Ancient Egyptian and Greek artists had the ability to portray horses any way they wanted. So what drove the choices they made in the wide range of depictions we see of these iconic animals?
Those evaluating such art should focus on the purpose of the depiction, rather than assess it on its level of realism, according to Lonneke Delpeut and Carolyn Willekes.
Delpeut, with the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna, and Willekes, with Mount Royal University in Canada, used depictions of horses in ancient Greek and Egyptian culture to highlight some of the challenges when studying ancient images’ relationship with reality.
“When modern (Western) viewers look at ancient art, the first feature of the image that is often assessed is its relationship to ‘reality’,” Delpeut and Willekes wrote in the journal Arts.
“How ‘real’ the image looks is inextricably linked to its evaluation and therefore the viewer’s estimation of its quality. The more ‘realistic’ an image is deemed, the more it is appreciated for its historic and aesthetic value.”
This fixation on reality has often affected the assessment of ancient imagery, they said. “It can create a bias that limits the researcher’s ability to analyse and interpret the images to their full potential.
“To grasp fully the potential ancient art can provide as a source of information, we have to understand why things look the way they do, without letting our expectations of ‘reality’ get in the way of evaluation.”
In their paper, the pair looked at how the concept of the horse and its features such as colour, shape and movement are conveyed, what visual clues are used to create the desired impression, and how the artists balanced this with fulfilling the function of the image.
“Why the horse?” they asked. “It is an animal that has long carried powerful symbolic significance and its form is instantly recognisable to many, even if one has not seen a living, breathing horse ‘in the flesh’.
“In other words, one can clearly identify an animal as ‘horse’ without ever having interacted with an equine in a face-to-face setting.”
Symbolic associations connected to the horse throughout its domesticated history have connected it to wealth, power, prestige, speed, conquest and victory. “It is therefore no surprise that equines have long been a popular muse for artists,” they said.
“When studying scenes that depict horses in ‘daily life’, showing natural behaviour, we can clearly see that both Egyptian and Greek artists definitely possessed the skills to represent horses in any way they wanted.
“In most formal art, however, they followed a particular canon to suit cultural expectations, as the purpose of the image did not require a degree of realism directly related to the viewer’s experience and observations beyond their initial recognition of the subject matter.”
The researchers proposed an alternative reflection on how to assess “reality” and how this might be useful when analysing ancient imagery.
“Instead of judging ancient images of horses by modern standards of resemblance to 1:1 reality, we propose looking at what the artists are trying to convey within the purpose of the image.”
By looking instead for what they term realistic potential — that is, visual features used to convey the generic concept of a horse based on natural observations — observers are able to use these images to a much fuller potential as a source of information.
“We have seen that the main reason why compositions have the content and appearance they do, is because of the images’ purpose; both factors depend on why the image is made. Purpose should therefore always be kept in mind when studying these images.”
Since they had a primarily functional nature, the images’ main aim was never to 100% reflect reality or naturalism the way we understand it, the pair said.
“Understanding the images’ purpose brings us one step closer to understanding why they look the way they look.”
Images, they said, are always based on reality, but the question is to what extent they convey reality.
“After establishing the images’ purpose, we proposed to look at the images’ resemblance. The shape and form of the horses within ancient images can often leave quite a bit to be desired when it comes to displaying reality and naturalism in formal art, and they may not meet our expectations, especially when looking at art where the artists had more freedom when it came to layout.
“When looking closer at the images, however, we can still learn a lot from them: movement is indicated by the posture and surroundings of the horses in both cultures, and even though we cannot define certain gaits in the images, they still convincingly convey different types of movement.
“When it comes to colour, the Egyptians only used colours and patterns that had a realistic potential; they would not use something that could not exist.”
Genital sex markers in both cultures suggest that the depicted horses’ sex might have a purpose strongly linked to status, masculinity and power, and a preference for male horses is shown in certain contexts.
This, they said, contradicts some material showing that both Greeks and Egyptians used mares in front of chariots, and that the Egyptians even castrated their horses.
“This is a great example of where the idea behind the image and the purpose of this specific visual clue overrides its desire to resemble actual animal practices.”
This, they said, illustrates how important it is always to keep an eye on why the image is made.
“The appearance and layout of the horse, however, is never compromised to the extent that it does not resemble the intended depicted subject anymore, and therefore always contains a basic degree of realism.
“This is why we argue to look for ideas that are being conveyed instead, and the visual clues used to do so, and assess the idea in terms of conceptual realism rather than assessing the final product in terms of natural realism.
“By redefining how to assess ‘realism’, we hope to show that there is much potential in assessing images in order to learn as much as we can from them.”
Delpeut, L.; Willekes, C. Realism as a Representational Strategy in Depictions of Horses in Ancient Greek and Egyptian Art: How Purpose Influences Appearance. Arts 2023, 12, 57. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12020057
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