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Plate with Heracles and Nemean Lion 

Constantinople, 6th century

Silver, d. 60 cm


The circular silver plate is spotted with signs of chemical and physical damage; the rim is broken at a point on its perimeter and small cracks and dents occur near the damaged area. On the interior surface of the plate, Heracles is represented performing his first labor, the killing of the Nemean lion. The depiction conforms to the classical representation of the one-to-one struggle between hero and beast, with Heracles triumphing by choking the lion. The scene takes place within a landscape setting. Heracles and the lion stand on a groundline punctuated with small details of vegetation. On the ground before them lie a club, bow, and quiver. Behind and to the left, an altar or pedestal seems to hover in midair, supporting a vase. To the right, rising from the groundline, is a bent tree — a compositional device common to the silver of the late empire.

Heracles is represented as a heavily muscled nude with a cap of hair in close curls. A thick neck, large eye, and heavy jaw distinguish the face, but even the face, marked by an exaggeration of detail, is dwarfed by the overall proportions of the massive body. The physique and posture of the hero conform to a postclassical concept. The head and upper torso appear to be rendered in profile to the right, the lower torso is frontal and the legs stride, again in profile, to the right. The right arm of Heracles disappears into the luxurious mane of the lion, whose face is almost comically distorted. The muscular stance of the beast's hindquarters is belied by the limp foreleg which rests on the thigh of Heracles, and by the crossed eyes, grimacing mouth, and protruding tongue of the victim.

The volumetric rendering of figures in low relief with linear definition and embellishment associates the plate with objects in silver from the reigns of Justinian and Heraclius (see David Plates). The style of these plates does not conform to an observed continuum of Hellenistic style, which in the later centuries is characterized by a sketchy and cursive manner. The elements of distortion to dramatic effect seen in the Heracles plate are not shared by the others, but sufficient similarities exist to include the Heracles plate within this select group.

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