Please tighten your girth, adjust your stirrups and prepare yourself for a ride through 3000 years of the history of a horseman on a rearing horse. We will see men, women and saints, from small (1 inch) to big (11 metres). There will be truly amazing objects and there will be parodies; some will be truly popular, others will provoke hatred and destruction. There will be truly original images and shameless imitations. There will famous, infamous and nameless riders; some will be headless, others will have spare heads. Many remarkable artists will create their versions of this image; if you are unsure how to tell the difference between Bellini, Cellini and Bernini, it should become very clear by the middle of our journey…
The image will originate in Ancient Middle East, and the beginnings will be rather humble: some petroglyphs in what is now Saudi Arabia and very unsophisticated relief sculptures of barefoot soldiers on a horseback, one of them holding a club, that was once decoraing a palace of an Aramean king Kapara in what is now Syria. Then it will grow in beauty and sophistication, will be adopted in Ancient Greece, then return to the East, then reemerge in Europe during Renaissance, spread throughout the continent, then on the Americas, Asia and Africa. It will prove to be time-resilient; each country and époque will adopt it in its own, very unique way. Some very important historical events will appear in the background: Thirty Years war, colonisation of the Americas, the Northern war, liberation of Serbia from Turkey, American revolution, Napoleonic wars, a fight for the independence of India and a battle for the unification of Italy. We will see that in the 21st century it is as popular as ever… But let us start from the beginning. First stop: Assyria.
According to the Ashmolean Museum, horses were first mentioned in Eastern written sources in cr. 2100 BC. Initially they were used to pull the wheeled vehicles, but in the 1st milllenium BC there was a shift towards cavalry.
King Ashurbanipal‘s reliefs are perhaps the most famous and interesting of all these objects; the craftsmanship is astonishing. The lion hunt, the central theme of these reliefs, was double symbolic meaning. Firstly, it was to emphasize the bravery and the king’s supreme horsemanship and archery skill, the supreme virtues of a ruler by the standards of the time. The second meaning was to show that the king protects his people from the predator animals, that were also associated with the evil demons. We will see that the equestrian lion hunt will fascinate many artists and patrons for the years to come: we will see it on the sword-sheath from Oxus Treasure, on Alexander the Great‘s sarcophagus, on the painting “The Lion Hunt” by Peter Paul Rubens etc.
The earliest Persian region riders on rearing horses I could find are on numerous seals (mostly Cylinder seals) depicting a king (?) hunting a stag or a lion. We can see, that despite the time gap between Elam and Achaemenid Empire, the artistic tradition remained unaffected to the point that it is not always possible to determine if a particular seal is Neo-Elamite or Achaemenid.
Two later objects, part of Oxus Treasure, contain somewhat more elaborate depictions of the riders on the rearing horses, again in the context of hunting.
The next two objects were made in Greece, yet they depict Persian horsemen spearing Greek foot soldiers. Perhaps they were made in Greek territories colonised by Persians. The origin of the third object is unclear. However, given the similarity of subject, technique and production time, it is possible that these three objects belong together. The fourth object is a coin, silver tetradrachm, with the depiction of a satrap on a rearing horse. It is a clearer example of Greek workmanship that depicts Persian subject: it is made in Cyprus, an island originally populated by Greeks, and colonised by Persians, and depicts a ruler, a satrap, who was serving Persian empire.
Clearer examples of interaction between Greek and Persian cultures are the funeral monuments erected in Persian provinces: they were of Persian types, much larger and more impressive than Greek funerary stelae, and the bas-reliefs that decorate them are made by Greek artists in typically Greek style.
There were three types of Persian tombs: pillar tombs, gothic-arched sarcofagi and temple tombs.
An example of a gothic-arched sarcofagus is a Lycian sarcophagus that was found in Sidon, modern Lebanon; it has traditional Lycian shape (Lycia was a kingdom located in modern Turkey, part of Persian Achaemenid Empire when this sarcophagus was produced) and the scultural decoration was done in style of Greek Peloponnese!
The Nereid Monument, build around 390-380 BC at Xantos, also in Lycia, is the first known example of a temple tomb. Most of the subjects depicted on these reliefs are typically Greek, but the architrave frieze shows a bear hunt scene, with a mounted hunter, which is typically Persian.
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, is the greatest example of a temple tomb. It was built between 353 and 350 BC at Halicarnassus (present Bodrum, Turkey) for Mausolus, a satrap in the Persian Empire, and his sister-wife. Even though Persians were arch-enemies of Greeks, Mausolus spoke Greek and admired the Greek way of life and government, so he invited Greek architects Satyros and Pythius of Priene to design his tomb. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by earthquakes, and we don’t know exactly what it looked like, but some authentic reliefs have survived.
Finally, there are two tiles, discovered in Asia Minor at the end of the 6th century BC when this territory was part of Persian empire. The imagery and the technique are very Greek.
Bellerophon was probably the first named rider on a rearing horse. He is depicted on a rearing horse named Pegasus. This part of the exposé is, unlike the others, shows one specific character across different cultures: from 7th century BC Greece to 21st century China, passing through Etruria, Roman Republic and Roman Empire, Byzanthium, Visigothic culture, Renaissance Siena, Prussia, Baroque Venice and the United Kingdom in World War II. As such, it serves to give the taste for the variety of cultures, styles and media we will encounter as this exposé unfolds.
