Spotlight Essay: Hendrick Goltzius

Hendrick Goltzius, The Great Hercules, 1589

Spotlight Essay: Hendrick Goltzius, The Great Hercules, 1589
October 2013; updated 2016

Marisa Bass
Assistant professor of art history, Yale University
Formerly assistant professor of art history, Washington University in St. Louis

Hendrick Goltzius's engraving The Great Hercules assaults the viewer with the bulging musculature and blatant nudity of its protagonist.1 It is a mere two-dimensional image printed on paper, which nonetheless claims a monumentality akin to that of a colossal sculpture. The copper plate from which Goltzius created this composition not only surpasses all his previous engravings in its formidable size (22 3/16 × 15 13/16"), but Hercules himself is one of the largest figures ever produced from a single engraved plate. It is surely no coincidence that Goltzius chose as the subject of this imposing print a hero of equally grand proportions. For an artist who one year later would journey from his home in the Netherlands to Italy, where he would quench his desire to master the antiquities of Rome and the models of the Italian Renaissance, the impressive scale of his Hercules would seem to be an unequivocal assertion of confidence in the face of his anticipated encounter with those famous monuments.

Beyond the physical scale of Goltzius’s 1589 engraving, two main aspects of the image immediately provoke curiosity. The first and most striking is, as already noted, the treatment of the hero’s body. A magnificent congregation of swirling tapered lines endows Hercules’s physique with a powerful dimensionality and simultaneously demonstrates Goltzius’s skill at wielding the burin and incising unforgiving copper with exceptional agility. As famously recounted by the artist’s biographer and close friend Karel van Mander, Goltzius fell into a fire as a very young child and burned his hands on hot coals: for the rest of his life he could not fully open his right hand. This impediment made his achievements in both drawing and engraving all the more astonishing to his contemporaries.2 Indeed, Van Mander even refers to the “heroic power of his draftsmanship” when describing one of Goltzius’s print series made just a few years before The Great Hercules.3

Van Mander’s emphasis on the artist’s draftsmanship also points to Goltzius’s exceptional status as a printmaker who both drafted and engraved his own designs, a position that allowed him a freedom of experimentation with the medium that few others enjoyed. Although many of Goltzius’s engravings display his virtuosity as a draftsman, The Great Hercules stands out in demonstrating his remarkable control of the burin. In earlier engravings he employed line more as a means to lend tonality to his compositions, but here he mastered its use to define volume, adapting each swelling stroke to the shape of the form that it models.4 His use of bold shorter lines that visibly swell and taper, almost seeming to vibrate in areas of cross-hatching, also serves to heighten this volumetric effect. Hercules’s bulging muscles not only appear more impressive and dimensional as a result, but they also provide the perfect vehicle for showcasing Goltzius’s skillfully engraved lines. These technical feats, combined with the dramatic size of the engraved plate, make The Great Hercules one of the boldest statements in the artist’s prolific and storied career.

Stocky yet aggressively strong, with popping veins and muscles in excess of actual human anatomy, Goltzius’s Hercules stands in a wide frontal stance spanning more than half the width of the composition.5 The hero’s pose conveys a combination of stasis and movement: although his feet seem fixed in place, the subtle torsion of his chest as he looks askance over his shoulder—his lion’s cloak uttering behind him—suggests that he has stopped only for a moment, just long enough so that we as viewers might survey his indomitable form. This restiveness extends even to his furrowed brow, which shades large round eyes sunk deep and longingly in thought.

According to the most commonly accepted interpretation of the engraving, the image is an elaborate political allegory of the Dutch Revolt, the ongoing struggle to overthrow oppressive Spanish rule that had begun in the late 1560s. Goltzius’s Hercules, by this argument, is not only a heroic embodiment of Dutch spirit and strength in adversity but also a representation of the political body of the unified Netherlands, akin to the image of the roaring lion (Leo Belgicus) that would come to stand for the nascent Dutch Republic.6

I will argue instead that Goltzius’s intentions with this work were personal rather than political. Without denying that the fraught situation in the Low Countries may have informed the reception of The Great Hercules for some viewers, an alternative interpretation of the engraving sheds light on its larger significance within Goltzius’s oeuvre. As Van Mander’s praise for the artist already implies, The Great Hercules represents a hero of battle, but it also figures Goltzius as a hero in his own right by showcasing his mighty feats and powers as an engraver.7 It is my contention that the artist employed this analogy not merely as an unequivocal statement of artistic achievement but also, and still more provocatively, as a nuanced exploration of the difficult balance between his physical labor and his love of making art.

