Woodall Abstract Monstrous Masculinity?

Monstrous masculinity? Hendrick Goltzius and The Great Hercules (1589).

Joanna Woodall

Hendrik Goltzius ‘The Great Hercules’ (1589); Engraving, w. 40.5 x h. 56.1 cm; Cincinnati Art Museum

Renowned printmaker Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) produced a massive print depicting Hercules at a decisive moment in the revolt of the Netherlandish provinces against their Habsburg sovereign, Philip II of Spain. The print was also published on the eve of the artist’s departure for Italy, where he would encounter the antique statues to which his work alludes. He travelled incognito with copies of the print, which were discussed in Munich by his servant and the Antwerp-born engraver Hans Sadeler, who had recently been appointed to the prestigious court of the Duke of Bavaria, in Munich.


Like this convoluted tale, the print incorporates multiple deceptions and displacements, generating as many possible interpretations as Hercules’ burgeoning muscles. All this slipperiness and instability is encapsulated, moreover, in a figure that contemporaries understood to stand for masculine virtue – the ultimate site of human value and meaning. The Great Hercules has been explained by art historians as an allegory of the nascent Dutch body politic, in which different constituencies were bound together in a rather similar way to Hercules’s bulging muscles, and as an avatar for the artist’s virtuosity and heroic labour. The Great Hercules splits into the rugged, Germanic hero and the Gallic Hercules, an exemplar of the power of rhetoric and reason. He is not only a master over earth and water but also a figure of profound suffering relevant to the recent, traumatic history of Goltzius’s home city of Haarlem. Most challengingly, the (suppressed) laughter that the image now often provokes was also a possible response in the sixteenth century.

This chapter embraces this over-determination, working with the monstrosity rather than seeking to contain and ultimately resolve it. It suggests that Goltzius’s Great Hercules does not represent any stable entity, whether natural, preternatural, supernatural or conceptual. Its monstrosity and marvelousness lie rather in its capacity to mobilise its users to wonder and think by offering multiple, contradictory possibilities, and challenging them to find a path among them. The print is thus characterised as more like an emblem than a representation: a complex interplay of text and image to form a dense, witty, erudite puzzle or model to think with and through, in pursuit of virtue.

Provisional content for The Exemplary Hercules