The Horse in Art & Heroic Imagination through the centuries and a journey through time from Ancient Egypt to Georgian Britain, showing how the ancient world inspired and influenced the art of later civilisations. What can 4 horses teach us about history, art, heroes and power? Quite allot actually.
The ribs of a skeleton of a once grand mortuary Temple stare up at the sky just across the waters of the sacred Nile from the modern city of Luxor. Once part of the old Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt it is better known as the Ramesseum. A rigid labyrinth board of bleached foundations in a rough rectangle surrounding the remnant of the Hypostyle Hall, varying crumbling colossi are scattered amongst the ruins, blindly staring into space with benign, beatific expressions. Ramses II built it in the 13th Century BC to echo his achievements to the world long after his heart had been either by Osiris. And faintly, carried by the desert wind and over the bejewelled river, we can still hear them. Most impressive are those dealing with his victories in war; most principally the battle of Kadesh. Mighty and sublimely carved he stands forever, alone in the cab of his chariot, decked in his armour and spanning his powerful bow. Around his hips are tied the reins of his two reading horses, controlled by the flex of his torso, they trample his fleeing enemies under their hooves. At first glance it is not easy to see both at once, one is hiding behind the other, almost it’s shadow, mimicking the other’s every move. They grace one of the wide sand coloured stone pylons of this “House of a million years”. Their names are almost certainly “Victory in Thebes” and “Mut is Contented”, and they are just as much symbols of victory as the bow wielding Pharaoh carved for eternity into the walls of the testament of their master’s greatness. Visitors to the temples of Luxor leave their mark temporarily in the sand, when they have gone the wind and weather will do the rest to erase the evidence of their visit. Across the Mediterranean in the cultured security of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples footsteps don’t get lost and the murmur of conversation echoes through marbled halls and fill the high ceilings. Here protected from the air and constant exfoliation of the Egyptian sands, and the harsh glare of the sun there is another horse. He receives many more visitors than the other, but is sadly only a brown head and some legs as the cataclysm that preserved him also badly damaged him. Taking up only a small but important space on the colossal, Alexander floor mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. A 1st century BC Roman copy of a 3rd century BC Greek masterpiece. This horse is much more familiar than the other two, he is Bucephalus, the famed warhorse of the young Macedonian King who conquered Asia. As with all heroic legends the hero needs his steed to prove his mastery and oneness with nature. The giant black Thessalian stallion had been unbreakable until the young Alexander saw that he feared his own shadow and gently turned his head to the sun, a point to which Alexander was inexorably drawn on the wide back of his most loyal companion. Bucephalus never returned to the grassy upland plains of his homeland, he died a weary and battle scarred veteran on the far edge of the known world, either at the age of 30 or from wounds received at the battle of Hydaspes, which marked the furthest reach of Alexander’s conquests. Mourned by his master the town of Bucephala (modern Jalapur Sharif) was named in his honour. In the mosaic he and his master ride against King Darius in Alexander’s second great battle, Issus, though it could as well be Gaugamela and he carries his master fearlessly through the maelstrom of battle towards a set of four terrified black Persian horses that are pulling the King’s chariot. The third horse has no name. No name that is remembered anyway. Although he resides in no less grand surroundings as Bucephaus, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, he is Italian not French and although he has no name, at least, unlike his predecessors, we know for certain the name of his creator. A Florentine painter called Paolo Uccello, who painted the three majestic panel paintings of the Battle of San Romano (fought in 1432 between Florence and Siena) between 1438 and 1455. Our handsome friend is one of many fine looking animals doing the noble job horses have been doing since men began to ride. He is a black rearing stallion taking centre stage amongst all those funny hats, part of the last panel which depicts “The Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola”. His other two panels are housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi Florence and The National Gallery London. These animals are carrying their riders, heavily armed Knights, wielding lances, swords and war hammers against each other. None have the mystique of the Pharaoh’s team, or the dramatic story of Bucephalus, but they do represent all those unnamed horses of the Middle Ages. Those magnificent animals that make a knight what he is, and indeed typified what it meant to be a knight, or chevalier. A horseman. Cotignola’s steed, rears like Pharaoh’s horses and Bucephalus, his head is turning as he feels the spur urge him forwards, but because of the use of perspective, he is actually coming almost towards the viewer. And there we have our four horses. What do these horses; an Egyptian chariot team, the charger of a legend, and the Destrier of an Italian knight, separated by some 27 centuries all told, have in common? First of all they are all warhorses, each one takes a centre stage in a scene representing war. Secondly they are all quite similar in terms of artistic anatomy. Thirdly they are all serving the same purpose, IE, making the human driving