I saw a superhero movie last night, filled with people flying magically through the air to do battle with evil villains. I came away wondering, “where do they get these ideas?” But a little later, as I was looking at the photos from my last visit to Paris, the answer suddenly became clear: they get them from the superhero stories of old.
The brain wave struck as I flipped through photos taken in the Church of St. Sulpice, near the Luxembourg Gardens (shown here). The church dates back to 1646, and aside from being featured in the novel The da Vinci Code, it has a special distinction: in a side chapel near the front of the building are two large frescoes by the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix.
The fresco that caught my eye was the one featured above, called Heliodorus Driven from the Temple. And looking at it, I had the feeling I was watching the superhero movie all over again. A heroic horseman charging into the temple, figures flying down from the heavens (or possibly the balcony) to lay a beating on the villain — this was superhero stuff if I’ve ever seen it.
There’s a dramatic story behind the painting as well — and as usual in a superhero movie, there’s a supernatural twist. According to the ancient tale, the high priest of old Jerusalem had raised a lot of money for the benefit of widows and orphans. But a distant king got wind of the cash hoard and sent his treasurer, Heliodorus, to get it from the temple any way he could. He resorted to a bold snatch and grab, in full daylight. And then the story gets supernatural.
According to the ancient tale: “There appeared unto them a horse with a terrible rider upon him, and adorned with a very fair covering, and he ran fiercely and smote at Heliodorus with his forefeet, and it seemed that he that sat upon the horse had complete harness of gold.” Then, out of nowhere, two young men appeared, “notable in strength, excellent in beauty, and comely in apparel,” and helped give the thief a good thrashing.
A stirring tale, and Delacroix gives it the full superhero treatment. The main actors all seem to be flying through the air, with garments flapping everywhere and action swirling from every side. In the upper reaches of the frescoe (not shown here), a huge curtain billows in the wind, as if blown in by some magical wind.
The religious intent is obvious. But what’s just as obvious is how much the viewers of old liked a good free-for-all, especially when it was cut loose from the bounds of human capability. So if you see a superhero movie and wonder where people come up with these stories of the X-Men and the Avengers, you’ll have the answer. As they say, there’s nothing new under the sun.
Photo taken with the Nikon D5500 DSLR camera. As always, you can click on the photo to see it full-size.