Wax model of the Laocoon

Wax model of the Laocoon

Length: 30.000 cm

Gift of Thomas Hollis, 1758

P&E MLA 1758,5-5.1

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This red wax model is a copy of the Greek sculpture known as the Laocoon group. It is probably French, dating from the late seventeenth or first half of the eighteenth century.

The original Greek marble statue, the date of which is uncertain, is displayed in the Vatican Museum, and stands two and a half metres high. This copy is just 45 centimetres high. It shows the Trojan prince and priest of Poseidon, Laocoon, together with his young sons. The three are battling with a giant serpent that winds its coils around their bodies. According to legend, Laocoon tried to stop the Trojans from opening the city gates to the Greeks' gift of a wooden horse. The goddess Athena sent serpents from the sea to kill him and his sons. Copies of the Laocoon group were made in all sizes and media, often bronze, terracotta, plaster, or even in porcelain. This fine wax copy is very unusual. It is a warm, burnished red, the surface polished and gleaming, and is set onto a red-painted wooden base.

Laocoon dominates the centre of the group, a powerful, naked, muscular figure with a mass of curling hair and a full curled beard. He faces us, head tilted to the right. His lips are parted in an expression of anguish, his brow furrowed with pain, eyes filled with torment. His cloak has dropped from him and lies draped over a large boulder. He is half seated on the boulder, bracing his right heel against its base while the other foot stretches behind him to gain a purchase on the ground. Wound around both his legs are the coils of a monstrous serpent, as thick as his arm. Laocoon's right arm stretches to the sky, his hand grasping the tail of the serpent; his left hand reaches down to grip its throat, trying desperately to tear it loose as it bares its fangs and prepares to sink them into his hip. Every muscle, every sinew of Laocoon's body stretches taut with effort as he fights for his life, the veins standing out as if pulsing with blood.

Flanking Laocoon are his two young sons, less than half his height, adolescent boys naked but for cloaks that are half torn off in the struggle. The younger boy, to the left, has the same curling hair as his father. The serpent's coil that circles Laocoon's leg has also trapped him, looping around his knees, dragging his foot off the ground, twisting his body. His left arm reaches up and curves over his head, the hand limp, as he succumbs to the constricting serpent. The older boy, to the right of Laocoon, wrenches at a coil around his ankle, gazing up at his father in desperation. His right hand is lifted, palm towards us, in a gesture of helplessness as the serpent knots itself mercilessly around his upraised arm.

This piece was presented to the British Museum by the collector and antiquary Thomas Hollis in May 1758.

Since this copy was made, the original, in the Vatican, has been rebuilt. Laocoon's arm, instead of stretching to the sky, is bent at the elbow, and grapples with the serpent behind his head. Both the boys' upraised arms are in fact missing, meaning that the sculptor of the wax copy has used some artistic licence in his work.

On display: Enlightenment: Art