We have to begin by looking beyond Goltzius’s conspicuous representation of the body in the foreground to the scenes unfolding in the background landscape, where Hercules appears twice more. On the left side of the composition, he wrestles the powerful river god Achelous, who transformed himself into a bull in the midst of their combat. As the Roman poet Ovid describes in his Metamorphoses, Hercules dramatically ripped off one of Achelous’s horns as a spoil of battle, thereby sealing his victory and at the same time creating the very first cornucopia, which a trio of nymphs in the background are filling with abundant fruits.8

The point of contention in his battle with Achelous, however, and Hercules’s true victory prize, was the beautiful Deianira, whom the hero subsequently married. Although she is not pictured in Goltzius’s Great Hercules, any viewer familiar with the myth would recognize her implied presence in the narrative and recall that Hercules’s conquest resulted both in his marriage and, ultimately, in his own demise. When Deianira was later captured by the deceitful centaur Nessus, Hercules rescued her but not soon enough to stop the dying Nessus from giving Deianira his bloodied cloak and deceiving her into believing that it had powers to revive a waning love. Years later, when Deianira hears a rumor that Hercules has fallen for another woman, she desperately sends him the cloak, which poisons and kills him. Thus the story of Hercules’s encounter with Achelous is not just about heroic victory; it also exposes the hero’s vulnerability to love.

Turning to the scene in the background right of Goltzius’s Great Hercules, we find our protagonist locked in yet another struggle, but one that conveys—by contrast—his mastery over desire. When traveling through the region of Libya, Hercules encounters the giant Antaeus, who challenges him to a wrestling match.9 Because Antaeus derives all his strength from the earth, Hercules defeats the giant by cleverly and forcefully lifting him up into the air. Goltzius chooses to depict the dramatic moment just before the giant’s defeat, in which only the tip of one toe on Antaeus’s left foot flexes desperately to maintain contact with the ground, clearly indicating that Hercules is the inevitable victor.

Beginning already in the sixth century, Hercules’s defeat of Antaeus was frequently understood to represent his victory over lust.10 This interpretation stemmed not only from the giant’s close association with the earthly realm—and, by extension, with the baser aspects of the human condition—but also from a creative etymological association between Antaeus’s home, Libya, and the libido. The way in which Goltzius depicts Antaeus, flinging back his head as if caught more in a moment of erotic ecstasy than one of fierce combat, may well resonate with this libidinous characterization of the giant. Whereas the battle with Achelous evokes Hercules’s vulnerability to love, his opposing contest with Antaeus represents the hero’s triumph over excessive passion.

The inscription at the bottom of the engraving, like most texts appended to Renaissance prints, goes only so far toward illuminating the image that it accompanies, but it does juxtapose Hercules’s opponents, Achelous and Antaeus, in the same line of verse:

Does anyone not know of Hercules’s courage on land and at sea,

And the cruel stepmother who did him so much harm?

He was exposed to so many monsters: to the Hydra and you,

Three-bodied Geryon, and to the fire-breathing Cacus.

Here he conquers Antaeus and you, Achelous, who was once two-horned,

Now the Naiads enrich the broken one with abounding fruits.11

While the verses are straightforward in treating Hercules as a courageous conqueror, the image has already proven to be more complex. Goltzius depicted the hero both engaging in physical combat and struggling metaphorically with desire. Even as he overcomes the lust of Antaeus, he wins—by defeating Achelous—the fatal love of Deianira. Moreover, if we return to the looming figure of Hercules in the foreground, it becomes clear that Goltzius also emphasized the opposing nature of these two exploits through the juxtaposed objects that the hero holds: the broken horn of Achelous in his right hand, which he seems almost to caress with his thumb, and the knotted club in the left, confidently slung over his shoulder. Both objects are also amorously charged, and more than a little humorous, in that they both allude to—and greatly overshadow in size—Hercules’s own exposed manhood. At the same time the peculiar way in which Hercules holds the objects in his hands calls to mind the hands of the artist who brought the entire engraving into being.

