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A close up view of the bronze of Kusunoki Masashige in full flight on his horse

The World’s Greatest Equestrian Statues: Artistic Masterpieces and Propaganda of Empires

An equestrian statue is a sculpture of a horse mounted by a rider. Such statues were often monumental works carved out of stone, or casted in metal. Apart from being works of art, such statues may also be regarded as propaganda tools of the ruling regime, as they often depicted rulers, though in more recent times, military commanders have also become the subject of equestrian statues. Whilst this type of artistic expression may be said to have originated in Europe, it spread to other parts of the world as well, and today, equestrian statues may be found in various countries across the globe.

An equestrian statue (public domain)

An equestrian statue ( public domain )

The Rampin Rider

The word ‘equestrian’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘knight, i.e. ‘eques’, which itself originates in another Latin word, ‘equus’, meaning ‘horse’. Thus, the connection between a horse and its rider is implied in this word. The history of equestrian statues may be dated back to the Archaic Greek period. The earliest known surviving equestrian statue is the so-called ‘Rampin Rider’, which was found on the Acropolis of Athens, and dates to the 6 th century BC. This statue was carved out of marble and depicts a nude male with a wreath (perhaps a victor in one of the Games) seated on a horse.

The Rampin Rider. Equestrian Kouros, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Ricardo André Frantz / CC by SA 3.0

The Rampin Rider. Equestrian Kouros, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Ricardo André Frantz / CC by SA 3.0

Roman Icons of Might and Power

Equestrian statues were favoured by the Romans, as they were ideal for representing the might and power of the Roman Empire. Many equestrian statues of Roman emperors were casted in bronze, though few have survived till today. The reason for this is that bronze was a relatively precious metal, and many ancient objects made of this material were melted down, and re-used. One of the most famous surviving Roman equestrian statues is that of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is today exhibited in the Capitoline Museums of Rome.

A Roman equestrian statue ( public domain )

Equestrian Statues Around the World

It may be said that the production of equestrian statues as monuments was a distinctly European tradition, as it is not known to have been made by other ancient cultures. The emperors of ancient China, for instance, were not known to have commissioned equestrian statues of themselves. Whilst the famous Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang had cavalrymen, the soldier would be standing next to his horse. In the Near East, such ancient cultures as the ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Achaemenids, have reliefs of horsemen, though not free-standing statues.

The tradition of making equestrian statues continued in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, though there was a significant decline during the Middle Ages. It is well-known that Medieval art focused primarily on religious themes. Nevertheless, some equestrian statues were produced. These include the Magdeburg Rider, and the Bamberg Rider, both of which were sculpted out of stone during the 13 th century AD.

The Bamberg Rider (CC by SA 2.5)

The Bamberg Rider ( CC by SA 2.5 )

Renaissance Revival

The production of equestrian statues experienced a revival in Italy during the Renaissance. One factor contributing to this was the fact that the ruling families of the emerging Italian city states were keen to stamp their mark on the cityscape. Having equestrian statues of themselves, their predecessors, or in some cases, those who have served them, commissioned, and placed in public places was an effective way of doing so. Examples of equestrian statues from this period include the monument of Cosimo I de Medici in Florence, and the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice.

From Italy, the trend of commissioning equestrian statues was picked up by other European rulers. Louis XIV of France, for instance, had a bronze equestrian statue of himself made by Francois Girardon, though this was destroyed during the French Revolution. Across the Channel, an equestrian statue of Charles I was commissioned not by the monarch himself, but by Richard Weston, the king’s Lord High Treasurer, for the garden of his country house in Roehampton. The statue has since been relocated to Charing Cross in London.

During the last two centuries, the tradition of erecting equestrian statues spread to other parts of the world. These statues, however, no longer depict members of a ruling dynasty, but more often important figures from the past. For instance, in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, an equestrian statue of Daniel of Galicia, who founded the city in the 13 th century A.D., was erected in 2001, whilst one commemorating the 800 th anniversary of Saladin’s death was erected in front of the Citadel of Damascus in 1993.

The largest equestrian statue in the world, depicting Genghis Khan (CC by SA 3.0)

The largest equestrian statue in the world, depicting Genghis Khan ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Lastly, it may be mentioned that there is a prominent myth surrounding equestrian statues. According to this myth, the number of the horse’s legs in the air reveals the manner of their rider’s death – two meant that the rider died in battle, one meant that he died from wounds inflicted during a battle (a variation of this is that the rider was merely wounded in battle), and none meant that he died causes non-battle related causes. Whilst this myth may be true in some cases, perhaps due to coincidence, it is not a hard and fast rule. For instance, Marcus Aurelius died of natural causes, though his horse was cast with a leg up in the air. Another example is the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, the 7 th President of the United States, in Washington. Whilst Jackson too died of natural causes, his horse has two legs raised in the air.    

Top image: A close up view of the bronze of Kusunoki Masashige in full flight on his horse ( Caribb / flickr )

By: Wu Mingren

References

Kadylak, J., 2008. Washingtoniana: What’s Up With Those Horse Statues?. [Online]
Available at: https://www.washingtonian.com/2008/10/02/washingtoniana-whats-up-with-those-horse-statues/

Marshman, P., 2017. Men on horses: across Europe in nine statues. [Online]
Available at: http://travellingboomer.com/equestrian-statues-europe/

van Tilburg, K., 2018. Equestrian statues: you can find them in almost each country. [Online]
Available at: http://equestrianstatue.org/

Wilde, R., 2017. Historical Myths: Common Codes Supposedly Hidden In Statues. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/historical-myths-and-urban-legends-1221228

World Heritage Site, 2018. Equestrian Statues. [Online]
Available at: https://www.worldheritagesite.org/connection/Equestrian+Statues

www.perseus.tufts.edu, 2018. Rampin Rider (Sculpture). [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/artifact?name=Rampin+Rider&object=Sculpture

www.visual-arts-cork.com, 2018. Equestrian Statue. [Online]
Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/equestrian-statue.htm

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