Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides

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Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides
The tapestry shows two scenes. In the foreground, a dragon with menacing claws and teeth obstructs Hercules as he tries to enter the garden. Hercules prepares to strike it with his mace while his nephew Iolaus looks on without intervening. Behind the fence surrounding the garden, Hercules picks the golden apples while the three Hesperides, seated on the ground, show little interest.

Hera’s garden

The last – or second to last, according to some versions – of the Labours of Hercules as ordered by Eurystheus was not an easy one, as much for the dangers he had to overcome on his way as for the actual stealing of the golden apples. Gaia (the Earth) had given these apples to the goddess Hera as a present for her wedding to Zeus. Hera planted them in her garden, which was located at the foot of Mount Atlas.

The guardians of the apples

To prevent them from being stolen, Hera placed an immortal dragon of one hundred heads at the gate of the garden, although the dragon depicted here has only one head. She also employed the three daughters of Atlas and Hesperis as guardians, known as the Hesperides, who appear in the tapestry chatting and neglecting their work as protectors of the apples.

The theft

Meanwhile, Hercules, having put the dragon to sleep, makes his way to the magical tree and picks off the golden fruits. Three trees beside the Hesperides may perhaps be a sign that, realising what had happened, they despaired and were eventually converted into trees. Another version says that Hercules send Atlas himself to pick the apples while the former held up the heavens, but this story is not referred to in the tapestry.

Great difficulties on the way

To arrive at what was considered to be the ends of the earth, Hercules had to overcome great dangers and gather information about the precise location of Hera’s garden. It seems that only the sea-god Nereus knew its whereabouts; he revealed it to Hercules only after being tied up and told he must speak to be liberated. On the way, he had to do battle with Antaeus (as depicted in the previous tapestry), although it is not clear whether this was going to or returning from the garden. Among other feats, he killed the eagle who devoured Prometheus’ liver every night with an arrow. Prometheus was a Titan who had been chained up in the Caucasus for having dared to steal fire from the gods and give it to humans.

After such great effort, the apples return to the garden

Eventually, Hercules presented himself before Eurystheus with the apples, who did not know what to do with the apples. He gave them back to Hercules, who offered them to Athena, who in turn restored them to their place in the divine garden.

Series The Labours of Hercules

Fifth tapestry in the extant series

Model Unknown

Manufacture Willem Dermoyen, Brussels, c. 1528

Fabric Silk and wool

Size 370 x 397 cm

Location Royal Palace of Madrid

Origin Collection of Philip II

On display Royal Armoury


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