Who deserved an equestrian portrait?

The equestrian portrait, from the beginning of its existence, was supposed to emphasise the military virtues of the individual depicted and was reserved for victorious leaders. Alexander the Great was already shown as an equestrian figure, and Hellenic rulers followed his example by having statues depicting them on horseback erected. This form of commemoration was adopted from Greeks by Romans, and their monument of Emperor Marcus Aurelius became a model for all medieval and renaissance representations of the mounted victor. It is worth noting that this statue — despite being made of valuable bronze — was preserved due to the fact that, for a long time, it was thought not to be the image of a pagan emperor-philosopher, but rather the portrait of Constantine the Great, considered a Christian.

The revival of the monumental equestrian statue was brought about by the Renaissance (it was then that famous monuments, such as the Gattamelata in Padua and the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice, were created), but it reached its heyday between the 16th and the 18th centuries. In addition to the very expensive monumental bronze statues, small statuettes, coloured paintings and engravings appeared, whose propagandistic meaning as the first mass medium can hardly be overstated. At the same time, depictions of members of the royal families on horseback began to appear.

Polish kings also had equestrian portraits made for them. Magnates, and most often — understandably — victorious hetmans, followed the example of their rulers. However, the equestrian portrait was not always created in honour of individuals who triumphed duringwar. It sometimes happened that an equestrian depiction was the effect of its founder’s megalomania. Hieronim Florian Radziwiłł — a cruel and foolish man, whose only military success was the bloody suppression of a peasants’ revolt — intended to have a mounted statue of himself situated at the marketplace in Biała Podlaska, rebuilt especially for this purpose. The project assumed an impressive outcome, but, then again, Radziwiłł’s ambitions were nothing to scoff at either: he was convinced that he would become the king, having been told so by a Gypsy fortune teller...

The targets of the equestrian portrait were the broad masses of noblemen, even though it was mostly associated with the elite. Even a moderately wealthy nobleman, although, in the light of the law, equal to the magnates, could not afford even the cheapest and humblest equestrian image of his person. Funding such a portrait would be considered a ridiculous attempt to compare oneself to senators and hetmans. Because, in the end, quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, or, as some prefer, “Gods may do what cattle may not”.

The place, where even the king walks on foot

Jan Długosz—describing the life and customs of King Władysław Jagiełło — stated that “depending on the circumstances, sometimes it was difficult to approach him, at other times, it was easy”. He was most accessible and accommodating to petitioners while sitting on the toilet, when he “went from his bed to a secluded place and defecated for a long time there, handling many affairs. And, apparently, he was never more accessible and gentler. And the knights strove to find such moments to make it easier for them to get what they had asked for”.

Sigismund I the Old, had a very different approach towards these matters and, as stated by Marcin Kromer, “throughout his life he was characterized by a great, almost virgin-like shyness. He hated it when anyone apart from those who served him in the inner-bedroom saw him naked or taking care of his natural needs”.

Painting “Equestrian portrait of Prince Władysław Sigismund Vasa”
Sculpture of Augustus III
Statuette “Napoleon on a Horse” by Piotr Michałowski
Ruben’s innovations

Elaborated by Adam Spodaryk (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums), 
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland.

Mieczysław Morka, Polski nowożytny portret konny i jego europejska geneza, Warszawa 1986.