Statues and stories

1.12 The statues and their stories

Equestrian statues often purport to tell a story. In most cases, this is the story of the life of the person portrayed, frequently achieved by using reliefs on the pedestal of the statue to commemorate important events; victories and the like. However, the equestrian statue itself can also tell the story of a famous battle, a local myth or a noteworthy event in national history. Simply the setting of the statue can do this, for example the battlefields in Gettysburg and Manassas (US), the statue of Napoleon in Laffray in France, or by the combination with other sculptures.

Some other noteworthy examples:

Bendigeidfran (Welsh for ‘Blessed Crow’) is a giant and a king of Britain in Welsh mythology. He appears in several of the Welsh Triads texts, but his most significant role is in the ancient prose, the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. An equestrian sculpture, by Robert-Jones near Harlech Castle (Wales), called The Two Kings, shows Bendigeidfran carrying the body of his nephew Gwern following the latter’s death at  the hand of Efnysien.

The Göttingen Seven, a monument in Hannover, shows seven professors protesting the revoke of the liberal constitutional law by King Ernst August; a tribute to civil courage. Notably special here is the free documentation (also available in English) telling the story of Die Göttinger Sieben.

The equestrian statue of István Dobó in Eger (Hungary), shows three battling warriors in memory of the heroic way István, with only 2,000 men, successfully resisted an 80,000 strong Ottoman army.

Some fine examples are The Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive Monument (Billings, Massachusetts), Homesteader Preparing to Stake a Claim (Ponca City, Oklahoma), The Prophet’s Last Ride (Nauvoo, Illinois) and the series of equestrian sculptures commemorating the famous Pony Express.

It may be unnecessary to state that the sculptures do not always reflect reality. A good example of this is the equestrian statue of Leopold II alongside the sea boulevard in Ostend (Belgium). Two groups of statues embellish the pedestal of the statue: one representing the grateful Congolese people because Leopold II had ‘liberated them from the slavery by the Arabs’ and the other group representing ‘the homage by the Ostend fishermen to its brilliant protector’. The latter group may be realistic; the former is certainly not.

Statues with a nickname

Some equestrian statues have nicknames. Here are a few examples:

‘Der alte Fritz’ (Friedrich II der Grosse in Berlin), ‘the Archduke’ (the Duke of Wellington in Aldershot; named because the statue originally stood on top of the arch at Hyde Park Corner in London), the ‘Iron Duke in bronze by Steel’ (Wellington in Edinburgh by the sculptor John Steel), ‘Der Goldener Reiter’ (August I in Dresden), ‘the Bronze Titan’ (Antonio Maceno in Santiago de Cuba), ‘el Caballito’ (in Mexico City and meaning small horse, thus neglecting the rider, Charles IV of Spain), ‘the Hobbyhorse’ (Andrew Jackson in Washington) and ‘the Bronze Horseman’ (Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg), the name of which was derived from a narrative poem written by Alexander Pushkin.

Nonsense stories about equestrian statues

Two nonsense stories concerning equestrian statues come up from time to time.

The first is the theory that the statues contain a code whereby the rider’s fate can be determined by noting how many hooves the horse has raised. For example, one raised hoof indicates wounded in battle, two raised hooves death in battle. Needless to say, even if such a code ever existed, almost no sculptor respected it.

A second popular story is about the sculptor going mad as a result of the stress connected with the daring construction of a statue, or the artist committing suicide because of the terrible reviews given to his work. It is certainly true that the making of an equestrian statue can be tremendously stressful, due to capricious commissioners, unfeasible deadlines or the lack of funds or materials. It may sometimes have affected the health of the artist or even have led to a premature death, but most of the stories about going mad or committing suicide have proved to be untrue.