Visitors to the Pius-Clementine Museum at the Vatican often stop in their tracks when they first glimpse it. Located in the Octagonal Court, the sculpture “Laocoön and His Sons” depicts a shocking scene: Sea serpents bind a terrified man and his two young sons, who struggle in vain against the writhing coils. Rearing back in a futile gesture to free himself, Laocoön is shown at the moment when one of the snakes is poised to deliver a strike.
A study of horror in marble, the work has been described by British classicist Nigel Spivey as “the prototypical icon of human agony” in Western art. The grim story of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons varies across classical sources, but one of the most familiar is that recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid, completed in 19 B.C.
In Book II of the epic, which details the end of the Trojan War, Laocoön suspects that the wooden horse sent by the Greeks is a trap. After striking the horse with a spear, Laocoön and his sons are seized by sea serpents that drag them down to their deaths, which the Trojans interpret as divine punishment. To appease the gods, they drag the horse into their city. (Archaeologists spent decades looking for the lost city of Troy.)