Bellerophon was also one of the first horsemen on rearing horses to feature on coins. According to Sam Heijnen, the myth had always been present on Corinthian coinage when Corinth, the supposed birthplace of Bellerophon, was independent, and would remain so at least until the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE). We can also see him on the coins of other Greek territories and, later on, on Roman coins minted outside Greece.
Horsemen on the rearing horses were making occasional appearance in the art of Etruria. It appears that it was where the horsewomen on rearing horses have made their debute appearance. It is interesting to note that, although the British museum and the Metropolitan museum forward-facing riders figurines are very similar, the British museum consider them female (Amazons) whereas the Metropolitan museum considers them male. Luckily, the gender identification of the rider on the antefix is beyond any doubt.
Later on, cinerary urn were replaced with the sarcophagi depicting the scenes with the horsemen that indicate strong influence of Greek culture.
The earliest Greek horsemen of a rearing hourses I could find are the depiction of anonymous sportsmen and warriors on Greek vessels. Predictably, the majority is warfare-related. We can see the battles of the gods of Ancient Greece such as Poseidon, the mythological heroes such as Odysseus, Troilos and Achilles. But most depict the fighting of anonymous Greek warriors against Thracians, Scythians and, especially, Amazons (but, interestingly, not Persians). One can observe that Amazons frequently wear Scythian trousers. This is because, based on a myth, Amazons and Scythians are closely linked. The reason why Thracians’ clothing is identical to Scythians’ (see situla with Odysseus below) is unclear.
One could also find a few vessels which decoration is related to Panathenaic Games.
Parthenon Frieze, sculpted between c. 443 and 438 BC, depicts many horseman (43 out of 121 blocks); and most of them have rearing horses. This is expected, since the subject of the relief that decorates the frieze are two (separate) processions, one of them is a Panathenaic Games procession. The other procession is war-related. As such, Parthenon frieze combines both major themes of the horsemen on the rearing horses of Ancient Greece.
One could also expect some depiction of Greek hunters on rearing horses, but these are virtually unexistent. I have only found three objects with such depictions. All of them have some Persian connections. The first object, kantharos, uses the iconography that was only used by Persians at the time. Also, it was made in Beotia, the region in Ancient Greece that assisted the invaders during the Persian invasion of 480 BC; one could assume that Beotia had prior contacts with Persia. The next of is a fragment of sarcophagus made in Klazomenai, Greek region conquered by Persians. The last two objects, lekythos, both feature the depictions of the hunting scenes. Hallie Malcolm Franks suggests that the image that shows Persians hunting deers, griffons and a boar among other game is no less than a fictionalized account of Persian conquest, in which the borders of the empire have reached the edges of the earth, the eschata. I could not find much about the fourth object, but similarity of style and depicted subject, as well as the proximity of times of creation, allows us to think that these two lekythos are related.
However, there are two Greek amphorae that feature an image of a hunt, with a hound underneath the horse, yet there is no obvious connection to Persia. One was made in the 6th century BC in Reggio di Calabria, one of the oldest Greek colonies in southern Italy and an important maritime and commercial city as well as a cultural centre. There were other amphoras with horsemen produced in the same location at about the same time, which imagery is clearly Greek.
One could imagine that Persian motives were due to cultural or commercial contacts, either direct or indirect, through Greek territories colonised by Persia.
The next type of objects are sculptured funerary stelae. Very few of them featured horsemen. One stela was created to commemorate Dexileos, a 20 years old Athenian horseman who died in a Battle of Nemea fought against Sparta in 394 BC. This depiction is the first horseman on a rearing horse who is a real person, with known name, of non-royal origin. In addition, this stela seems to make Ancient Greece the only culture where the first depiction of a real person on a rearing horse is not of a royal but of a commoner!
Pelinna was an ancient Greek city that gained particular prominence in the 4th century BC through its alliance with Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Ancient Thessaly, the region Pelinna belonged to, was also famous for horse-rearing. This explains why the motif of the horseman was often used for its coinage.
From iconographical perspective, the most interesting Thessalian coin is the humble bronze Pelinnian chalkous, the smallest, cheapest coin: it often features a horseman on a rearing horse striking fallen enemy hoplite.
Another Greek place that minted coins with horsemen on rearing horses was Taras (modern day Taranto) in Apulia, southern Italy. In ancient times, around 500 BC, this Spartan colony was one of the largest city in the world, with population estimates up to 300,000 people. During the 4th century BC it was a centre of a thriving decorated Greek pottery industry; we have seen some examples of it, with the depictions of the horsemen, above. Their coins tend to have Taras, the founder of the city, astride dolphin on the reverse; obverse very often feature horsemen on rearing horses.
Many other Greek poleis would occasionally depict the horsemen on the rearing horses on their coins, althiugh it would not be systematic and horse-driven chariots would be seen more frequently. Two very imaginative coins show a fish underneath the horse.