Elsewhere in his oeuvre, Goltzius attested to the significance of love as a generative force in his artistic enterprise.12 Perhaps the boldest and most virtuosic example is his Venus, Bacchus and Ceres (1606), executed in pen and red chalk on prepared canvas.13 In the background of an amorous assembly convened by the goddess of love and fueled by the gods of food and wine, Goltzius depicts himself standing over Venus’s forge and holding not one but two burins in each of his hands. It is a self-portrait that expresses his love for his art and devotion at the altar of the goddess who now warmly inspires the same hands that were once scarred by flame. Van Mander also emphasizes this passion throughout his biography of Goltzius, declaring that “he is someone who, because of outstanding love of art likes to have peace of mind, be quiet and solitary, while art has claimed the whole person for herself.”14 At the same time, however, Van Mander distinguishes Goltzius from those artists who, like the mythical sculptor Pygmalion, “fall blindly in love with their own creations” and, so consumed by passion, receive nothing but derision from their colleagues.15 Whereas Pygmalion ardently prayed at the altar of Venus for his beautiful female statue to come to life and be his bride, Goltzius far more temperately asked only that love spark his creative spirit.

With The Great Hercules, Goltzius can thus be seen to adopt the guise of the hero himself. The muscular and towering body of Hercules represents the courageous feat that Goltzius undertook in producing such a large and ambitious engraving. At the same time, Hercules—positioned between Achelous and Antaeus—embodies the strong love that inspires the artist’s hand but that also must be kept in check lest it overtake him entirely. The horn and club held by Hercules, like the pairs of burins that the artist holds in his Venus, Bacchus and Ceres, represent the tools of Goltzius’s art but also suggest his double dexterity as both hero and lover. As Hercules pauses in his massive stride and looks over his shoulder, reflecting on his past accomplishments, we can imagine Goltzius himself looking back over his previous works as he prepares for his imminent trip to Rome, driven by desire and the strength of his artful hand.


[1] For key sources from the vast literature on this print, see Hendrick Goltzius, ed. Marjolein Leesberg and Huigen Leeflang, in The New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450–1700 (Ouderkerk aan den Ijssel: Sound & Vision, 2012) 1: 257–59, cat. no. 156; and Huigen Leeflang, Ger Luijten, and Lawrence W. Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617): Drawings, Prints and Paintings (Zwolle: Waanders, 2003), 106–8, cat. no. 36.

[2] Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, from the First Edition of the Schilder-boeck (1603–1604), ed. H. Miedema, (Doornspijk: Davaco, 1994), 1: 384–407. For useful discussion of the significance of Van Mander’s biography, see Walter S. Melion, “Karel van Mander’s ‘Life of Goltzius’: Defining the Paradigm of Protean Virtuosity in Haarlem around 1600,” Studies in the History of Art 27 (1989): 113–33.

[3] Van Mander, Lives, 1: 396–97 (“de heldighe cracht der Teycken-const”), in reference to Goltzius’s series of the Roman Heroes, published in 1586. On this series, see also Walter S. Melion, “Memorabilis aliquot Romanae strenuitatis exempla: The Thematics of Artisanal Virtue in Hendrick Goltzius’s Roman Heroes,” MLN 110 (1995): 1090–1134.

[4] For more on this discussion, see Nadine M. Orenstein, “Finally Spranger: Prints and Print Designs, 1586–1590,” in Leeflang, Luijten, and Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius, 82–83; and Jan Piet Filedt Kok, “Hendrick Goltzius: Engraver, Designer, and Publisher, 1582–1600,” in Goltzius Studies: Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617), ed. Reindert Falkenburg, Jan Piet Filedt Kok, and Huigen Leeflang, special issue, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 42/43 (1991/1992): 159–218, esp. 173–74.

