Quantum link models (QLMs) offer the realistic prospect for the practical implementation of lattice quantum electrodynamics (QED) on modern quantum simulators, and they provide a venue for exploring various nonergodic phenomena relevant to quantum many-body physics. In these models, gauge and electric fields are represented by spin-$S$ operators. So far, large-scale realizations of QLMs have been restricted to $S=1/2$ representations, whereas the lattice-QED limit is approached at $S \to \infty$. Here, we present a bosonic mapping for the representation of gauge and electric fields with effective spin-$S$ operators for arbitrarily large values of $S$. Based on this mapping, we then propose an experimental scheme for the realization of a large-scale spin-1 $U(1)$ QLM using spinless bosons in an optical superlattice. Using perturbation theory and infinite matrix product state calculations, which work directly in the thermodynamic limit, we demonstrate the faithfulness of the mapping and stability of gauge invariance throughout all accessible evolution times. We further demonstrate the potential of our proposed quantum simulator to address relevant high-energy physics by probing the (de)confinement of an electron–positron pair by tuning the gauge coupling. Our work provides an essential step towards gauge-theory quantum simulators in the quantum-field-theory limit.