Reading visual art: 51 Hercules and changing gender

Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852–1923), Hercules at the Feet of Omphale (1912), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Hôtel de Ville de Baulmes, Switzerland. Image by Don de Maurice Dériaz, via Wikimedia Commons.

We tend to think of European attitudes to gender as being completely inflexible until the late twentieth century, with cross-dressing and trans-gender as major taboos until recently. That certainly wasn’t true in classical mythology, nor in paintings from as early as the sixteenth century. In this week’s articles on the reading of visual art I consider two main stories, one from classical mythology, the other from the late Middle Ages, involving cross-dressing and changing roles, together with a brief miscellany of related myths.

Hercules or Heracles (even Herakles) is one of the great heroes of classical mythology. Stories of his accomplishments pervade the literature of Greece and Rome from their dawn in Homer’s Iliad right up to the last writings as Europe moved into the Middle Ages. He is most famous for his twelve labours, in which he proved his endurance, strength, fearlessness, and cunning by overcoming legendary monstrous challenges.

From the first, his killing of the Nemean lion, he wore its skin as a badge of honour and witness to those accomplishments. He was also more than a little wayward, as might be expected from the son of Zeus/Jupiter and a Theban woman, Alkmene. He had as many ‘adventures’ as he had relationships, both forced and consensual, with women and men, and is an archetype of the swashbuckling testosterone-rich superhero.

Hercules also had some close calls, visits to Hades from which his return was uncertain, and often displeased the gods. At some stage, when he violated the laws of guest-friendship in the murder of Iphitos, his conduct reached a new low, and he was forced to seek the advice of the Oracle at Delphi. He ended up being sent into slavery to Omphale, the queen of Lydia, for a year or more.

It’s in Omphale’s court that the once-mighty demi-god experiences his greatest humiliation. He is subjugated, stripped of the hide of the Nemean lion, his trademark club taken away, and the women of the court dress him in their (or possibly Omphale’s) clothes, and give him a distaff so that he can join them in spinning. The queen asserts her authority by donning the lionskin, and wielding the club.

From quite early in the telling of this story, it has also developed a certain sexual frisson, amplified by a dubious appendix in which Hercules is in Omphale’s bed, only for Pan to get in, assuming that he is the queen. Hercules promptly kicks Pan out of the bed, to welcome Omphale instead.

Artist not known, The Twelve Labours of Hercules (c 250 CE), mosaic from Llíria, Valencia, dimensions not known, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid. Image by Sgiralt, via Wikimedia Commons.

These stories were shown on vases and elsewhere from quite early on. One of the most unusual summaries of Hercules’ career is this mosaic from Llíria, Valencia, which summarises the twelve labours around its central panel.

Artist not known, The Twelve Labours of Hercules (detail) (c 250 CE), mosaic from Llíria, Valencia, dimensions not known, Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid. Image by Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany, via Wikimedia Commons.

There, in the midst of all the swashbuckling, Hercules is seen holding his distaff and spindle, dressed as a woman, while Omphale sits on the Nemean lionskin on her throne, clutching his club.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), Hercules and Omphale (1537), oil on beech wood, 82 × 118.9 cm, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Lucas Cranach the Elder made several slightly different paintings on the same basic theme of Hercules and Omphale; this from 1537 shows him being humiliated in a respectable and amicable way by the women of Omphale’s court.

Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611), Hercules and Omphale (c 1585), oil on copper, 24 × 19 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

Bartholomeus Spranger’s Hercules and Omphale (c 1585) uses the same exchange of attributes, but plays openly with the eroticism of Omphale’s position.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) (attr), Hercules and Omphale (c 1620), oil on canvas, 215 x 173 cm, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Hercules and Omphale (c 1620) has been attributed to Rubens, and explores the humiliation of the hero in a more conventional way, as Omphale tugs at his ear as if he were an errant schoolboy.

Bernardo Cavallino (1616–1656), Hercules and Omphale (c 1640), oil on canvas, 127 x 180.3 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Bernardo Cavallino puts the enslaved and degraded Hercules on display in the court, in his Hercules and Omphale (c 1640).

Antonio Bellucci (1654–1726), Hercules in the Palace of Omphale (c 1698), oil on canvas, 320 x 300 cm, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.

