vorheriges Werkzur Übersicht

On Superheroes and Saints

Did you ever want to be Superman or Wonder Women? To have superhuman powers? Accomplish heroic deeds on a daily basis? Did you ever think that a secret identity as an extra-terrestrial superhero might help you escape the boredom of your life?

The artist Wilfried Gerstel gives you the chance to consider your dreams more intensively. Would it really be worth it to be a Superman or a Wonder Woman?

The series of "Helpers-In-Need" show us Superman's and Wonder Woman's life. They are easy to recognize, but the human world they inhabit is alien to us. This is the world as seen by artists 900 years ago. It is a world inhabited by miracles, mysteries and monsters.

Are superheroes basically normal people who simply have a lot more physical and moral strength than the rest of us?
It seems that way at first glance. Muscular, fast, far-seeing, knowing better. Maybe one only needs to spend more time at the gym and libraries to become a superhero?
But in those days, in the Middle Ages, things were different. Superheroes were actually people, who in fact exercised no physical strength, people who even renounced physical strength.

Wilfried Gerstel brings these two different worlds together, the old and the contemporary, in order to get us to ask questions of ourselves.

If you've ever spent more than ten minutes in a museum dealing with medieval art, if you've ever visited one of the gorgeous Romanesque cathedrals, you will recognize the vocabulary this artist uses immediately. The vocabulary he uses to talk about superheroes and human beings. One can see he uses it to produce often sarcastic, sometimes loving or ironic observations about his subjects. He calls everything into question, even some things that people are not supposed to question. The language of the Middle Ages becomes a critical instrument, to help us learn more about contemporary people and their behaviour.

The re-telling of the Superman story takes place in a world that is supposed to be extremely religious. A world where one prayed to saints when one was in need. It was a world where people even prayed to the bones of the saints. God had to be a strict and ever-present father in this world , because people had low moral standards.

Superman shows up in this world. Superman knows the difference between good and evil without having to think about it for even an instant. Not only that, but he acts according to this knowledge, he does only good.
Superman uses his super powers to help everyone who needs help, even those who do not realize that they need his help. Superman has everything that humans lack.

Yet it can't have been easy to be Superman or Wonder Women. They are, after all, alien creatures who have decided to dedicate their existence to helping humanity. This is their role, their aim, just as it was for Saints Barbara, Catherine or Christopher. (Although since 1969 one is not supposed to pray to any of these popular saints any more since they were removed from the Holy Calendar as non-historical personages at the Second Vatican Council.)

But: We humans are complicated. What is it like for superheroes to live among these beings?
Does Superman enjoy using his powers? Does the term "enjoy" apply to Superman at all? Superman understands all too well that he's different from humans.
Gerstel's wall reliefs show us how Superman himself thinks about these issues. How he philosophizes. Did you ever imagine Superman as a philosopher?

In a pleasant house that reminds us of Italian painting, Superman observes a party of happy humans who eat, drink, listen to music. Even grapes hang from the roof suggesting a measure of plenty. Superman stands outside the door and watches confused, almost unhappy. How is this to be interpreted? He, the superhero, needs no food, no drink. He is spared every trace of desire for sensual enjoyment. Thank God?
He looks at these pleasure-loving people and suddenly asks himself whether it might not be a curse, not to be able to enjoy sensual pleasures. Is it a blessing or a curse not to be able to experience that which defines these human beings: their sensual nature? Is sensual nature good or evil? Is it perhaps a thousand times better to be able to enjoy the sensual pleasures of human existence, rather than to have super powers?

Precisely the idea of renouncing sensual pleasures fascinated people in the Middle Ages. Simple people put their trust in holy saints whose super powers lay in their ability to renounce food or drink and every human pleasure, and to choose complete passivity. Yes, this was a way to gain power.
A small example:
One day, a young girl in the Italian city of San Gimignano who had experienced visions sudddenly decided to lie down on a narrow wooden plank and spend the rest of her life there. Nobody could persuade her to live a normal life. After her death her virgin remains were preserved in a glass coffin. Soon simple people started praying to the girl as Santa Fina. The church declared her a Saint and she became the Patron Saint of San Gimignano, a mighty city in those days.

If Superman is incapable of enjoying food or drink, he is also spared the obsession of greed that tortures humanity. Why does everyone have to own everyone else, he asks in another picture.

In the tradition of Hieronymus Bosch, Wilfried Gerstel does not shy away from showing us the most horrific human sights. "Did I really believe I could succeed?" asks Superman as he is pressured by a thousand demons. The horror does not stem from the mythic beings, but rather from human deeds and human behaviours.

Did you know that superheroes die in the end?
Superman too must die, and in the final image he is lifted up, back to his home planet of Krypton. In the final analysis he too is only an individual and as such he cannot turn humanity away from its egoism and greed.

Did his life have any meaning?

"The problem, said Pa, is Man."
The dogs lick his remains as his soul is carried up to Krypton. In the Middle Ages Superman would only have become powerful after his death, when he might have created miracles for those who prayed to him.

But this Superman accomplished all of his miracles during his lifetime.
Perhaps, after all, he was human.

Pieter M. Judson
Professor of History at Swarthmore College,
Philadelphia/Pennsylvania, USA