Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

I love to play with history, inside the classroom and out, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. Any sort of mashup of past and present, especially if it is clever and creative, is instantly going to catch my attention–and hold it, for a least a little while. So when I saw just one of the images of French photographer Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” series, in which twentieth-century superheroes are reimagined in the guise and garb of Northern Renaissance portraits, I had to see them all. Below are my favorites, and you can see the rest here, along with more of Goldberger’s provocative work. His commentary on his photographs is interesting too: By the temporal disturbance they produce, these images allow us to discover, under the patina of time, an unexpected melancholy of those who are to be invincible. “Temporal disturbance”, that’s what interests me. And don’t these icons look a bit melancholy in their trunk hose and ruffs?






Sacha Goldberger’s “Super Flemish” Superheroes: more here (including lots of Star Wars characters in ruffs–and the Incredible Hulk!)

These images got me thinking: who were the superheroes of the sixteenth century? Batman, Robin, Catwoman, Wonder Woman, and Superman might look like they’re hanging out in the sixteenth century in Golberger’s photographs but they don’t really reflect sixteenth-century values and ideals, as superheroes should. After looking at what seemed like hundreds of prints of his Twelve Labours, I decided that Hercules must be the perfect Renaissance superhero: he’s from the classical past, but convertible enough for that era (or any, really). People in the sixteenth century liked to mash-up history just as we do: that’s what the Renaissance is all about, and the Reformation popularized such representations. Picture in point: Martin Luther portrayed as “Hercules Germanicus” by Hans Holbein the Younger, slaying all the Catholic authorities in his midst, the perfect Protestant superhero.

Hercules Jost Amman BM 1590

Superhero Luther Hercules

Hercules in the company of a Roman warrior and a wild man, Jost Amman, c. 1590, British Museum; Luther as the “Hercules Germanicus”, Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Zentralbibliothek Zürich.



5 responses to “Superheroes in the Sixteenth Century

  • markd60

    I always think of the bald strongman at the circus when I think of the first superheros.

  • Brian Bixby

    There’s a bit of mythmaking with some monarchs, including Elizabeth.

    • daseger

      Are you intimating that Elizabeth’s mythology is equal to that of Cat Woman, Brian? Because I can’t go quite that far–but rather contradictorily, I could see her as a superhero of her own time!

      • Brian Bixby

        I’m not sure when the combined output of all the Catwoman comics exceeded the length of “The Faerie Queene,” but I’m sure it took a while. And Spenser hasn’t been retconned. 😉

        Oh, and famed comic book writer Alan Moore implies Elizabeth is an actual faerie in his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comic book series (specifically the “Black Dossier” issue).

      • daseger

        Long on my every-growing list of things to read–because so many of my students have….

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: