Horses and War in Renaissance Art
The Renaissance was an intriguing and meaningful time period in European history as artists collaborated and competed to create masterpieces that we still revel at today. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, artists were commissioned to paint for powerful patrons among leaders, lords, and established courts. One of the major patrons was the catholic church, where popes, cardinals, and convents hired the painters to decorate the churches or baptisteries as a way to illustrate Bible scenes for the uneducated public, as well as a demonstration to exhibit their power and wealth. Much of the artwork created during the Renaissance were religious scenes or were portraits to depict their patrons. Although humans were the main focus in most of these artworks, animals were also common including deer, dogs, lions, donkeys, and even fictional animals such as dragons. However no other animal was depicted as much as the horse. Throughout all of history, humans have painted and sculpted this magnificent mammal in a variety of ways, from wild to obedient, brave to aggressive, but all under the command of men. These horses represent a metaphor for man’s pride, wealth, and status, demonstrating the versatility of the animal’s use to humans as well as our need to dominate and domesticate others for our own benefit.
During the Renaissance, a horse was a luxury that not many people could afford, therefore they were restricted to wealthy farmers, nobles, and knights. The large animal was not meant to be ridden by common people, but limited to those who were able to afford a horse and for wars in order to receive an advantage on the battlefield, “the horse had been a formidable military instrument [and] the right to own horses was therefore strictly regulated and attributed as an exclusive privilege for nobles”. This close association with the horse and wealth extended into artworks, making the horse a symbol for the rich and powerful due to their exclusivity. Due to this reasoning, some armies didn’t have horses to use for transportation, and thus remained at a disadvantage, emphasizing the power that a horse brings to the battlefield, and its influence in winning wars.
Horses In Art
The horse has been represented in many forms of art throughout history, from cave drawings thousands of years ago to abstract renditions in artwork today. Therefore, the Renaissance artist’s usage of the horse was not entirely unique, but a revival of antiquity that they had seen in Egypt, Greek and Medieval sculpture, and art. Greek sculpture shows horses with great amounts of movement and emotion in war, pulling carts, and carrying nobles on their backs [Figure 1]. Throughout the history of civilization, horses have “served us in war, commerce, agriculture, and entertainment” as well as being our partners and loyal pets through the centuries. At that time, however, the horses were mainly used to transport generals and knights, and since their armies were so small, “the conotta was composed essentially of soldiers on horseback”. Between the years 1494 and 1559 there were a long series of wars fought that is often referred to as the Great Wars of Italy or The Italian Wars due to the increased amounts of conflicts arising from collapsing alliances that were competing for land, demonstrating the great influence that war had on the Renaissance and the people of Italy. A common scene that is represented in art is the battle where the Florentines “fought the Venetians, the Visconti, the Imperial troops, and the Sienese” on June 1, 1432. The cavalry “became the most dispensable branch but greater force demande its permanent presence” due to the invention of firearms, and the army’s increased advantage with riding as well as pulling cannons. The cavalry defined the evolution of war, right along with the invention of firearms, due to the advantages that were given to soldiers on horseback.
Paintings and sculptures demonstrated the horse’s presence on the battlefield and their importance to the country. Religion and war were the most common themes among artworks where artists wanted to honor religious figures, military heroes, and important battles that took place, “especially condottieri with tombs incorporating equestrian figures” and “sovereigns with free-standing stone statues”. In Italian Renaissance, there was a tradition of erecting equestrian figures from the Middle Ages as a way to monument and appreciate the condottiere, but they turned to antique art to base their inspiration. There was a revival of certain types of sculpture and ancient techniques, learning of “the emphasis that the ancients had placed on bronze as the finest medium for monumental sculpture and this generated the desire to rival the ancients in the use of this metal”. Many impressive pieces of bronze equestrian monuments have been made by Romans and the Greek, successful in their ability to create a volumetric piece while also seeming to break the laws of physics. In Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius [Figure 2], made in the second century, the horse is created with one raised hoof, a quality that artists in the Renaissance had to research and trial their own monuments into perfection.
Artistic freedom was hindered due to technical difficulties with the sculptural materials such as clay, wood, marble, stone, and bronze; all limiting the horse and rider positions due to the necessary reinforcements that prevented the sculpture from collapsing. Along with closely examining, drawing, and measuring ancient sculptures, artists collaborated and looked at each other’s works in order to base their own piece. Artists had to take a close examination of antiquity to understand the mechanics of creating a bronze sculpture that large, as well as curating a piece that is dynamic as well as structurally stable. Many calculations had to be created to rectify technical issues such as having a horse that can lift up both hooves, let alone just one. The two artists Niccolò Baroncelli and Antonio di Cristoforo created what is said to be “the first bronze equestrian monument of the Renaissance” [Figure 3] that was most likely based on Uccello’s fresco of Giovanni Acuto in Duomo in Florence [Figure 4]. Both of the artists worked on this piece together; while Christofor made the rider, Baroncelli created the horse, later putting them together to make the commanding figure. This would have been one of the oldest surviving equestrian statues since antiquity, had it not been destroyed in 1796 during the Napoleonic invasions. A replica of the statue was created, and still stands in its original place in Ferrara, Italy. Their statue demonstrates collaboration as well as a great execution of mathematics, where their horse’s right leg remains risen and almost curled underneath its chest. Even in Donatello’s bronze equestrian statue called Gattamelata, which was finished a mere two years after Nicolò III d’Este’s monument was finished, the horse’s hoof rests on a cannon ball in order to stabilize it [Figure 5]. That statue is also named “the most important equestrian monument of the early Renaissance in Italy” since it followed classical tradition of equestrian figures and provided another backbone for equestrian monuments. Donatello had conceptual and technical problems with this sculpture, having to cast the statue in multiple parts and making sure the structural integrity was also intact. He wanted to give the Venetian condottiere, Erasmo da Narni, an “air of confidence in victory” meaning that Donatello focused on the figure’s presence and likeness, as well, something that was not in the focus of many other monuments. Donatello “wanted to portray an already aging man of striking vigorous physique in such a way that it rivalled the feeling of profound, almost priestlike serenity”. In order to fully demonstrate those expressions, Donatello had to exaggerate his facial features so that viewers far below would easily discern his artistic style, giving the statue more personality and importance. Through Donatello’s representation of Erasmo da Narni the viewer understands his disposition and his character. When the artist gives the statue more emotion, it allows the viewer to connect to it easier, since it looks more like a human being instead of a metal statue.
The equestrian monument evolved quickly, and artists managed to find ways to make bronze casting easier and faster, with less parts to put together and in ways to make the monument larger. The grand difference between the equestrian monument and the equestrian tomb was when Verrochio decided that the pedestal of the monument should be twice the height of the group itself. Verrochio began working on his own monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni which stands tall at 13 feet in Venice [Figure 6]. He died in the middle of the process and had his successor, Lorenzo di Credi complete the sculpture. They were able to cast it in two parts, a vast improvement and inspiration for other artists who were eager to create their own in one whole cast, such as Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo drew horses his entire life, and was intensely knowledgeable about equine anatomy due to his endless study, measuring everything in order to achieve proper proportions. Many of his sketchbooks are filled with drawings and sketches of horses as he took close measurements and took note of the horse’s fluid movements. Leonardo “spent twenty-five years of his life struggling with the problem of the equestrian monument” due to his dream of creating the largest monument in one cast piece, and in the most daring pose: the rear [Figure 7]. The audacious artist used Uccello’s tempera painting, Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano [Figure 8] and his own painting of The Battle of Anghiari [Figure 9] as reference for the monument that he was planning. As Leonardo’s studies furthered, he soon found that placing a fallen foe beneath the horse’s hooves to link them to the ground would be the best solution, but “he was never able to see his elaborate specifications put to the test” since the bronze that had been commissioned for him were used for casting cannons to defend the city. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that the problem of the rearing horse was solved by Pietro Tacca who created the breathtaking statue of the Spanish King Philip IV that stands in front of the Royal Palace in Madrid [Figure 10]. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s unsuccessful attempts in creating the Sforza monument, people around the globe joined together in recreating the monument that had never come to fruition, centuries later. They were created to commemorate Leonardo’s work and replicas of Leonardo’s horse can be found around the United States and around the world. The bronze replica in the gardens of Michigan stands tallest at 54 feet, a goliath in comparison to its predecessors [Figure 11]. Leonardo and other Renaissance artists inspired the world with their determination and impressive artistic abilities that allowed viewers today to admire their talent and create art of their own.
Although artists wanted to portray horses in various ways, they were restricted due to their technical limitations. The horses were confined into a stable and obedient pose in sculptures, even though the animal has the same range of emotions as a person. In art, their purpose was simply to serve men, to be used for battle, and to help characterize the human on its back. Horses in Renaissance art represented both wealth — because only the rich could afford a horse — and war — since it affected those European countries greatly during that time period. Horses were mostly used in the cavalry, therefore were portrayed on the battlefield in paintings, while monuments were limited to simply commemorating the country’s heroes. Despite their limitations, there are many ways in which the sculptor conveyed these symbolisms with the defiant gaze of the rider and tame look of the horse, with the subservient curve of its neck and even pace, suggesting the rider’s good riding skills and ability to control power. With one arm the man holds the reins, the other one raised, usually holding a baton that exhibits their high ranking. The rider shows a commanding spirit, which suggests their role as a leader and the strength of their cavalry and country. With these constant representations of the horse as a noble steed to the commanding general, it becomes a symbol for status and pride that one can flaunt: they have the privilege of owning a horse, therefore allowing them an advantage on the battlefield. With this advantage, the horse brings good fortune and victory, always under the leg of a brave noble or knight, and thus separates them from the common people. In the thirteenth century, Gordon Ruffo stated that “no animal is nobler than the horse, because, through him, princes, great men of influence and wealth, and knights are distinct from ordinary people” . In paintings such as Paul Rubens’ Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry [Figure 12] and Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari [Figure 9] the horse is engaging in the violence instead of simply duty bound to their owner, showing a more ferocious and courageous side equal to men. Not only were the horses obedient to the rider’s hand, they were shown to be so loyal to fight for their own side by biting and attacking horses from the opposing side, making the dutiful animal a dependable weapon to be used.
Horses in Religion
Since artists were mainly commissioned by churches, many of the artworks in the Renaissance depict religious scenes as a way to help people visualize the stories that they are learning about. Only some of these paintings, however, depict horses. In Benozzo Gozzoli’s ‘Procession of the Magi’ [Figure 13], a number of people on horseback are seen traveling together. The Magi, also known as the Wise Men, followed the guiding star to Bethlehem where they were able to pay homage to baby Jesus, and showed riding horses as a way to illuminate the importance of the nobles. Some bible verses characterize the horse as a symbol of intelligence, and color also affects its connotations. For example “the ‘black horse of death’ is synonymous with misery”, but in Gozzoli’s ‘Procession of the Magi’, the nobles ride on horses with light colored fur, either white or chestnut, possibly representing purity as well as victory in the Bible. Although “the pale horse is in Revelations and carried Death with Hell following him”, in this context, the biblical horse symbolises “force, strength, and the status of a King or Country” and ways that men can overcome difficult obstacles. Even though there are some paintings with horses of all coat colors, such as in Gentile da Fabriano’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ [Figure 14] the leading horses have a light or golden coat, showing their regal status and power. However, the symbol of the horse does not simply mean a person of importance, since Jesus is almost never depicted riding a horse, except in the ‘Christ on a White Horse’ fresco created in the crypt of the cathedral of Saint-Étienne d’Auxerre in the eleventh century [Figure 15]. The horse represents a side of man that is almost engrossed with greed, arrogance and one’s own self-satisfaction. This irregular image of Jesus riding a horse is not popular due to Christ’s humble and gentle personality, opposite to the symbolism of wealth, power, and pride that they held in the Renaissance. If he was depicted riding a horse, it would characterize him in an incorrect way, therefore horses were reserved for Kings, generals, and noble people.
What Horses Represent
The horse remains a metaphor for man’s desire to conquer and control, representing human kind’s desire to dominate by displaying their strength and ego. In artworks, horses are constantly seen being bested and controlled, demonstrating the rider’s strength and perseverance that is useful in war and leading a country or army. Even though they are pure and innocent creatures, there is also an “inseparable union between horse and war” as they demonstrate the atrocities and innocence that is lost in its violence. In life, the spirited animal “shares with [man] the strains of war and the glory of combat; as intriput as its master, the horse sees peril and faces it, becomes accustomed to noise of weapons”. Despite their energy and power, the horse shows amazing conformity to the demands of battle as it yields under the hand that guides it. The horse is as connected to war as man is, showing how either experience acquires freedom from the grips of conflict, “revealing that war is politics, pursued by other means”. The man’s necessity to control horses is equal to our need to conquer countries, overpower animals, and kill those who are different from us. Horses in the Renaissance are rarely portrayed on their own, roaming free, showing the cavalry’s duty to their country, never being more than just a status. These depictions of fierce battles or noble warriors, but without the bloodshed or horrors of war, only live as a source of propaganda for the military, glorifying war as no more than a way to prove one’s strength.
Throughout time, the majestic beast of burden has been a status symbol of courage, wealth, pride, and war, seen as objects for men to demonstrate their own ability to selfishly control another being. Horses are seen aiding humans and prized for their ability to carry men to fight in war. Their obedience to their master also demonstrates the rider’s loyalty and devotion to their own country. Horses have been our trusted companions and partners for thousands of years, and through the sculptures and paintings of horses, we are able to understand the role of both men and animals in the Renaissance through the thoughtful and intricate details of emotion and movement artists portrayed in their art.
[Figure 1] Battle of the Greeks and Amazons (c. AD 170) Roman sarcophagus from Thessaloniki, Paris, Musée du Louvre
[Figure 2] Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD), Bronze, Height: 11 ft. 6 in. Rome, Musei Capitolini
[Figure 3] Cristoforo and Baroncelli, Niccolò Baroncelli (1434–1453) sculpted the horse and Antonio di Cristoforo (c.1430–1482) the rider, Nicolò III d’Este(1383–1441) created in 1451, Bronze Statue, Ferrara, Italy
[Figure 4] Paolo Uccello (1397–1475) Sir John Hawkwood (1436) Fresco Equestrian Portrait, Florence, Duomo
[Figure 5] Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi) (c. 1386–1466) Gattamelata (1444–53) Bronze Statue on marble plinth, Height: 12 ft. 2 in. (371 cm) Padua, Piazza del Santos
[Figure 6] Andrea del Verrocchio (c 1435–1488) Bartolomeo Colleoni (1483–88), Bronze Statue, Height: c. 13 ft. (c. 400 cm) Venice, Campo Santi San Giovanni e Paolo
[Figure 7] Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) Design for the Sforza Monument, (c. 1488) Metalpoint on blue prepared paper, 4 ⅝ X 4 in (11.6 X 10.3 cm). Royal Library, Windsor
[Figure 8] Paolo di Dono, known as Paolo Uccello (1397–1475) Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (c. 1438–40) Tempera on wood 71 ⅝ X 126 in. (181.6 X 320 cm) London, National Gallery
[Figure 9] Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), after Leonardo da Vinci The Battle of Anghiari, also known as The Battle for the Standard (c. 1603) Gouache, black chalk, pen, and ink 17 ¾ X 25 in. (45.2 X 63.7 cm) Paris, Musée du Louvre, Department of Graphic Arts
[Figure 10] Pietro Tacca (1577–1640) Philip IV of Spain (1605–1665) in the centre of Plaza de Oriente in Madrid, Bronze Statue (1640)
[Figure 11] Nina Akuama (1955-present) The American Horse (1999), Bronze Statue (24 ft.) Meijer Gardens, Michigan
[Figure 12] Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry (March 14, 1590) (c. 1628–30) Oil on canvas 12 ft. X 22 ft. 8 ⅞ in. (367 X 693 cm) Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
[Figure 13] Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497) Procession of the Magi (1459) Oil on canvas, Florence, Palazzo Medici Riccardi
[Figure 14] Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1370–1427) Adoration of the Magi (1423) Tempera on wood. 118 ⅛ X 111 in. (300 X 282 cm) Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
[Figure 15] Christ on a White Horse Fresco (11th century) Auxerre, crypt of the cathedral of Saint-Étienne d’Auxerre
Austin, Gloria, and Mary Chris Foxworthy. Horse Symbolism: the Horse in Mythology, Religion, Folklore, and Art. Equine Heritage Institute, Inc., 2019.
Battista Tomassini, Giovanni. “The Role of the Horse and of Jousting in Renaissance Culture .” The Works of Chivalry, 10 June 2019, worksofchivalry.com/the-role-of-the-horse-and-of-jousting-in-renaissance-culture%E2%80%A8-part-1/.
Campbell, Stephen J., and Michael Wayne Cole. Italian Renaissance Art. Second ed., vol. 1 2, Thames & Hudson Inc., 2017.
Clark, Kenneth. Animals and men: their relationship as reflected in western art from prehistory to the present day. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.
Cohen, Simona. Animals as Disguised Symbols in Renaissance Art. Brill, 2008.
Dickerson, C.D, et al. Bernini: Sculpting in Clay. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012.
Duffey, Alexander Edward. The Equestrian Statue: A Study of its History and the Problems Associated With its Creation. (1984): 1612–1612.
Gourand, Jean-Louis, et al. The Horse: from Cave Paintings to Modern Art. Abbeville, 2010.
Henry, Miles. “What Do Horses Symbolize Spiritually in Dreams and the Bible?” Horse Racing Sense, 7 Jan. 2021, horseracingsense.com/what-do-horses-symbolize-art-dreams-bible/#:~:text=What%20does%20the%20white%20horse,conqueror%20in%20order%20to%20conquer.%E2%80%9D.
Jose, Antony Merlin. “Anatomy and Leonardo da Vinci.” The Yale journal of biology and medicine 74, no. 3 (2001): 185.
Kemp, Martin. Leonardo da Vinci: the marvellous works of nature and man. Oxford University Press, 2007.
Morosini, G. I. U. L. I. A. “The body of the condottiero: a link between physical pain and military virtue as it was interpreted in Renaissance Italy.” Rogge, Killing and Being Killed (2016): 165–98.