Antonio Bellucci cedes Hercules’ club to the queen, but not yet the lionskin, in his Hercules in the Palace of Omphale (c 1698). Look carefully at the directions of gaze of Omphale and her attendant women, though: they’re not looking Hercules in the eye, although he appears to be remonstrating with the queen as a floral crown is put on his head, and a distaff in his left hand.

Luigi Garzi (1638–1721), Hercules and Omphale (c 1700-10), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program, via Wikimedia Commons.

Luigi Garzi’s Hercules and Omphale (c 1700-10) lets Hercules put his spinning gear behind him, as he entertains the court with a song and the tambourine. Omphale seems to be enjoying her new position on the lionskin, and holding his club in her left hand.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Hercules and Omphale (c 1810), oil on canvas, 81 x 64.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Only Goya is more straight-laced, in his Hercules and Omphale (c 1810); there is no exchange of clothing, but Hercules sits attempting some fine task, perhaps threading a needle, with his sword under the control of a courtier.

Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre (1806-1874), Hercules and Omphale (1862), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

As the nineteenth century wrestled with the future of history painting and mythology, the story of Hercules’ humiliation didn’t die by any means. This is Charles Gleyre’s Hercules and Omphale from 1862, showing the hero learning to spin. It was at Gleyre’s Academy that Gérôme, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Whistler all started learning to paint.

Otto Greiner (1869–1916), Hercules and Omphale (1905), oil on canvas, 100 × 165 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Into the twentieth century, this story held out when most others were falling into disfavour. Otto Greiner’s Hercules and Omphale (1905) shows an older and exhausted Hercules fallen asleep from his exertions, amid the taunting court.

Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois (1852–1923), Hercules at the Feet of Omphale (1912), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Hôtel de Ville de Baulmes, Switzerland. Image by Don de Maurice Dériaz, via Wikimedia Commons.

As the First World War loomed close, Gustave-Claude-Etienne Courtois cast Hercules as a circus strong-man, a ‘toy-boy’ kneeling in front of an opulent Omphale, in his Hercules at the Feet of Omphale from 1912.

Byam Shaw (1872–1919), Omphale (1914), watercolor and bodycolor, 72.5 × 29 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Byam Shaw ignores the figure of Hercules altogether, showing a triumphant and erotically-charged Omphale (1914) against a background of the twelve labours, in a remarkable reconfiguration of the ancient Roman mosaic.

The fifth book, The Legend of Artegall, or Of Justice, of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene borrows a similar storyline: its hero Artegall is captured by the Amazon queen Radigund and enslaved to her, spinning while wearing women’s clothing, until he’s rescued.


Ovid’s Metamorphoses contain several accounts of changing gender. Best known is that of Tiresias, who apparently changed gender twice. When a young man, he disturbed a pair of snakes copulating, which caused him to become female. Over seven years later, he chanced upon the same event, and by striking the snakes again reverted to being male.


Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was raised by Naiads on Mount Ida. When he was fifteen he left that area and roamed distant rivers, until he reached a pool. Living there was a nymph, Salmacis, who was unusual in not following Diana. Instead of hunting, she spent her time bathing and maintaining her beauty.

When Salmacis saw Hermaphroditus, she was filled with desire for him, and immediately proposed marriage. He blushed, and rejected her attempt to kiss him, so she hid in the undergrowth. When he started to bathe in the pool and undressed, her passion was inflamed. She stripped off, and plunged into the water, to kiss, caress, and fondle his body.

Entwining his body with hers, she struggled to embrace him against his will. She cried out to the gods, asking them to join the couple together forever. Her wish was granted when the two were transformed into a single body, both man and woman.

Jan Gossaert (1478–1532), The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis (c 1517), oil on panel, 32.8 × 21.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Gossaert’s The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis from about 1517 shows the couple at the start of transformation, Salmacis with a steely, almost angry, look of determination. Gossaert uses multiplex narrative to show the next stage: on the bank at the far left they appear as conjoined twins, with two legs and two heads.

Iphis and Ianthe

Iphis was born a girl but raised as a boy, as her father insisted that any daughter of his would be killed. The father duly found Iphis a bride, Ianthe, and the young couple fell in love in spite of Iphis knowing that they could never marry. The day before their arranged wedding, Iphis’ mother prayed to Isis for her daughter to be changed into a son. As they walked from the temple, Iphis was transformed into a young man, just in time for his marriage to Ianthe.

Tomorrow I will look at paintings of someone who was burned at the stake on charges including cross-dressing as a man.