Monday, February 15, 2021

The widespread myth of winged horses

 According to Greek myth, the immortal winged horse Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor were born from the blood issuing from Medusa's neck as Perseus was beheading her.  In another version, when Perseus beheaded Medusa, the winged horses were born of the Earth, fed by the Gorgon's blood. A variation of this story holds that they were formed from the mingling of Medusa's blood, pain and sea foam, implying that Poseidon was involved in their creation. The last version bears resemblance to Hesiod's account of the birth of Aphrodite from the foam created when Uranus's severed genitals were cast into the sea by Cronus.

Pegasus was captured and raised by the hero Bellerophon who engaged in fighting off monsters. The hero competed with the gods and this angered Zeus, who struck down the horse, turning Pegasus into the beast of burden who carried lightning bolts at Zeus's palace. 

Everywhere the winged horse struck his hoof to the earth, an inspiring water spring burst forth. One of these springs was upon the Muses' Mount Helicon, the Hippocrene ("horse spring"), opened, Antoninus Liberalis suggested, at the behest of Poseidon to prevent the mountain swelling with rapture at the song of the Muses.  Another was at Troezen. Hesiod relates how Pegasus was peacefully drinking from a spring when the hero Bellerophon captured him.

Pegasus allowed Bellerophon to ride him in order to defeat the monstrous Chimera. The hero then went on to achieve other heroic acts and attempted to fly to Mount Olympus to join the gods. This angered Zeus, who caused Bellerophon to fall from the winged horse's back then struck down the horse, turning Pegasus into a beast of burden who carried lightning bolts at Zeus's palace. 

In ancient art, the oldest winged horses appeara on Assyrian seals in the 13th century BCE.  Winged horses appear not only in Greek and Roman art but in the art of the Etruscans, Koreans, Indians, Chinese, and the Tatars.  From the middle of the 7th century BCE, Pegasus is represented in flight in Greek art until the Archaic Period when he is often depicted fighting alone without wings against the Chimera. 

Pegasus is most often represented alone, or accompanied by Bellerophon fighting the Chimera, in which case the most classic representation shows the hero in the saddle, brandishing a spear facing the monster. A tradition from the archaic era presents the hero dismounted before fighting. Pegasus is also represented alongside the Muses.  Pausanias attests that Pegasus was an ornamental figure in ancient architecture such as in Corinth, where heroic worship was paid to Bellerophon and a statue of this hero and of the horse Pegasus decorated the temple of Poseidon.  The Romans associated Pegasus with the Emperor Augustus and it became the emblem of several Roman legions including Legio II Adiutrix and Legio II Augusta.

A Fine Greek Late Classical Bronze Forepart of a Winged Pegasus, 5th century BCE at the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.  This Pegasus image is thought to have originally been an ornament on some object, and for all of its small scale, it is a truly impressive example of detailed sculpture. The point of attachment of the wings, their middle section and their curving tips form a composition that can frequently be seen on such imaginary winged magical beings as the sphinxes, sirens and gorgons seen on Archaic vase painting. The style of the wings on this small Pegasus thus forms a remaining archaic element, while the wings themselves are created in a detailed sense of real wings. The face has a piercing gaze, and the wrinkles around the mouth and point of attachment of the jaw, the nostrils with their raised blood veins are all elements of this detailed expression, with the curved wings giving a sense of tension to the sculpture that adds to its life-like expressive power. These elements all accord with the severe style of the early period in Greek classical art. Similar examples from the same period can be found in the Vatican Museum's Pegasus shaped roof ornament from 5th century BC Etruria. Like the exhibited work, the Vatican Pegasus has the severe early classical Greek style combined with elements of the Archaic style.  This small sculpture gives a realistic depiction of the sacred horse's majesty as he appeared in the world of myth, and can be said to reveal the highest levels of refined artistry of this period. - Miho Museum


Winged horse, used to decorate a tool whose shape and use are unknown. Bronze figurine, made in a workshop in northwestern Greece (perhaps Ambrakia), third quarter of the 6th century BCE. From Dodona in Epirus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Bellerophon fighting the Chimera. Side A of an attic black-figured “overlap” Siana cup, ca. 575–550 BCE. Found in Camiros (Rhodes) now in The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi saint-Pol

Plate with chimera and Bellerophon on Pegasus by the Painter of Baltimora (Apulia), 350-300 BCE at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko 

Mosaic emblema with Pegasus, the immortal winged horse which sprang forth from the neck of Medusa when she was beheaded by the hero Perseus, 2nd century CE, Archaeological Museum of Córdoba, Spain , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato

Fragment of capital with winged horses, from inside the cell of the temple of Mars Ultor in the forum of Augustus, c. 2 BCE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Gold pediment-shaped brooch with Pegasus, Greek, 340-320 BCE, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Terracotta plaque depicting Perseus riding a wingless horse slaying Medusa with wings  Greek 490-470 BCE from Melos that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" exhibit at the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Oregon.  The presentation was originally assembled by the British Museum.

Bronze plate with the foreparts of winged horses emerging from the rim of the plate, Greek, 2nd half of the 6th century BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Greek Chariot Ornament Depicting Pegasus the winged horse of Perseus, Greek, 5th century BCE Bronze that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "This ornament of the foreparts of the winged-horse Pegasos decorated a pole that would have connected a chariot to a horse. Careful modeling and incised decoration create a detailed representation of this mythical creature that signified speed. A coiled snake rears up behind Pegasos' head." - Walters Art Museum

Mosaic of Pegasus in Split Archaeological Museum, Split, Croatia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bernard Gagnon.

Pebble mosaic depicting Bellerophon killing Chimaera, in Rhodes archaeological museum, 300-270 BCE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors TobyJ and Speravir.

Kylix with scene of Gigantomachia including Pegasus, Attic, 490 BCE from Vulci by the painter of Brygos at the Antikensaammlung, Berlin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko 

Bellerophon slaying the Chimera mounted on Pegasus. Central medallion restored with a Roman mosaic of over 100 m2 discovered in 1830 in Autun, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Félix Potuit

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1 comment:

RGH said...

Very good! I enjoy the stories and pictures