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Luther – The German Hercules

Hans Holbein was commissioned to create an image of Martin Luther.

Published in 1523 it depicted Luther as the Greek 'super-hero' Hercules, attacking people with a viciously spiked club.

In the picture, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, Duns Scotus and Nicholas of Lyra already lay bludgeoned to death at his feet and the German inquisitor, Jacob van Hoogstraaten was about to receive his fatal stroke. Suspended from a ring in Luther's nose was the figure of Pope Leo X.

Derek Wilson, the author of Out of the Storm: The Life and Legacy of Martin Luther (2007) has argued: "What was clever about this print (and what has made it difficult for later ages to determine its true message) was that it was capable of various interpretations.

• Followers of Luther could see their champion represented as a truly god-like being of awesome power, the agent of divine vengeance.

• Classical scholars, delighting in the many subtle allusions (such as the representation of the triple-tiaraed pope as the three-bodied monster, Geryon) could applaud the vivid representation of Luther as the champion of falsehood over medieval error.

• Yet, papalists could look on the same image and see in it a vindication of Leo's description of the uncouth German as the destructive wild boar in the vineyard and, for this reason, the engraving received a very mixed reception in Wittenberg."

Of course Martin Luther would never have compared himself to Hercules. He was only too aware of his own weakness.

As he famously remarked: "I simply taught, preached, wrote God's Word: otherwise I did nothing ... . The Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble ... . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn't have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug's game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word."

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