BMCR 2007.06.14

Horses: History, Myth, Art

, Horses: History, Myth, Art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 192. $35.00.

This book examines the long historical and artistic relationship between human beings and equines. In this lavishly illustrated volume, Johns explores, through images, the ways in which horses (and asses, mules, and onagers) have been used and depicted throughout human history. This is an immense topic and the author has wisely chosen to focus her study on artistic depictions from the collections of the British Museum.

Part I is an historical overview. The book begins with a brief history of the evolution and domestication of the horse and then surveys the many ways in which human beings have used the animal. Categories explored in this section are warfare; transport; hunting, racing and equestrian sports; display and ceremony; training and management; myth and symbolism; and horses depicted in art and objects of use. Photographs of actual horses as well as paintings and sculpture are used to illustrate these divisions.

Part II, the major section of the book, presents the “Image of the Horse.” It contains eighteen sections: The Dawn of Art, Horses in Nature, Riding, Racing, Hunting, Chariots and Carts, Horses and Heroes, Gods and Saints, Knights and Warriors, Parades and Processions, Royal Horses, Horses and Nobles, Art and Style, Breeds and Types, Asses, Onagers and Mules, Care of Horses, Objects of Use and Ornament, and Myths and Monsters. Each section is illustrated with depictions from the British Museum collections which are presented in the form of brief catalogue entries describing each image and attempting to place the image in its cultural context.

The selections chosen represent a wide geographical and temporal range, befitting the scope of the British Museum collections. For example, within the Knights and Warriors section we find a 6th-century BCE Greek bronze statuette, a 13th-century CE British aquamanile, a 15th-century CE silver coin of emperor Maximilian I, and a 15th-century CE painting from Mughal India. The book ranges from prehistoric cave painting to 20th-century works. The illustrations are superb. Each is full-color (with the exception of objects such as lithographs which were originally black-and-white) and they predominate over text.

The diversity of images and broad chronological and cultural range of the book are both strengths and weaknesses. The juxtapositions are intriguing. In the racing section there are striking similarities in the evocation of speed between a 1st- to 2nd-century CE Roman bronze statuette of a racing Biga and a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph of a jockey. Throughout the book one is struck by such combinations. In some cases these allow one to see what clearly must be influence or imitation as in a Hellenistic coin image of Pegasus and a Wedgwood Pegasus vase. In others, sharply differing treatments of the same theme (a horse’s head from the Parthenon frieze and sheet bronze head of horse from Iron Age Britain) highlight the role of style in art. The inclusion of works from the East (China, Japan, Assyria, Persia and India) allows for broad cross-cultural comparisons which emphasize the enduring significance of the horse as both a useful companion and an iconic emblem.

Weakness appears in some of the cultural details presented for individual images. For example, in a discussion of the wedding procession of Peleus and Thetis on a dinos by Sophilos, the author states that the guests “arrive at the bridegroom’s house just as mortal guests would have arrived at a Greek wedding, some on foot, some in chariots and all bearing gifts.” Yet chariots are not a typical conveyance for Archaic Greece, but instead a part of the mythological setting. However, the book is not designed to be a definitive scholarly study. Horses is an appreciation of the myriad roles and depictions of the horse and as such is of value for the non-specialist. The sheer range of images and the excellent photography also make it a valuable starting point for specialist studies. (The author provides a limited bibliography (five books), since, as she recognizes, the scholarship on the horse is immense). The book makes an important contribution to our understanding of one of humankind’s most enduring relationships.