Horse News

Horses Shaped Our Art of War and Peace

European Perspective by Jonathan Jones 

From the Chauvet cave to Mark Wallinger’s planned Ebbsfleet landmark, the history of art mirrors the changing relationship between horses and humans

Wild horses appear in the earliest known art, the Chauvet cave paintings of southern France. Photograph: AFP

Horses throng the history of art. The most ancient paintings that are known, in Chauvet cave in France, feature herds of horses, and Mark Wallinger is keeping the equine dream alive in today’s art even if he never does get the money for his giant horse at Ebbsfleet.

The Chauvet horses are wild animals, observed by ice-age artists among the mammoths and rhinos of a Europe abundant in beasts long gone today. But our artistic relationship with the horse has evolved alongside the animal’s domestication. Last week, archaeologists in Saudi Arabia announced that humans tamed horses far earlier than has been thought. Excavations at al-Maqar apparently reveal that horses were domesticated 9,000 years ago at this neolitihic site. This is perhaps three and a half millennia before horses were being tamed in northern Kazakhstan, and 5,000 years before they were being buried with chariots in graves – showing their definitive domestication around 2000BC.

If it is true that horses were tame in Saudi Arabia so long ago, it was a skill that eluded the Mediterranean world until later – for the horse’s introduction as a living technology is a moment recorded at the edge of written history by the ancient Greeks in their myths and art. The spectacle of the first horsemen might even be the origin of the Greek myth of the centaur, half man, half horse: and if so, the new evidence from Saudi Arabia fits with a strong association in Greek art between centaurs and the East.

You can see this in the Parthenon sculptures at the British Museum in London. The Parthenon was built at a time of war between Greek cities and the Persian Empire. Powerful carvings of humans fighting centaursdepict this as a war between reason and savagery, with centaurs as the wild enemies of Athenian civilisation.

Whatever the origins of horse riding, this skill is depicted in world art as a decisive advantage in war. In a famous mosaic found in Pompeii, Alexander the Great is defeating the Persian king: while Darius rides in a chariot, Alexander does away with such comforts and is mounted on his horse. His freedom and strength as a rider defeat the chariot-bound Darius. Alexander, here, is the centaur.

In modern times, the horse became obsolete in war. The realisation of this dawned in the Victorian age, when Roger Fenton photographed the aftermath of the Light Brigade’s cavalry charge against artillery in The Valley of the Shadow of Death. By the time Picasso painted Guernica, a horse is no longer a bringer of war but one of the helpless victims of bombs from the sky.

Horses are not always associated with war in art. While some images from the Parthenon show centaurs raging, the main frieze portraysyoung Athenian men proudly riding in a cavalcade. These horses are poised between the energy of their wild inheritance, and the elegance of a tamed creature. The confidence of the riders is an image of civilisation. The taming of horses is one of art’s oldest signifiers of beauty, yet theiroriginal wildness also feeds visions of raw power.

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3 replies »

  1. Nice. Thanks Jonathan Jones (and RT). I have always loved the history of our horses and their partnership with humans. The story of Alexander and Brucephalus is a favorite. The most important story to me right now is the struggle of our people to save the wild horses from our wrongly directed government in a very unstable nation. mar


  2. Jonathan is right on the money! Thanks, R.T., for bringing us this great reminder of how much we owe to the horse (and all equids). Mark Wallinger is adding to the tradition of monumental “White Horses” in Britain. Who knew there are so many?

    “Britains Chalk White Horses”
    “Folkstone” is my favorite … wild and free! But I also love “Uffington”. And I want that pendant!

    Includes a clever video of several from Google Earth:

    “As from the Dorset shore I travell’d home,
    I saw the charger of the Wiltshire wold;
    A far-seen figure, stately to behold,
    Whose groom the shepherd is, the hoe his comb.”
    Charles Tennyson Turner (1808-1879)


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