them, or sitting on their back, look good and heroic and fifthly, each make up a large work of art, painted or tiled on a wall or a floor, depicting a real historical event, for specific patrons. The thing that strikes me is the way it shows how artists drew inspiration from, what to them was already ancient history. Thousands of years in the past, each craftsman was still putting a fresh spin on old ideas. The Egyptian version is a tried and tested Pharaonic device, the rearing chariot team drawing the mighty king over the keeling broken bodies of his enemy’s, their symmetry so perfect that the only hint that there is two of them is the octopus like legs fanning out from their chests. When rendering Alexander, what better than to revamp a well proven image of royal military success with a realistic contrapposto twist. Alexander had always been fond of Egyptian grandeur. Bucephalus rears up amongst the other charging Macedonian horses slighting turning his head towards the viewer, while trampling his equine and human enemies, kicking his legs out like the old Egyptian one dimensional friezes. As Alexander thrusts his xyston through a Persian guardsman he locks eyes with King Darius. Meanwhile, the Persians die under the hooves of his horse and flee before him, a potent image of royal power, centuries old. Only this time the chariot that is turning to escape, the horses whipped by the driver, not the king to speed them on, from now on hero and horse are a single team and King’s don’t ride in chariots. 1,000’s of years still later, during the height of the Italian Renaissance, the wonders of ancient art and architecture still influenced the great masters. In the same way that the ancient mosacists and fresco painters reached back for guidance and inspiration, so too did the artists of the 15th century look to Rome and Greece for the same things. Several rearing horses of Uccelo’s masterpiece can be seen in the Alexander Mosaic pulling Darius’s chariot, half standing on their haunches and turning their heads in fright. Further the Egyptian model has now taken up a new reality, not just because the the image of a horse with raised fore legs was a universal indication of movement from China to Rome. Our black stallion rears fully up on his hind legs like Pharaoh’s chariot team, ready to push forward into a gallop, only now his fiery head twists towards the viewer with as he goes. It is highly unlikely that the artists drew specific inspiration directly from each other, but rather drew on old traditions and updated them. From the highly figurative symbolic carvings on the walls of the Ramesseum, to the up close and personal flesh and blood reality of the Alexander Mosaic, to the mix of the symbolic and the realistic, bursting almost three dimensionally from the Uccello panels, these three paintings and these horses, and indeed the other horses they ride beside, show how the traditions of military and triumphal art from antiquity to the renaissance were kept up and updated, if not showing the progression of art itself. These same artistic conventions can be seen all the way down through history. From the sarcophagus of a Hellenistic General showing Alexander and Bucephalus rearing over a fallen Persian, and even into the 13th century, where many would assume artistic convention suffered, and this is to an extent true however the idea of fine art was carried on in tapestry and in the margins of illuminated manuscripts which show horses of victorious armies in the classical rearing jumping action pose, chasing down the enemy, some of whom lie dead and broken beneath them. Whistlejacket painted by Stubbs around 1762 is the wonderful secret prize at the end of our trail, making it actually a story of 5 horses. I didn’t officially include him in the roundup because he’s not a warhorse like the others, he is his own star. There’s no human for him to make heroic in the strange ochre nothing that surrounds him, but nevertheless he is of the same artistic family. This famous floating Chestnut legend of the track, hangs in the National Gallery London, (which is fate, for the principle section of Uccello’s panels is also in there) and is the equine equivalent of the paintings of famous humans of the time, who were usually classically posed looking imperiously off in some direction, or staring down at the viewer while pointing towards some evidence of their greatness. Whistlejacket’s pose struck me as rather strange when I first saw it, the horse is in a half rear, looking over his right shoulder. You couldn’t easily pose a horse to do this it isn’t a true natural posture, usually horse portraits of this age are of the animal placidly standing under a tree being held by a groom, but Whistlejacket is alive with energy, in the classically heroic equine action pose, adopted by the horses of Pharaoh’s, of the mounts of Kings and Generals from Alexander to the 17th century which seen in paintings by Velasquez, a pose worthy of his fame. When deciding how to portray his subject, Stubbs could have done little better than pose his equine hero, in a pose that would convey a heroic idea to his audience. The staid heroic style that brought us to the horses of the Pharaoh’s travelled onwards from Egypt to Greece, remoulded and re-imagined in visceral reality by the Greeks and Romans. It carries on through to the majesty and refinement of the Renaissance Fresco’s in Italy, right down to the Georgian elegance of 18th century Britain. From these horses, represented in four (or five) works of art that span thousands of years, and travelling across four countries and countless in between is a testament to the timeless nature of what has gone before, and at the same time the distance with which ideas and inspiration can come down to us today. See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, thanks for reading. Josh.