Time went by, and democracy was succeeded by tyranny. Alexander the Great was often represented on a rearing horse, with a spear. This iconography was developed during his lifetime and is used to these days. It is noteworthy that only three horses in this story have a name, and Alexander’s horse is one of them. His name is Bucephalus; he was reared in Ancient Thessaly.
Even though Alexander the Great has made the horseman his signature image, it was used in the Kingdom of Macedonia before and after him.
The horsemen on rearing horses were frequently appearing in Hellenistic world, not only in Macedonia.
One famous example is a marble “Pergamon vase” that dates from the second century BC and was excavated in modern-day Turkey: it is decorated with a bas-relief that depicts 15 horsemen on rearing horses.
The other example is the temple of Artemis Leucophryene (white-browed Artemis) in Magnesia on the Maeander (also modern-day Turkey) designed in late 3rd – early 2nd century BC by Hermogenes of Priene. It also featured a marble relief with the riders on rearing horses, but in this case it is a sculptured frieze, and the riders are Amazons. Roman architect and hisotorian Vitruvius has called it the most beautiful temple in Asia Minor.
Some very interesting from iconographical perspective coins were minted in Paeonia, the kingdom that roughly corresponds to the present-day Republic of Macedonia. Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) research suggests that the foe attacked by the horseman is Persian, however Nicholas Wright suggests that this foe is Macedonian. There are many variations of the depiction of the horseman on the coins struck under king Patraos, see this list of king Patraos coins for further examples. The iconography is very similar to a Greek seal presumably made for a Persian patron, depicting a Persian horseman spearing a Greek foe.
Later on, some Hellenistic coins were showing Dioscuri brothers on rearing horses. This motif appears in many times in various parts of Hellenistic world.
Lastly, there are two coins minted in the city of Kibyra in Greater Phrygia (modern south-west Turkey). They both have a depiction of a horseman on a rearing horse on the reverse. One is a particularly charming – it feature a large butterfly sitting on a horseman’s spear! They both were minted between 166 and 84 BC, which was a turbulent period in the history of Phrygia and Kibyra. Phrygia was ruled by a Greek king from 188 BC until 133 BC, when it was bequested to Rome. In 84-83 BC Moagetes, was the last tyrant of Kibyra, was defeated by Roman general Lucius Licinius Murena as a part of the Second Mithridatic War and the city Kibyra was attached to Phrygia. This reflected the change the world was undergoing at that time: Greek civilisation was losing its dominant positition and the building of Roman empire was gathering momentum.
The Scythians were a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads who were mentioned by the literate peoples surrounding them as inhabiting large areas in the central Eurasian steppes from about the 9th century BC until about the 1st century BC. They have left us little information about their history themselves. Ancient Greeks, their arch-enemies, notably Herodotus, were writing a lot about them, but their accounts are inevitably biased and not always plausible.
Quite a few surviving Scythians’ artifacts depict horsemen on rearing horses, all of them seem to be anonymous. Many of these artefacts are made of pure gold. Most are part of The State Hermitage Museum collection.
The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting a large area in southeastern Europe. Thracians are one of the three primary ancestral groups of modern Bulgarians. Thracians were exposed to other cultures through their wars: they were fighting against (and with) Persia, against Ancient Greece and Scythia, and later against Ancient Rome. All these conflicts have influenced Thracian culture and enabled the development of the motif of Thracian Horseman.
As suggested by Maya Vassileva, the early Thracian representation of the horsemen on the rearing horses are the Achaemenid (Persian) “borrowings” and were used to indicate the elite status of the rider.
Later on, roughly from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD, there was a recurring motif of a horseman depicted in reliefs in the Balkans (Thrace, Macedonia, Moesia) known as Thracian horseman. The presentation of the reliefs is quite similar to Roman funerary stelae. Their purpose was also, in many cases, to be funerary stelae; some are votive tablets. However, the iconograhpy ot the horsemen is different from the one we see on Roman funerary stelae. The first object I have found is very simlpe, just a horseman and his horse. But soon enough, as explained in Wikipedia, three types of Thracian horseman iconography have been developped: hunter motif, serpent-and-tree motif and rider-and-goddess motif.
The hunter motif is earliest one. It represents a hunter on horseback, riding from left to right. Between the horse’s hooves is depicted either a hunting dog or a boar. In some instances, the dog is replaced by a lion. It is reminscent of earlier Thracian horsemen, and is likely to be inspired by Persian imagery.
The serpent-and-tree motif has appeared later on. The serpent-and-tree could represent the rod of Asclepius, although there are many other possible interprestations – see Antonios Sakellariou's dissertation thesis for more informations. The serpent-and-tree motif often incoporates the hunting motifs, i.e. a hound and/or the game animals undernearth the horse.
The rider-and-goddess motif also occasionally incoporates the hunting motif. According to Antonios Sakellariou's dissertation thesis, the goddess could be Hygieia, the daughter of Asclepius. The bas-relief that depicts two women is dedicated to Asclepius, so one could specilatively assume that one of these two women is Hygieia.
