The Struggle of Hercules Between Virtue and Vice
The battle between good and evil, virtue and vice, although a prominent theme in any age, is a particularly relevant subject for the Renaissance. George Withers illustrates this battle in his 22nd emblem from A collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne, entitled 'When Vice and Vertue Youth shall wooe, Tis hard to say, which way t'will goe . . .' This emblem depicts the struggle of the mythological Hercules in a curious mixture of pagan and Christian symbols. Through the juxtaposition of these symbols, the age of the Renaissance is also exemplified.
The emblem shows Hercules centered in the illustration, wavering both physically and psychologically between Virtue and Vice. His body is physically uncentered; his feet are placed in front of one another, making his body seem to sway uncertainly. His arms, also, do not balance and signify the consequence of following either path. His left arm, on the side of Virtue, points to the heavens. His right arm, on the side of Vice, points lower, and his gaze is irresistibly drawn to that side. Although he does not choose Vice outright, through his body posture and facial expression his temptation is evident.
His dual impulses (motepon) towards either fate are paralleled by his curious parentage. Hercules was the son of Zeus, king of all the pagan gods, and Alcmene, a mortal woman. As a result, he lives between two ancestries, neither full god nor full man. In his youth, he was visited by two maidens who also represented Virtue and Vice. It can be inferred that it is from this myth that Withers illustrates his lesson.
The two figures on either side of Hercules seem to be exhorting him to listen, and can be used to illustrate the principles they wish him to follow. On his left, Virtue takes the form of Hermes, the messenger of Greek god mythology. He can be identified by his caduceus, a staff formed by two snakes entwined, their heads facing each other at the top. This symbol is topped by a pair of wings, a tribute to Hermes himself. Although the caduceus is known in modern times as the sign of the physician, in Hermes hand it becomes a signal of peace. In his lap, he holds a large book, which can be seen as both wisdom and the word of God. In the background between Hermes and Hercules is a beautiful flower, suggestive of the flowering of Man's immortal soul in the presence of Virtue. At his feet rests a lute, a popular Renaissance instrument. Hermes was called a 'patron' of the arts and was sometimes credited with the invention of music. It is interesting to note that the lute sits halfway...