[5] The characterization of The Great Hercules as an accurate and scientific representation of human anatomy has been effectively disproven by Beth L. Holman in “Goltzius’ Great Hercules: Mythology, Art and Politics,” in Falkenburg, Filedt Kok, and Leeflang, Goltzius Studies, 397–412, esp. 398–400. There has also been much discussion of Goltzius’s visual models for the figure, with a convincing link to Bartholomeus Spranger’s muscular Hercules in his 1587 engraving The Wedding Feast of Cupid and Psyche, and other less compelling connections to Federico Zuccaro and Willem Danielsz. van Tetrode. On the Spranger connection, see also Ger Luijten and Ariane van Suchtelen, eds., Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580–1620 (Zwolle: Waanders, 1993), 345–46, cat. no. 13, esp. 346; and Leeflang, Luijten, and Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius, 106. For the proposed relation to Zuccaro’s vault fresco in Caprarola, see Leeflang, Luijten, and Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius, 106; and for Goltzius’s alleged debt to the small bronze Hercules Pomarius of Van Tetrode, see Anthony Radcliffe, “Schardt, Tetrode, and Some Possible Sculptural Sources for Goltzius,” in Netherlandish Mannerism: Papers Given at a Symposium in Nationalmuseum Stockholm, September 21–22, 1984, ed. Görel Cavalli-Björkman (Stockholm: Nationalmuseum, 1985), 97–108, esp. 102; and Stephen H. Goddard and James A. Ganz, Goltzius and the Third Dimension (Williamstown: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2001), 13–15, 48–56.

[6] Holman, “Goltzius’s Great Hercules,” passim, reiterated by Luijten and Van Suchtelen, Dawn of the Golden Age, 346; and by Leeflang, Luijten, and Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius, 108.

[7] This suggestion was briefly put forth by Walter S. Melion, on whose argument this essay builds. See Melion, “Self-Imaging and the Engraver’s Virtù: Hendrick Goltzius’s Pietà of 1598,” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 46 (1995): 104–43, esp. 110–11; and his “Piety and Pictorial Manner in Hendrick Goltzius’s Early Life of the Virgin,” in Hendrick Goltzius and the Classical Tradition, ed. Glenn Harcourt (Los Angeles: Fisher Gallery, 1989), 44–51, esp. 46.

[8] For the full story of Hercules’s battle with Achelous, and its aftermath, see Ovid, Metamorphoses, 9.1–272.

[9] For the story of the hero’s conquest over Antaeus in classical sources, see Apollodorus, Biblioteca, 2.5.11; Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, 4.17.4; Philostratus, Imagines, 2.21; Lucan, De bello civili, 4.589–660.

[10] See Fulgentius, Mythologiae, 2.4. For additional discussion, see Ursula Hoff, “The Sources of ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ by Rubens,” in In Honour of Daryl Lindsay: Essays and Studies, ed. Franz Philipp and June Stewart (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1964), 67–79, esp. 68, 74n11; and Patricia Simons, “Hercules in Italian Renaissance Art: Masculine Labour and Homoerotic Libido,” Art History 31, no. 5 (2008): 632–64, esp. 637–45.

[11] “Amphitryoniadae virtus terraque marique / Quem latet? et tanti saeva noverca mali? / Ille tot expositus monstris, Hydraeque, tricorpor / Geryon atque tibi, flammivomoque Caco. / Ille hic Antaeum, et superat te Acheloe bicornem; / Naiades at truncum fruge ferace beant,” adapted from Leeflang, Luijten, and Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius, 106 (translation mine).

[12] On this point, see the seminal article of Eric Jan Sluijter, “Venus, Visus and Pictura,” in his Seductress of Sight: Studies in Dutch Art of the Golden Age (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), 86–159, originally published in in Falkenburg, Filedt Kok, and Leeflang, Goltzius Studies, 337–96.

[13] State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, inventory no. 18983 (86 1/4 x 64 3/16"). On this image, see especially Walter S. Melion, “Love and Artisanship in Hendrick Goltzius’s Venus, Bacchus and Ceres of 1606,” Art History 16, no. 1 (1993): 60–94; and Leeflang, Luijten, and Nichols, Hendrick Goltzius, 277–79, cat. no. 100.

[14] Van Mander, Lives, 1: 402–3.

[15] Ibid., 404–5.

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Image Credit

Hendrick Goltzius, The Great Hercules, 1589. Engraving, 22 1/2 x 16 1/4". University purchase with funds from Mrs. Mahlon B. Wallace, Jr., by exchange, 2004. WU 2004.0001.