I have been searching high and low for a classical connection to my favorite Richard Armitage character…John Porter. I love every damaged, heroic inch of this character from his fingertip gently stroking the cheek of his distraught daughter on a computer screen, to his anguish when he learns of his mate Steve’s death….emotion aplenty. Then there is the plain physical beauty of the man – I especially love his tantalizing teres. Although not as obvious, there are a lot of connections to the classical tradition in Porter’s story – they just have to be fleshed out a bit more since they tend to be more conceptual than visual. That said, it is to the visual (and how) that I turn today.
I’ve looked several times lately at a favorite sculptural work of mine known as the Farnese Hercules (I saw him “in the flesh” in 1992, and the impression has never left me.) The connection to John Porter struck me only today. Hercules is the Latin equivalent of the Greek hero HeRAkles. The Romans adopted him and his mythology wholesale from the Greeks, and his Latin name has become more commonly known than the original Greek version. There is an enormous volume of myth surrounding Herakles, especially as pertains to his famous Twelve Labors. Less well known is the reason why he undertook the labors in the first place.
This is a story of guilt and redemption for the most part, very much like the central theme that runs through John Porter’s character arc. A bit of back story would probably be useful. Herakles was one of the many illegitimate children of the god Zeus (Jupiter in Latin) and as such was on the bad side of Hera, Zeus’ wife. (Ironically, the name Herakles means “the glory of Hera” in Greek) Hera is a really interesting character…she hates her husband/brother (yep – incest was common among ancient deities), yet she is insanely jealous of his extracurricular activities. She can’t take her jealous rage out on him – he is much too powerful, so instead, she lashes out at his lovers and his extramarital offspring. Hera had it in for Herakles from the cradle where she sent snakes to kill him
Herakles grew into a man of tremendous strength and courage, but he was a bit of a loose cannon, so there were bumps in the road for him throughout his life. As a young adult he married a princess named Megara and sometime later in a state of insane rage caused by Hera killed both his wife and their children. Like Orestes, he fled to Delphi for advice from the oracle. To redeem himself from his crimes, he was sentenced to carry out what came to be called the Twelve Labors of Herakles…a series of monumental tasks engineered by Hera to set Herakles up for failure and disgrace. (and thereby keep him off of Mt. Olympus which he had been promised – along with immortality)
One by one Herakles completed each task. The Farnese Hercules, a Roman copy of a Greek original sculpture by Lysippos, is perhaps the most famous depiction of Herakles. It lives in the Naples Museum today.
Here we see Herakles in a rare moment of rest, having completed almost all of his tasks. We can see the skin of the Nemean Lion (Labor #1) draped over the club he leans on. In behind his back, in his right hand Herakles holds the Apples of the Hesperides (Labor# 11) The exaggerated musculature of this piece is one of its most striking elements, but I’ve also always found the weariness of the powerful Herakles extremely moving. He is so close to achieving his goal, so close to redemption, if only he can find the strength to go on.
He seems so similar to John Porter (here as he digs a grave in Strike Back S1.4). A powerful male in the midst of an unpleasant, but necessary task. Labor that no one else can do, labor that stands between him and his quest for redemption. There are moments in Strike Back when Porter’s exhaustion is almost palpable…it’s not just a physical response, but a mental one as well. The result is deeply emotional and evocative.
Boxer at Rest, a Hellenistic Greek bronze thought to have been inspired by the Lysippan Herakles, also captures this same attitude of dogged exhaustion…the feeling of digging deep inside to find the energy both physically and mentally to achieve the goal.
These are heroes who have been through the wringer. They have toiled, they have struggled and for just a moment they are at rest…battered, but not beaten.