If you travel in Europe, like it or not, there’s one thing you’re going to see: men on horses. To be more specific, dead men on horses: for hundreds of years, it seems as though every king, prince, war hero and even the odd bishop has been immortalized in a bronze statue, seated on a horse.
True, riding horses is an ancient tradition in Europe. Every royal house had its stables and horse guard – some still do. War was conducted on horses, and hunting on horseback was a major sport for the well-heeled aristocrat. But that doesn’t mean all these immortalized men were expert horsemen: in fact, I’m sure there are men riding bronze horses in public squares who never sat on a horse when they were alive and kicking.
So why are they riding horses through eternity? Well, it just looks good. Yes, you can have yourself sculpted holding a sword or a sceptre, or with your foot trampling a defeated enemy. But nothing looks quite as dashing and noble as a man on a horse, its muscles rippling and its nostrils flared to catch the wind.
Equestrian statues date back as far as ancient Greece. But they became all the rage in Europe during the Renaissance. Suddenly, everyone with a royal title (or delusions of grandeur) had himself sculpted on a regal-looking steed. Famous artists got into the act, too: people like Donatello and even Leonardo da Vinci turned out horse statues.
The statues themselves follow a pretty standard pattern, with the horse in some kind of dramatic pose. Often it has one hoof raised, or it’s rearing up triumphantly, as in the statue at top, which depicts Bishop Absalon, the founder of Copenhagen. The subject himself often brandishes a sword, symbolizing conquest, or a sceptre, like the good bishop, to show authority.
But if you thought having yourself installed as an equestrian icon guaranteed immortality, think again. Many of the ancient horse statues ended up being melted down to make things like cannons and church bells. And sometimes, when a new king came along, the old one would be knocked out of the saddle and replaced with a statue of the new one: no use wasting a perfectly good horse.
There are now equestrian statues all over the world — Washington, D.C. is said to have 30. But their real home is Europe, and over the past few years I’ve come across a number of them, in a number of cities. Here’s a look at some of the more interesting ones. See if there are any you recognize.
Let’s start with something classical. This looks like a Roman statue, but in fact it’s more like Roman revival. In a courtyard of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, this royal personage rides his steed in a statesmanlike pose, dressed in Roman garb and with a garland on his head. It could be a tribute to some Roman leader, or even to the tradition of horsemanship: the statue sits right around the corner from the famous Spanish Riding School.
Here’s another example from Copenhagen, where they seem to like their horses a bit more animated. This one’s pawing the earth as if he’s eager to charge into battle. And King Frederick VII, in contemporary dress, seems to be letting us all know he’s the boss and we’re not.
Here’s royalty in full-on triumphant pose: horse reared up, sword held on high. King Svätopluk I proclaims himself victor after driving the Franks and Bavarians out of Moravia. Flanked by a castle that looks like something out of a fairy tale, he’s the very model of an archaic king. If you ever wondered where they got the model for Roy Rogers’ signature pose, now you know.
Here’s a refreshing glimpse of reality. This is one of the few equestrian statues showing someone struggling with his horse — and if you’ve had much to do with horses, you know this is how it sometimes goes. In actual fact, this statue, spotted in a courtyard of Budapest Castle, depicts a Hungarian horseman trying to tame a wild horse. It originally stood in front of the Budapest riding school before being moved to its present location.
Of course, if you want something truly heroic, you can go across town to the Heroes’ Square, where the Hungarians celebrate the wild horsemen of their antiquity. This little group represents Prince Arpád and his Magyar chieftains, a pretty fierce-looking bunch — note the deer antlers strapped to the head of the horse on the right. The little chariots on either side add a classical touch.
Off to Zagreb, Croatia, where Ban (King) Jelačić strikes a regal pose in Jelačić Square, the city’s central plaza. Jelačić was a warrior-king, as the statue suggests, but he’s best remembered for abolishing serfdom in Croatia. And still, the pigeons catch a ride on his sword …
And here’s the old king being saluted by real soldiers on real horses. I happened upon this ceremony while walking through downtown Zagreb on a Sunday morning, and it was a colourful glimpse of Croatia’s equestrian past. It was also a useful reminder of how much more noble horses look when they’re cast in bronze.
Finally, it’s wise to remember that if you have a tradition long enough, someone will come along and turn it on its head. So we’ll leave that to David Cerny, the irreverent artist of Prague. He took the famous equestrian statue of King Wenceslas and flipped it upside down, for comic effect. The mischievous sculpture hangs in an elegant shopping arcade down the street from the original statue in downtown Prague, so you can see both in a few minutes. No one seems to mind this bit of fun — maybe even the Europeans are getting tired of these heroes on horses.
You may be wondering why there are no women on horses among these equestrian statues. In fact, women did ride horses in days of yore, but they were almost never sculpted on them. Even today, in the age of emancipation, female horse statues are rare. To its credit, Canada has bucked the trend: Queen Elizabeth II, a keen horsewoman, has her own equestrian statue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
Oh, and regarding the symbolism of the horse’s posture in equestrian statues. There is a popular belief that in American Civil War statues, the position of the horse’s hooves reveals the subject’s fate in war: one hoof raised, he was wounded in battle and possibly died later; two hooves aloft, he died in battle. But a survey of the many Civil War equestrian statues debunks the theory: sometimes it holds true, but very often it doesn’t.
So, there’s a quick tour of Europe, on horseback. I hope it gives you a new appreciation of those lumps of bronze you’ve seen in courtyards all over the continent. And if there are a few you think deserve a mention, leave a comment and let us know about them. I might even be able to find a photo — after all, who can pass a statue of a guy on a horse without taking a picture?