The depiction of a horseman was encountered on the tombstones of the Roman cavalryman around 100 AD. Presumably initially all these tombstones were all brightly painted. The images of the horsemen represented on these tombstones vary in details, but seem quite similar. The dating is not straightforward because, unlike nowadays, the standard inscriptions on the tombstones were including the age at the time of death but not the years of birth/death.
According to Wikipedia,
The most common funerary monument for Roman soldiers was that of the stelae – a humble, unadorned piece of stone, cut into the shape of a rectangle…In some unique cases, military tombstones were adorned with sculpture. These types of headstones typically belonged to members of the auxiliary units rather than legionary units. The chief difference between the two units was citizenship. Whereas legionary soldiers were citizens of Rome, auxiliary soldiers came from provinces in the Empire. Auxiliary soldiers had the opportunity to obtain Roman citizenship only after their discharge. Tombstones served to distinguish Romans from non-Romans, and to enforce the social-hierarchy that existed within military legions… Reliefs on auxiliary tombstones often depict men on horseback, denoting the courage and heroism of the auxiliary’s cavalrymen. Though expensive, tombstones were likely within the means of the common soldier… These tombstones did not commemorate soldiers who died in combat, but rather soldiers who died during times of peace when generals and comrades were at ease to hold proper burials. Soldiers who died in battle were disrobed, cremated, and buried in mass graves near camp.
Later on, similar depictions of the horsemen have started to appear on the waymarks. We can see the horseman on a rearing horse on one of the metopes decorating Tropaeum Traiani, monument built on the site of modern Adamclisi, Romania, in 109 to commemorate Roman Emperor Trajan‘s victory over the Dacians, in the winter of 101-102, in the Battle of Adamclisi. The Bridgeness Slab, a Roman distance slab, marking a portion of the Antonine Wall (Scotland), created around 142 AD, also features a horseman on a rearing horse.
The other, much more famous, waymark that features horsemen on rearing horses is Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy. It was completed in 113 AD to commemorate Roman emperor Trajan‘s victory in the Dacian Wars. It is located in Trajan's Forum, built near the Quirinal Hill. The freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bas relief, which artistically describes the epic wars between the Romans and Dacians (101–102 and 105–106). Its fame, influence on the architecture of the posterity and the number of the horseman on the rearing horses depicted on it makes it comparable with Parthenon in Athens.
The next group of objects are the sarcophagi. According to Wikipedia,
In the burial practices of ancient Rome and Roman funerary art, marble and limestone sarcophagi elaborately carved in relief were characteristic of elite inhumation burials from the 2nd to the 4th centuries AD. At least 10,000 Roman sarcophagi have survived, with fragments possibly representing as many as 20,000. Although mythological scenes have been mostly widely studied, sarcophagus relief has been called the “richest single source of Roman iconography”, and may also depict the deceased’s occupation or life course, military scenes, and other subject matter.
Obviously, quite a few Roman sarcophagi featured horsemen on rearing horses. We often encounter Amazonomachy, but there are also hunting scenes and even the depiction of victorious Roman cavalry.
Another group of objects are the coins.
A yet another group of objects are the mosaics. Those that are preserved were found in Roman provinces (except one found in 2015 in Tuscany) and mostly feature hunting scenes.
The iconography of the horseman on a rearing horse will be adopted by many rulers, from antiquity to modernity. One of them was infamous Roman emperor Commodus (161 – 192). Upon his death, the Senate declared him a public enemy (a de facto damnatio memoriae), so very few objects depicting Commodus have survived. Some are below.
The Parthian empire, that existed from 247BC to 224AD, was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Iran and Iraq. The Parthian rulers were claiming to be the heirs to the Achaemenid Empire, and, just as in Achaemenid Empire, the horsemanship was one of the most valued skills. Parthian shot, meaning a military tactic where mounted archers, while retreating at a full gallop, would turn their bodies back to shoot arrows at the pursuing enemy, was widely used but not many Parthian objects that depict it survive.
It is useful to observe that, while other nomadic people, notably Scythians, were using the same maneuver, it was known by Parthians before the contacts with other people who were employing this tactic, as explained in this article.
This image has become a cliché for Persian horseman, and was used, among others, by Louis XIV‘s favorite painter Charles Le Brun. However, his use of the Parthian shot in the depiction of the Battle of Arbela is an anachronism – this battle took place in 331BC, some 84 years before the Parthian empire was extablished.
The Sasanian Empire was the last imperial state in Persia (Iran) before the rise of Islam, from 224 to 651AD, successor of the Parthian empire. Its art objects include many silver plates decorated with the images of the hunt of Sasanian kings; of course, many of them are depicted on rearing horses. The description of the earliest of these plates, done by The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art, offers a great insight into the story of these plates:
“I, Shapur, king of kings, partner with the Stars, brother of the Sun and Moon, to my brother Constantius Caesar offer most ample greeting.…”
Like Shapur’s flowery letter to the Roman emperor Constantine, this masterpiece of silverwork presents Shapur II as a ruler of the universe, the king of kings.
