internet abounded in still lifes built with pantry items, increasingly abstract interpretations of Munch’s “The Scream,” and myriad renderings of “Madonna and Child” featuring unknowing infants and confused household pets. The online art challenge had gone viral.

It turns out, however, that reenacting the masterpieces of art history from banal household objects is not simply a pastime of listless homebound parents in 2020. This whimsical diversion appears to have roots in the 19th century, when Josef Hyrtl, the Austrian anatomist, recreated the iconic Hellenistic sculptural group “Laocoön and His Sons” (ca. 323 BCE – 31 CE) — using real human and snake skeletons. 

According to Christopher Polt, an assistant professor in the classical studies department at Boston College who tweeted a side-by-side comparison of the two versions, Hyrtl created his take on the sculpture at the University of Vienna around 1850. It was destroyed by a fire after the Allied bombing of the city in 1945. 

Among other achievements, the Viennese anatomist is known for discrediting the then-popular pseudoscience of phrenology, which erroneously held that cranial features were indicators of racial and mental differences. He was also celebrated for the uncanny and unique anatomic models he used in his teaching, sometimes regarded as works of art in and of themselves. Given this expertise, it is no surprise that the figures in Hyrtl’s Laocoön group achieve the dynamism and movement of the Greek original, attributed to the sculptors Agesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus of Rhodes.

 

In both versions, the Trojan priest Laocoön, at center, is flanked by his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus as they are strangled by sea serpents in one of history’s most compelling depictions of torment and agony. But in Hyrtl’s take, Laocoön is stripped of his heroic muscularity, revealing instead a writhing skeletal frame as the spindly vertebrae of the reptiles coil around the figures’ bare bones. The staging is at once evocative of anguish and humor, both emulating and perhaps even caricaturing the Hellenistic classic’s excessive drama.

In any case, it’s clear that Hyrtl would have thrived in quarantine.

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