Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

1. The interpretation of the ‘Laocoon’ group

Lessing’s Laocoon is a complex work that embeds an even more complex aesthetic. The published text, which was projected as the first part of a longer work that Lessing never completed, interweaves two principal themes. The first is a dispute with Johann Joachim Winckelmann over the interpretation of the statue group Laocoon. Winckelmann had claimed that the expression on the face of the priest Laocoon when he is fatally entangled with the serpents is more restrained than the scream described by Virgil in the Aeneid when dealing with the same incident. Winckelmann attributed this restraint to the classical Greek virtues of control and dignity in adversity, and ultimately to a superior Greek sense of ideal form. Lessing had seen only engravings of the Laocoon and not the statue itself, even as a copy, and he therefore conceded to Winckelmann the interpretation of the group itself. (This would not be granted by many contemporary art historians who find the Laocoon extremely emotionally wrought compared to classical models.) But Lessing disputed the significance of Winckelmann’s interpretation by pointing out that classical painting and sculpture were frequently described as depicting extreme suffering; thus it was not Greek virtue as such that restrained the artists in this case. Rather, Lessing argued, artists are constrained by their medium. The restraint shown by the Laocoon sculptors is a product of their awareness of the rules of visual media. Virgil, as a poet, is bound by different rules.

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. The interpretation of the ‘Laocoon’ group. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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