It was produced during the fourth century CE for Shapur II, the Sasanian king who is identified by his distinctive crown. He was one of the most powerful rulers of the Sasanian dynasty, which controlled Iran and much of the Ancient Near East from 224 to 651 CE. During Shapur’s reign, scenes depicting the king hunting gazelle, boars, bulls, and ibex were important metaphors for royal power. The plate, like several other similar examples, was presented as a gift to dignitaries or was displayed prominently in the Sasanian palace to assert Shapur’s sovereignty.”
There are two more Sasanian objects with a depiction of a horseman. The horses stand on 3 feet, so they are off-topic for this presentation. However, I wanted to mention them because there are striking similarities with the Roman/Byzanitine objects that we will encounter later. Even though, as the inscriptions in indicate, these are definitely Persian objects, we see halo, which is more of a Christian symbol, a lance is topped with a cross and the slayed animals are hydras, a monster from Greco-Roman mythology. It is possible that they belonged to Christians who lived in Sassanian Persia; more information about Christians in pre-Islamic Persia can be found in Iranica Online.
Before proceeding any further, let me introduce Saint George, a Christian Saint, a Syrian born in cr. 280 AD who served in the army of a Roman empiror and was tortured and executed for his refusal to recant his Christian faith in 303 AD. The story of his life was not well documented and thus should be seen as a myth rather than the actual facts. The most famous episode of the life of this Saint is the story of his defeat of a dragon and a rescue of a princess told in the Golden Legend.
Saint George is often represented on a rearing horse. Moreover, in all likelihood, he has more representations on a rearing horse than any other person, real or mythical. He has other canonical representations, too. The subject of representation in art is well researched, a few on-line sources (among others) are “The Legend of St. George Saving a Youth from Captivity and its Depiction in Art” by Piotr Grotowski, “In Search Of Saint George” by H.F.Rance and “The Miracle of St.George and the Dragon\Black George” by Yury Bobrov.
Byzantine Empire was formed as the result of division of “too big to manage” Roman Empire into two parts, the Eastern (Byzantine Empire) and the Western Roman Empire. Perhaps the best choice for inception date of the Byzantine Empire is 330AD, when Constantinople, previously known as Byzantium, became its capital.
The new name of the city was honouring Constantine the Great, the emperor who has masterminded this transformation. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to claim conversion to Christianity. During his reign, the tolerance for Christianity was decreed in the empire.
We can see that the image of Constantius II, the son of Constantine the Great, on the bowl that was a diplomatic gift from the Byzantine Emperor to a representative of the government of Bosporan Kingdom. There are many cultural layers on this depiction. Firstly, the composition was to remind us of Roman empire: the Emperor on horseback is piercing the enemy with a spear, an image typical of Roman coins. Secondly, we can see the pagan goddess Nike crowning the winner. Thirdly, the halo around the Emperor’s head is probably inndicating the Emperor is Christian, although halo was sometimes used within pagan iconography, too.
Further evidence of the cultural complexity of Byzantine Empire comes to light when we examine other Byzantine depictions of the horsemen on the rearing horses. Some will be alluding to the glories and splendours of the united Roman empire, e.g. gladiators and its cultural connections to Ancient Greece (Alexander the Great and pagan gods).
Other depictions will be more representative of the Byzantine Empire with its complex multiface pattern, while still referencing the Ancient Roman art. In fact, as shown in the research done by Sasson Ancient Art, the representation of the Holy Rider seems to be ideal to get the drip of the cultural patterns of the Byzantine Empire. We have already seen the representation of the Emperor Constantius II with a halo around his head, which clearly indicates divinity, while the composition reminds us of his royal status through the similarity with the coins. Later in Eastern Mediterranean region, there will appear the amulets King Solomon on a rearing horse, spearing the demon Lilith, a killer of the little children: this story is part of Jewish tradition, the rider is both royal and divine. In Byzantine iconography of the 5th century, the horseman became St. Sisinnius or Sisoe, destroying the she-demon Gello, also a killer of the little children. (Another demon responsible for miscarriages is Abyzou of the Near East and Europe; both king Solomon and St. Sisinnius can act as her adversaries). Later on, the rider was identified as Saint Demetrius, Saint George, Saint Mercurius and Saint Theodore of Amasea, the four saints who are considered both great martyrs and military saints.
Each culture seems to be able to make the motif of the rearing horseman their own, adapting it to fit the local tradition. Perhaps the finest example of this ability to adapt is the part of window decoration that shows a horseman, who is none other than the god Horus dressed like a Roman soldier, is stabbing his spear into a crocodile, the animal that symbolized the god Setekh. According to Louvre researchers, Egyptian deities were never portrayed on horseback. This representation, which dates from the 4th century AD, reflects the influence of Greco-Roman models and of the Christian symbolism of Good conquering Evil. Likewise, the textile designs use the Greco-Roman mythology, contemporary rider on a rearing horse motifs and the depiction of the hunt typical for Persian and Roman art, but their representation reflects Egyptian traditions.
Later on, there appeared a very idiosyncratic representation of Saint Mercurius, a saint that seemed to be much more popular with Egyptian Copts than with other Christian denominations. The Coptic icons of Saint Mercurius I have found are of uneven artistic quality and only one is dated, but the imagery is so striking that they seem to be worth appearing in this presentation: the ability to hold two swords while piercing emperor Julian the Apostate who was prosecuting Christians with his spear is truly superhuman.
