The last thing I expected to encounter in Kassel, Germany, was a Greek demigod. But there he was, larger than life, covered in copper, and naked but for his attributes - a lion skin and a gnarled club.
He was perched on top of a pyramid in Bergpark Wilhelmshohe with a magnificent waterfall flowing beneath his feet.
I reflected on this view, and decided it was fitting that this son of a god and a mortal should tower over the host city of this year’s dOCUMENTA13, one of the largest art shows in the world running June 9 to Sept. 16. Artists and others seeking enlightenment will come from all parts of the globe and converge on this community of 200,000 residents to participate in the 100 day exhibition that has been held every five years since 1955.
Herkules - das Wahrzeichen Kassels
Making the world safe
Hercule’s mother, according to mythology, was the wisest and most beautiful of all mortal women. His father was famous for his strength and virility. Hercules surpassed all mortal men in strength, size and skill. He had bouts of artistic temperament, however, and at one point he lost his sanity and did some terrible things. But then he atoned for them by doing a series of tasks known as the Labors of Hercules. His claim to fame was that he “made the world safe for mankind” by destroying many dangerous monsters. Occasional temperament, bouts of behaviour best forgotten and tremendous labors of love...what artist wouldn’t enjoy meeting him?
Inspiration for New York icon
When it was created, the statue of Hercules was the first colossal statue of modern times north of the Alps. It served as a model for later works such as the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Hermann Monument.
The pyramid on which Hercules strikes his theatrical pose stands on top of a building called the Octagon. All the pieces of this historic monument look like they belong, but they were actually constructed at different times. (Keep in mind when local guides say they are taking you to see Hercules, they mean the entire Octagon structure and surrounding park and water show, and that this is a many-hour venture.)
Construction of the monument and surrounding park started in 1696, but the statue of Hercules was built between 1701 and 1717. It is based on the design of the Italian Giovanni Francesco Gueriero and the work was directed by Landgrave Karl of Hesse-Kassel.
Twenty-six foot tall Hercule
The entire park site is situated on a 1,729 foot high hill (527 meters), so Hercules can be seen from many vantage points in Kassel. The statue stands 26 feet in height (70.5 meters) but the entire monument is 231 feet tall (70.5 meters). From the base of the statue, and stretching down over a cascade of stone steps is an 820 foot (250 meter) waterfall.
It is arranged to come down in a breathtakingly beautiful display every Wednesday and Sunday afternoons from May until October at 2:30 p.m. The entire show lasts until 3.45 p.m., giving you time to climb down the steps and see the water erupt into a giant waterfall at the end.
This water show was first turned on June 3, 1714. For an added treat, on the first Saturday of the months of June, July, August and September, the water cascades during the evening as well with lights of different colors illuminating the flow, the fountain, and the monument.
Europe’s largest hillside park
After the water show, allow extra time to stroll around the park grounds and visit the Wilhelmshohe Palace, built between 1786 and 1798. The central section of the building has been refurbished as an art gallery and now houses one of the finest collections of Old Masters in Europe, including a large number of Rembrandts. A collection of Greek-Roman antiques is also featured.
The west wing of the palace is still intact and shows the ancient royal apartments and their exquisite furnishings, a bathing room, and paintings by Johannes Heinrich Tischbein.
Currently there is a project in progress to have this site, which is Europe’s largest hillside park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Edith Robb)
About the author: Edith Robb is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in travel and culture. Canadian by birth, she now lives half of each year in the United States and travels extensively, including making several trips to Germany in preparation for dOCUMENTA13. She has worked on many travel publications, including Back Roads and Getaway Places for Reader’s Digest and Guide to Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada for Fodor’s Travel Guides. She has a Master of Arts degree with a major in cultural studies.