The Twelve Labors of Hercules

The Twelve Labors of Hercules – Vicent Garcia Editores – Inc. 2441 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)

Zamora (Spain) — January 15, 1483

A synthesis of ancient mythology and Christian moral concepts: The captivating story of the virtuous Greek hero in Castilian, illustrated with 11 beautiful large woodcuts

  1. A synthesis of Greek mythology and Christian allegory meant to inspire virtuous behavior

  2. Written in 1417 by Marquess Enrique de Villena (1384–1434) in Catalan and later translated into Castilian

  3. Printed by Antón de Centenera on January 15th, 1483 in Zamora with 12 woodcuts, 11 of which survive

The Twelve Labors of Hercules

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  1. Description
  2. Detail Picture
  3. Single Page
  4. Facsimile Editions (1)
The Twelve Labors of Hercules

Born the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene, Hercules was a Roman hero famous for his great strength and one of the most popular and well-known figures in Greek mythology – both in the Middle Ages and today. As was common for ancient pagan myths as well as other texts, the tale was reinterpreted as a Christian allegory by medieval authors. One of these authors was Marqués Enrique de Villena (1384–1434), a Spanish nobleman, writer, poet and theologian. He wrote a Catalan version of the ancient heroic myth in 1417, which was intended to inspire his readers to to a lead an honorable life, and which he later translated into Castilian. Based on this translation, the first edition appeared on January 15, 1483, printed by Antón de Centenera (c. 1450–1504) in Zamora. The Spanish incunabulum originally featured twelve large woodcuts, eleven of which have survived, each illustrating one of the twelve labors of Hercules. A wonderful testimony to the early Spanish art of printing!

The Twelve Works of Hercules

Don Enrique de Villena (1384–1434), Marquess of Villena, was a Spanish author, poet, and theologian who also was reputed to be a necromancer. Although belonging to the former royal house of Aragon, his political ambitions were denied him, and so he committed himself as an author. He is most famous for his Los Trabajos de Hércules, the first edition of which was published in Zamora on January 15, 1483. However, he created the first version of the work much earlier in 1417 shortly before his departure from the Aragonese court. He initially wrote in Catalan, but only a few months later made a Castilian translation himself, on the basis of which the printing was truly masterfully executed by Antón de Centenera. The latter was one of the earliest known printers on the Iberian Peninsula and is known for his characterful works. With Los Trabajos de Hércules he created an exemplary Spanish incunabulum, i.e. a book printed before 1501.

An ancient hero as a Christian ideal

Villena's text is a synthesis of Greek mythology and Christian allegory full of moralizing messages intended to encourage particularly nobles and clerics to virtuous behavior. The book is divided into 12 chapters - one for each labor of Hercules - , each of which is then divided into four parts. The first section in each case contains a rendering of the legend, which is followed by an allegorical interpretation, a review of the truth content, and a section on the moral utility of the tale. While the individual chapter headings are barely noticeable in the neat two-column typesetting, there is an almost half-page woodcut at the beginning of each of the twelve chapters as a visual marker and aide memoire. The magnificent xylographs are by a Spanish artist, though only 11 of the 12 original images survive: the depiction of the Battle against the Centaur, actually a secondary labor, has been lost. Nevertheless, the incunabulum remains a wonderful testimony to early Spanish book printing.


Alternative Titles
Die zwölf Aufgaben des Herkules
Die zwölf Taten des Herakles
Die zwölf Arbeiten des Herakles
Los (Doce) Trabajos de Hercules
The Twelve Works of Hercules
Size / Format
68 pages / 27.5 × 20.5 cm
January 15, 1483
11 large woodcuts
Medieval version of the legend of Hercules
Artist / School

Available facsimile editions:
The Twelve Labors of Hercules – Vicent Garcia Editores – Inc. 2441 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)
Vicent Garcia Editores – Valencia, 1995
Limited Edition: 3160 copies
Detail Picture

The Twelve Labors of Hercules


The capture of Cerberus, the three-headed, dragon-tailed dog that guarded the gates of the Underworld, was the twelfth and final labor of Hercules. Hades, lord of the Underworld, only agreed to let Hercules take Cerberus to the surface if he could do it without weapons. This woodcut shows Hercules holding a chain, which is secured around one of the necks of the beast. Persephone, Hade’s queen and a sibling of Hercules, stands at the gates wearing flowing robes and looking thoroughly displeased.

The Twelve Labors of Hercules – Vicent Garcia Editores – Inc. 2441 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)
Single Page

The Twelve Labors of Hercules

Golden Apples of the Hesperides

After Hercules completed the first ten labors, Eurystheus gave him two more, claiming that neither slaying the Hydra nor cleaning the Augean Stables counted because he had cheated. He was thus sent to steal three of the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. After learning of its location from the Old Man of the Sea, the shapeshifting sea god, he went to the garden where he slew Ladon, the dragon who guarded the apples.

The woodcut appears at the bottom of a page with a conspicuously blank area where a decorative initial ought to be. Many early printed books did this so that the purchaser could have initials hand painted according to their personal tastes. Similarly, the woodcuts could also be colored by an artist at a later time.

The Twelve Labors of Hercules – Vicent Garcia Editores – Inc. 2441 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Los (Doce) Trabajos de Hercules

Vicent Garcia Editores – Valencia, 1995

Publisher: Vicent Garcia Editores – Valencia, 1995
Limited Edition: 3160 copies
Binding: Parchment binding on wooden board; presented in a cloth-lined case with gold engraved leather spine
Commentary: 1 volume by Vicente Escartí Soriano
Language: Spanish
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €
(under 1,000€)
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