• Eastern Mediterranean
  • 6th - 5th century B.C
  • About 5th century B.C.
  • Bronze
  • H-7.8 D-4.1 W-8.7
Catalogue Entry

Cerberus, with three heads and the tail of a snake, is the watchdog of the Underworld in Greek mythology. His main role is to guard the entrance to Hades, the world of the dead, and to catch and eat any who try to escape. Cerberus is very happy to welcome dead people who come to his world, but never permits living people to enter Hades. Heracles was forced by Eurystheus to do twelve dangerous labors, each of which involved risking his life. The last labor was to catch Cerberus and bring him back to the upper world from the Underworld, without using any weapons. Heracles skillfully caught Cerberus, took him to Eurystheus, and brought him back to the Underworld again.

Cerberus often appears on black-figure vases, mainly from the second half of the 6th century B.C.*1 Among them, the Caeretan hydria in the Louvre is a masterpiece. On those vases, Cerberus is not depicted alone, but usually appears with Heracles leading him or dragging him in the scene from the twelve labors.

The round front line of the body extends smoothly to the very tight waist. The swelling of the thigh creates a finely balanced rump. The slight ups and downs of the rump and hip splen-didly suggest a realistic skeleton and musculature. Each of the three heads comes out of the body in a smooth curve. The eyes of the three heads are fixed in different directions and the ears of the three heads are at different angles so each head has a distinctive face. This beautiful depiction makes the three heads of Cerberus seem quite natural. This feature is parallel to the balance of sympathetic interpretation and naturalistic representation, never surpassed, that the Classical characterization of animals attained,*2 which can be seen, for example, in the splendid leaping deer of the Philadelphia University Museum. Although this Cerberus is thought, because of its base, to have been part of the decoration on some kind of vessel, it can be appreciated as separate work of art.

Catalogue Entry(Bac#017)

6th‐5th century B.C.
H. 7.8 cm, L. 8.7 cm, Depth 4.1 cm
This small bronze figure shows a three headed, snake-tailed dog. In
Greek mythology, such a beast is known as Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld. According to Hesiod, Cerberus's mother was the half woman-half snake known as Echidona, and his father was Typhon, the giant with 100 snake heads. Cerberus is said to have had 50 heads, but he is generally depicted with only three heads. It is very rare to find Cerberus depicted in sculptural form, but there is one example known in the Warren Collection at Bowdoin College. The image began to appear frequently as pottery decoration, particularly on the black-figure pottery that flourished around the 6th century BC. Hercules's 12th labor was to bring this Cerberus from the underworld to the world of the living, without using any weapons, and Cerberus is shown in these scenes, and is also depicted as a subject by himself.
This small figure shows the superb sense of balance and realistic expressive power found in Greek art of this period, particularly in its ability to create an image of a three headed dog with a snake-headed tail without any sense of disharmony or misfit. The incised lines which circle the neck and the incised lines on the rump are musculature expression, and they can also be seen on a small bronze figure of a bull in the Ortiz collection, thought to be an Italian work from the 6th century BC, but they are not commonly found on bronze animals. This type of expression can also be found on the Cerberus depicted in a red-figure Amphora of the 6th century BC in the Louvre, and also in the expression of the immortal ox that Hercules brings to the human world seen in the black-figure amphora of the same period now in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris. Basically this expressive style was seen frequently from the classical period onwards, and rather than giving a sense of an animal we can relate to, wasn't this realism intended to give a sense of a somehow majestic mythical form? The emotions elegantly expressed in this unusually formed imaginary beast were gradually grasped in stages in the movements of beasts seen on the signet rings from the Minoan period onwards, and it is possible that there was a traditional connection between this type of expression and the iconography of multi-headed beasts.