Hercules supporting the celestrial sphere

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Hercules supporting the celestrial sphere

The first panel of the Spheres cycle depicts Hercules supporting the heavens for Atlas and wearing the skin of the Nemean lion which the hero won during the first of his twelve tasks.

An allegory of astronomy

The theme of Hercules bearing the globe for Atlas, while Atlas gathered the apples of the Hesperides for the hero was transformed in the Renaissance into an allegory of astronomy. According to mythographers in antiquity, Atlas taught Hercules astronomy while the hero shouldered the weight of the world. The firmament above Hercules shows the celestial sky most familiar to westerner astronomers in early modern Europe who were well-versed in Ptolemaic astronomy. It is the Northern sky visible from all European countries. Right above the head of Hercules is Canis maiorwith the ship, Argonavis, and Hydra and Crater placed just above his right hand. The Milky Way (Via Lactea) runs diagonally across the heavens, through Erichthonius (clothed with a hat), with half of Perseus visible at the upper left portion of the globe. Orion is seen treading upon Lepus the hare just below, with Procyon to the right. Five signs of the Zodiac are visible in this panel: Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, with Cancer placed in the center of the heavens, directly above Hercules’s head. This is a direct visual reference to King João III of Portugal’s birth sign (Cancer), an astrological sign not only associated with water but also the city of Lisbon. Just above Cancer, is Ursus Maior with the tail of Draco barely visible, and to the far right, Boötes, can be discerned. Hercules is depicted with a small dragon-monster (Draco) at his feet.

Greek Gods

Groups of figures stand to either side of Hercules,to the left two unidentified women are accompanied by a winged Cupid, who holds his bow. One woman prevents him from shooting his arrow. This Cupid may represent Eros, or the love of Greek cosmogonies, thought to be a primordial force which permitted procreation in Heaven and on Earth. On the opposite side, Mercury, the god of trade and commerce, and ruler of the Zodiac signs, Gemini and Virgo, is holding a caduceus and carries a lantern. As a messenger of the gods, he approaches two figures interpreted as Minerva (possibly a representation of Catherine of Austria, queen of Portugal), who embraces a male figure (an idealized portrayal of the Portuguese monarch, João III).

Destiny, a peasant and Polaris

In the upper corners, Destiny, the winged figure to the left, kneels on a cloud in the firmament, drawing a constellation in the celestial globe with a quill, while at the same time she is being crowned with a laurel wreath extended by a dove. A peasant opposite her digs intensely with his spade, perhaps representing March, one of the Labors of the Months. Ploughing is one of man’s activities in the Silver Age: one of the Ages of the World described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Above the laborer’s head, is a winged cherub’s head, possibly representing one of the four cardinal winds, and a star, conceivably Polaris, known as the North or Pole Star, located one degree of the celestial north pole in the constellation of Ursa Minor. Polaris remains motionless while the other stars circle around it, and is thus always found at a northerly altitude equal to the observer’s latitude. This star served as an essential visual aid for Portuguese navigators piloting their way through unknown seas and uncharted coasts in the Atlantic, along the west Coast of Africa and further beyond in the Indian Ocean. Perhaps, this figure should be read as symbolizing the labor and toil of the Portuguese in discovering and mapping out the commercial sea routes from Africa to Asia and later to the Far East.

Palm trees

The exotic vegetation, specifically the palm trees to the left of Hercules, underscore the scientific interest in exotic flora and fauna cultivated at the Portuguese court. Botanical gardens and menageries filled with plants, flowers and animals brought to Portugal from all points of their empire, became an important component of collecting at the Lisbon court.

The border

The ornamental borders of this panel are filled with birds, plants and ribbons,and at the top of this panel is an armillary sphere.

The creative process

It has been proposed the Portuguese painter, Cristóvão de Figueiredo (active at the Lisbon court between 1515 and 1555), may have been responsible for preliminary drawings of the Spheres tapestries sent to Brussels. In 1537 he was paid 2,400 reais for “drawings made as models for tapestries (subject matter unspecified) executed in Flanders.” However, this payment does not directly connect Figueiredo as the designer of the Spheres. Little is known of Figueiredo’s artistic collaboration in such royal commissions, and there is no document to confirm him as the designer of the Spheres.


An unidentified mark (probably that of the Antwerp merchant Joris Vezeleer) is woven in gold on the right selvages of the surviving three panels which consists of an upright with a broad leaf on either side in the lower part, a floral wreath in the center, and a pennant on top.


In the central, upper part of the panel, set within a rich border filled with fruit and flowers, is a white scroll (banner) with black letters containing a Latin inscription: MAGNA VIRTVS, SED ALIENAE OBNOXIA [Great is his force, but it is subjected to another]. The emphasis here being on the concept of earthly glory, and how Portuguese navigators surpassed Hercules. Indeed, the Portuguese had exceeded Hercules’s feats, by circumnavigating farther than the boundaries marked by the “pillars of Hercules.” They sailed beyond the rocks at the western end of the Mediterranean which demarcated the limits of the known world in antiquity and mapped out sea routes unknown before 1500.

Series The Spheres

First tapestry in the series

Model Barend van Orley or Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1525-1530

Manufacture Joris Vezeleer (Georg Wezeler)?, Brussels, before 1535

Fabric Gold, silver, silk and wool

Size 345 x 308 cm

Location Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso

Origin Collection of João III of Portugal and Catherine of Austria, later in the collection of Philip II

On display Tapestry Museum

National Heritage Inv. n. 10005823


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