Thursday, December 10, 2009

Archaic Greek Horse fragment

I have not been posting for awhile, but I recently acquired a bronze horse head that has me very excited. See the photo below:

While small, it measures just 2 1/2 inches high by 2 3/4 inches wide, it is monumental in feeling, beautifully sculpted and very expressive. The volumetric and stylized treatment of the locks of the mane date the piece to the early 6th Century B.C. It is early archaic, the period just following the Daedalic period when Greek art is starting to come into its own drawing from influences from the Near East and Egypt. It is just a fragment probably part of an attachment to a large bronze vessel, perhaps from a horse such as flank the hydra handle from the Schimmel collection below:

photocopy of Hydra Handle from: Ancient Art, The Norbert Schimmel Collection

Edited by Oscar White Muscarella

Verlag Phillip Von Zabern. Mainz. W. Germany 1974

This handle has horse protomes of a type which my fragment may have come from. On my example the back is relatively plainly done, indicating it was meant to be seen principally from the front, which is typical of a handle or vessel attachment. However it is interesting to note that the horses in this hydra handle are not nearly as well modeled as my new acquisition.

Recently a scholar brought my attention to an Archaic Greek bronze tripod in Berlin, which is probably an even liklier parallel of the type of object my horse head came from. See below:

Bronze Tripod decorated with animal heads and figures,

from Metapontum, mid-6th Century B.C.

Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The horse heads on the top are very close to mine, as you an see below. However, the modeling on mine is more naturalistic, the eyes again are not symbolic glyphs as in the Berlin example. But the scale and probably configuration of the head and limbs make it very likely that my head comes for such a tripod, and of the same period.

Detail of the Berlin Tripod above showing the horses, which have similar manes.

Note however that they eyes are done as stylized symbols as opposed to naturalistic eyes.

Below is an even closer parallel in type since it has the two front legs upraised, as must have been in my piece. This comes from another tripod like that above, and was in the Christos Bastis auction at Sotheby's New York. However even this, which is charming, is less sensitively modeled than mine, its eye again is an ideogram, rather than a seeing eye. Also the mane is less articulated and detailed than in my example. But the type is exactly what mine probably was.

A Greek Bronze Protome, ca. 6th Century B.C. Scanned from the

catalog of the Christos Bastis sale, Dec. 9, 1999, in New York, lot 78.

Height: 7 1/8 inches.

When I first saw my bronze horse head, I was immediately reminded of a favorite piece of mine in the Met, a fragmentary marble horse head that nonetheless is commanding, incredibly expressive and beautifully sculpted, see below:

Head of a Horse, Attic, 2nd quarter of the 6th Century B.C.

Marble, Height: 13 7/8 inches, Bequest of Walter C. Baker 1971

scanned from: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Greece and Rome.

published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987

Let me quote from the accompanying text:

"In Archaic art the horse is probably rendered with more care more consistently than any subject aside from the human figure. Not only was it valued for such qualities as beauty and speed, but ownership of a horse was available only to men of means. In Athens, for example, the middle class of citizens were called the "knights", being those who could maintain a horse and fight in battle on horseback.......This extraordinary piece shows every possible sensitivity to the articulation and texture of the horse's face; at the same time, the mane and forelock are ordered into stylized locks that convey the resilience of horse hair but that would hardly fall so regularly in real life...."

This could have been written about my little bronze horse head, it shares not only the stylized volumetric locks in its mane, but the sensitive modeling commented on above. Parallels for my horse head are quite rare and hard to find, but here are a few below:

Horse and Rider, cast separately, 3rd quarter of the 6th Century B.C.

Bronze, Height: 23.6 cm. London, British Museum

Scanned from Greek Bronzes by Claude Rolley

Sotheby's Publications, London, 1986

Again, this horse shared the stylized volumetric treatment of the locks of the mane, but while of a similar scale to my horse, the head of this horse is not done with the same level of sensitivity or detail, the eye for example, is an abstract glyph rather than the eye of a living horse looking back at you as in my horse head. However, the example above is a complete figure, of a fairly large size for a bronze, making it quite an important and rare thing.

The other parallel that came to mind when first looking at this piece are objects from the Norbert Schimmel Collection now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here is one of several that feature horses of a similar style to mine:

Mitra with Horse Protomes, Greek from Crete, 7th Century B.C.

Height: 15.4 cm, width: 24.2 cm.

Scanned from Ancient Art, The Norbert Schimmel Collection

Edited by Oscar White Muscarella, Von Zabern, W. Germany 1974

One of several pieces featuring horses, they all share the same stylized mane and expressive faces. While just a repouse relief, the quality is not equal to that of my horse.

Below are other views of the bronze horse now in my collection:

Here you see how the eyes are modeled in the round, not as mere glyph symbols, giving the horse expression and a focused gaze; it looks back at you.

This side view allows you to glimpse the sensitive modeling even of the underneath of the horse head, and again, you can see that focused gaze given by the sculptural modeling of the eyes.

The back view. Here the mane is rendered as a flat surface and in general there is less of the detailed modeling on the front view. This is typical of ancient Greek art when an object was meant to be seen primarily from one view, the other was done summarily. But the fact that it is finished and not rough or unfinished indicates that this object was fully cast in the round.

While we may never know precisely what this horse head came from, it remains a very rare example of the early Archaic style, when Greek Art was rapidly developing, and one style follows another in rapid succession until the culmination of the full Classical Style which was to remain with variations for nearly a thousand years through the Roman Period, the art style of the Mediterranean World.

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