Hercules at the Crossroads, 1498
engraving on laid paper
31.8 x 22 cm
National Gallery of Canada (no. 6166)
This print is thought to be the one Dürer referred to in his diary during a trip to the Netherlands (August 1520) as “The Hercule”. Because the engraving does not depict one of the mythological hero’s twelve labours, it was a baffling reference for early Dürer historians. The subject was first identified by Erwin Panofsky as a parable recorded by the Greek historian Xenophon. In this story, Hercules is faced with a decision about his future between Voluptas (Pleasure), who tries to lure him into a life of luxury, and Virtue, who describes the moral satisfaction gained by hardship and gallantry. Hercules wisely opts for Virtue and goes on to kill the Nemean lion. The moral dispute between Virtue and Vice here becomes an actual battle, as Virtue wields a club against Pleasure (who lies with a satyr), while the naked Hercules stands between them as if to ensure that the battle is fair. Dürer’s interpretation of the theme is consistent with humanist thinking then popular in Nuremberg, which sought a median moral position between Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each of the carefully modelled figures is derived from Italian Renaissance prints.