According to In Search Of Saint George, Georgia has converted to Christianity in early 4th century, at about the same time as the rest of the Roman Empire. It is unclear when Saint George has been designated as its national Patron Saint, but his cult was widespread by the 10th century.
While Georgia was remaining Christian religiously, and thus influenced by the Byzantine empire, its neighbour, it was also under cultural influences of its many invadours: Mongols, Persians and Turks.
The iconography of Saint George that was frequently used in Georgia, showing an equestrian St. George with the horse standing or rearing over the prostrate figure of Diocletian, rather than the figure of the Dragon, was a provintial Byzantine theme, which was foreign to metropolitan Byzantine art. One of representations of Diocletian, where his armour is made of scales, could suggest how the figure of Diocletian has transformed into a Dragon.
The choice of the iconography that features a horseman on a rearing horse, as well as the the choice of metalworks repoussé as the most frequently used technique, suggests the influence of Sassanian empire where both the subject and the technique were much used and loved.
Like Georgia, Ethiopian Empire was bordering Byzantine Empire, has adopted Christianity in the beginning of the first millenium and was under Islamic influence. Like Georgia, Ethiopian Empire has chosen St. George to be its patron saint. The existing documents Ethiopians have started venerating Saint George later than Georgians, perhaps in the 15th century. However, according to In Search Of Saint George, it is possible that earlier evidence of the veneration of Saint George in Ehiopian Empire has been destroyed during the invasions of 1529-43 led by Somali Muslim Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi.
Ethiopian artists have developed a very strict and idiosyncratic canon for the representation of Saint George. It certainly reflects the taste for bright colours and flatness of the image common in African art. The person in the tree directly in front of Saint George and above the horse’s head is the princess that the saint is about to save. In Ethiopian tradition, the princess’s name is Biruwit, and she is said to personify Ethiopia.
Traditionally, Saint George is depicted on a rearing horse. His images are most probably the first art objects that show a horseman on a rearing horse in the post-antique world. It is interesting to see how his image changes from medieval Orthodox icons to Renaissance paintings. Just as a prince charming, he appears on a white horse, slays the dragon and saves the princess.
It seems that St.George’s image has arrived to Europe via two different routes. It has, in all likelihood, arrived to Russia via religios/cultural exchanges with Byzantine empire (and, probably, Georgia), because Russia have officially adopted the religion of Byzantine empire, Orthodox Christianity. The earliest objects in this series are two bas-reliefs with the depictions of warrior saints, one of the earliest surviving Russian sculptures. The choice of the saints and the iconography clearly draws inspiration from Byzantine art. The other objects, icons, look properly Russian, but actually there were similar icons in Byzantine empire, too.
The Western Europe has been introduced to the cult of Saint George thanks to Norman crusaiders, as explained in the blog In Search Of Saint George.
One of the first depictions of Saint George in Western Europe, that also happened to be dated and produced by an artist we know of, Barisano da Trani. He is best known for his bronze relief door panels on the doors of Trani Cathedral (1185), Monreale Cathedral in Monreale (1190), and for the churches in Astrano and in Ravello (1179) on the Amalfi Coast. They all feature almost identical depictions of Saint George on a rearing horse.
More depictions of Saint George have followed.
Rearing horsemen in devotional artworks that are not Saint George were rare. The only example I could find is a nameless horseman dragging the body of Isidore of Chios on the mosaic of Saint Isidore’s Chapel in St Mark's Basilica, Venice. Unfortunately, the full scale photograph of the mosaic is not available, so I have to use an old black and white one, and a fragments of a full colour one, to give the idea what the original looks like.
As the secular art develops, the images of horsemen (and, interestingly, the horsewomen) start to emerge in graphic art forms. These horses are not yet rearing, it looks more like a gallop, but they are standing on their hind legs nevertheless.
Secular paintings showing horseman on rearing horses until Leonardo were very rare. It was Leonardo da Vinci who has put the subject to a reaing horse in a prominent position. Indeed, according to Fitzwilliam museum research, Leonardo seems to have had a personal fascination with the horse and he is known to have written a treatise on the subject, now sadly lost.
The horsemen on the rearing horses we see on the right of a palm tree that is in the centre of the composition of 'Adoration of the Magi' painted by Leonardo in 1480-2 probably would have been the first secular depiction of a horseman on a rearing horse done using newly developed oil paints if the painting were completed.
Unfortunately, this painting was left unfinished. Leonardo wrote to the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, offering the Duke his services, and was given the employment. Among other projects mentioned in the letter, Leonardo has described his idea of a gigantic bronze equestrian monument to commemorate the glory of the Duke’s father Francesco Sforza.
It appears that Ludovico Sforza liked the idea and asked several artists to submit their designs. On Antonio Pollaiuolo’s drawing, the horse is also rearing, but the horseman holds a sword. On Leonardo’s drawing, which won the competition but had to be redesigned because it proved impossible to cast, Ludovico’s father holds a baton in his right hand (which is outstretched towards the back) and the reins in his left hand.
