Hercules, having killed his friend Phitus in a fit of rage, was sold as punishment by Mercury to the Lydian Queen Omphale, whom he had to serve for three years. His humiliation was completed when Omphale required him to wear women's clothes and perform women's work, although she later alleviated his lot by becoming his lover. Cranach's depiction of the subject, rare in that it does not show Hercules and Omphale as lovers, may have been influenced by a lost painting of the same subject, perhaps by Jacopo de' Barbari, recorded by Andres Meinhart as being at the Wittenberg court by 1507.
This picture is one of a group of the same subject produced in the workshop of Lucas Cranach I during the 1530s, and is the only known one dated 1533. The earliest two versions by Lucas Cranach I are signed and dated 1532, a year before the present picture (M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London, 1978, nos. 272-3). Later versions are dated 1537, one of which is signed 'H.C.', for Hans Cranach, Lucas Cranach II's older brother (ibid., nos. 274-5). A version by Lucas Cranach I, also dated 1537, was sold anonymously, Sotheby's, London, 6 July 2000, lot 24 (£311,500).
We are grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin, who, on the basis of transparencies, points out the high quality of the present version. He suggests that 'father and both sons tried to show how they could paint this subject in similar quality' (letter, 19 January 2001).