Another Leonardo’s design was chosen instead, and Leonardo delivered a clay model. Shortly after, in 1499, Milan was invaded by French troops led by Gian Giacomo Trivulzio, Leonardo had to flee Milan; French troops used the clay model as a target during their shooting exercises.
Leonardo has eventually found himself in Florence, and was commissioned a wall painting. The subject was the Battle of Anghiari (1440), where Florentines had vanquished the Milanese army. Leonardo's depiction of the battle of Anghiari, despite its expressiveness and ingenuity, has been abandoned for technical reasons, and, subsequently, was painted over by Giorgio Vasari. We only know Leonardo’s painting through the preparatory drawings and copies, most famous of these being Peter Paul Rubens‘s version. Leonardo’s representation of the horsemen and rearing horses is astonishingly dynamic. Vasari’s depiction of the Defeat of the Pisans at the Tower of San Vincenzo, painted in the same Hall of 500 in Palazzo Vecchio, is clearly inspired by Leonardo’s painting, but unfortunately the quality is not comparable.
Leonardo returned to Milan in 1506 to work for the very French rulers who had overtaken the city seven years earlier and forced him to flee. Ironically, Gian Giacomo Trivulzio followed in his foe’s footsteps and commissioned da Vinci to sculpt a grand equestrian statue, one that could be mounted on his tomb. Leonardo had designed it, but the statue was never begun.
Judging by the fact that Leonardo’s drawing of Sforza’s monument was in the possession of Francesco Melzi after the death of Leonardo, we can assume that they took it to France when Leonardo was invited by king Francis I of France to live there as “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King”.
However, Leonardo was not the first Renaissance artist fascinated by the rearing horses. Venitian artist Jacopo Bellini (c.1395 – c.1470) was clearly very fond of the subject. Few of Bellini’s paintings still exist, but his surviving sketch-books (one in the British Museum and one in the Louvre) show his fine technique and imaginative vision. Quite a few of his drawings feature rearing horses, sometimes very predictably (when he depicts St. George’s fight with the dragon), sometimes quite unexpectedly (when he depicts David after he has vanquished Goliath). Probably, it was Jacopo Bellini who has suggested the first (since antiquity) equestrian monument of a ruler on a rearing horse – we find the design in his sketch-book. This design is believed to be submitted for a competition for the monument of Niccolò III d'Este, which was commissioned by his son Leonello d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara. Unfortunately, his design was rejected. It will take almost 200 years for a large scale monument of a horseman on a rearing horse to appear.
More well known ones are perhaps the depictions (there are three versions) of the Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, the pioneer of visual perspective in art, where a rider on a rearing horse is in the centre of the painting. We can also spot a few horsemen on rearing horses on the left-hand side of another famous Uccello’s painting, The Hunt in the Forest.
Two other early Renaissance artist who would paint horsemen on rearing horses were Biagio d'Antonio and Jacopo da Sellaio. They would work either independently or collaborate. All of his paintings below are the either the wall panels or the decorations of the large chests, one of the trophy furnishings of rich merchants and aristocrats, called cassone: this explains the unusual elongated format of the paintings.
I could find very few art objects that show horsemen on rearing horses and date back to the 16th century, including perhaps the first one of an English sovereign on a rearing horse. It seems that, during most of the 16 century, the rearing horses were not in vogue.
The only exception I am aware of is Deruta ceramics. Deruta is a tiny (population 8935 as of 2007) hill town in Central Italy, half way between Florence and Rome. It is not very well known today, but it used to be famous for its Maiolica ceramics. The city started producing it in the early Middle Ages, and it still makes it. The pick of its popularity was reached in the 15th and early 16th centuries.
Fierce-looking horsemen were a favourite subject on mid-sixteenth-century Deruta maiolica, both lustred and unlustred. Many are dressed as Turkish warriors, but there is a great variety of riders: Roman and Jewish warriors, Saint George, medieval knights and contemporaty soldiers, and even children.
As we will see further on, the image of a horseman on a rearing horse became very popular at the end of 17 century. Furthermore, two standard representations of a horseman on a rearing horse have emerged: the horseman is dressed à l’antique or wearing armour with a sash across the chest, and, almost always, holding something, often a martial baton, sometimes a sword, in his right hand.
According to Walter A. Liedtke, it is difficult to find the origins of this cliché; one likely candidate is the series of engravings “The First Twelve Roman Caesars” created by Antonio Tempesta and published by Giovanni Battista di Lazzaro Panzera da Parma in 1596. All of these caesars are sitting on horses, and six of these horses are rearing; five of these six Caesars (all except Nero) hold a baton.
It must be told that Antonio Tempesta was very fond of depicting the reading horses. In one of his engravings from the series “Hunting” feature no less than 6 horsemen on rearing horses. Tempesta has also made several depictions of rearing centaurs.
Tempesta’s engravings might explain the surge of popularity of the image of a horseman on a rearing horse and the ancient world-themed clothing. As for the armour with the sash across the chest, it was not due to a specific object of art; it was simply the fashion of the day. We can see it in Titian‘s portrait of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and on many other portraits up to the beginning of 18 century. Sash is most frequently tied across the chest, but sometimes it could be worn around the waist or even around the upper arm. Baton, sash and armour are the status symbols, and so is the depiction on a rearing horse.
A very interesting bronze horsemen have appeared in the middle of 16 century. It was a restoration of a 3rd century BC Etruscan object: a horseman was discovered, but his horse was missing. So, in 1548 Benvenuto Cellini (Italian, 1500-71) has created a horse to complete the statuette; you can see it below.
Later, Willem Danielsz van Tetrode (Netherlandish, active about 1525 – 1580), who was Cellini’s pupil in 1549-50 (according to other sources, in 1545-49), maybe earlier, has created his own bronze horseman on a rearing horse, also below.
It has been suggested that Willem Danielsz van Tetrode may have trained the young Adriaen de Vries (Dutch, about 1556 – 1626) and encouraged him to go to Florence. While in Florence, Adriaen de Vries was working in Giambologna‘s workshop. Later, thanks to the generous patronage of Rudolf II, Adriaen de Vries has created several rearing horses in different media, also below. The bronze figure of Henry Julius, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg on horseback, made by Adriaen de Vries in 1605, is the first bronze I am aware of that follows the iconography that will become so familiar: rearing horse (two support points), a horseman wearing armour and holding a baton in his right hand.
This small selection of the rearing horses is very representative of the way the image of the rearing horse has transformed during 16 century and the beginning of 17 century. It starts with just a few objects, then becomes very fashionable, used primarily for royalties and mythological figures, and also on its own (it was used as table decorations, in the decorations of the fountains, etc.).
Giambologna, born Jean Boulogne, the teacher of Adriaen de Vries, a leading Mannerist sculptor, have created rearing horses and equestrian sculptures, but not one horseman on a rearing horse. It was his best pupil, Pietro Tacca, who became the leading creator of small (less than 1 metre high) bronzes of the horsemen on rearing horses. The most interesting small scale bronze is the oldest one. The horseman is Ferdinando II de' Medici, but the head is probably Peter the Great’s, added by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the sculptor at Russian imperial court, and the father of Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the chief architect of Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.
At the end of his life, Tacca has created a large-scale monument of a horseman on a rearing horse. According to a Wikipedia article, the statue of Philip IV was the first completed large-scale monument of a horseman on a rearing horse. Its design was done by Diego Velázquez; it is also said to have been based on the iconography of a lost painting by Peter Paul Rubens. The monument was dedicated in 1640. The daring stability of the statue was calculated by Galileo Galilei: the horse rears, and the entire weight of the sculpture balances on the two rear legs — and, discreetly, its tail — a feat that had never been attempted in a figure on a heroic scale, of which Leonardo had dreamed.
The second large-scale Italian artist-made monument was the statue of Vittorio Amedeo I. This statue has quite a history. According to seetorino.com, Charles Emmanuel I has commissioned an equestrian statue to honour the memory of his father, Emmanuel Philibert. Sculptor Andrea Rivalta from Rome was responsible for the marble part and Federico Vanelli from Lugano was responsible for the bronze part. The sculpture parts were completed but remained in storage in different locations in Turin. Later on Charles Emmanuel II ordered the construction of an equestrian statue to glorify his father, Vittorio Amedeo I, the son of Charles Emmanuel I. Someone has remembered about the unassembled sculpture, and, after the change of facial features, it was unveiled as the statue of Vittorio Amedeo I and is now on display in the Royal Palace of Turin.
The statue of Carlos II was the third such monument. It was dedicated in 1684 in Messina, Sicily, and remained there until a mob has destroyed it during the Sicilian revolution of 1848. Several smaller statuettes of Carlos II were created.
Also in 1684, Gian Lorenzo Bernini has completed the statue of Louis XIV and delivered to Versailles; however, Louis XIV disliked it and has put it in a faraway corner of Versailles park so that few could see it. Earlier Bernini has created a statuette of Carlos II using very similar iconography (see above). Other small-scale bronze horsemen on rearing horses continued to appear.
Note that most of these artists belonged to Giambologna’s school. Giovanni Battista Foggini worked with the son of Pietro Tacca, Fernando (as we remember, Pietro Tacca was Giambologna‘s first assistant). After Fernando Tacca’s death, Foggini acquired the foundry that had once belonged to Giambologna and had a very profitable business selling sculptures based on Giambologna‘s models. Giuseppe Piamontini was Foggini’s pupil.
The Duchy of Savoy has disappeared from the European map, but it used to be one of the greatest European powers. The House of Savoy is one of the oldest royal families in the world (it was founded in 1003). Initially, it was a small county in Savoy (a region between Italy and France). It gradually expanded through annexation of the neighbouring territories, and in 1416 it became a duchy. For 7 years, from 1713 to 1720, it included Sicily. In 1720 the Duke of Savoy was forced to exchange his throne in Sicily for that of the less important Kingdom of Sardinia. Ironically, it was Sardinia that would later unify Italy in the nineteenth century, and the junior branch of the house of Savoy was ruling the Kingdom of Italy since from creation in 1861 till 1946 when Italy became a republic.
Several Savoy rulers have been portrayed on the rearing horses…
… but the most po