Over the many centuries before railway trains started belching steam and smoke as they thundered through the countryside, the fastest means of travel over land was on horseback. It’s no wonder that when the imagination of our ancestors developed myths and legends, stories grew of even faster horses which could fly. Instead of galloping across fields and moors, these fabulous creatures just took to the air and flew far over the horizon, taking hours to travel what would normally have taken many days or weeks of filthy exhausting slog.
In this weekend’s two articles, I look at paintings of horses with wings. Today I start with Pegasus, the famed winged horse of classical Mediterranean myth, and tomorrow I consider the legendary creature the hippogriff and its more generic relatives.
The origin myth of Pegasus is that he was born from Medusa’s blood shed when Perseus beheaded her. This is shown almost diagrammatically in Edward Burne-Jones’ gouache study in his unfinished Perseus Series. The Death of Medusa I from 1882 shows Perseus holding Medusa’s head aloft, as the winged horse and his more obscure sibling Chrysaor are born from her blood. The latter is shown as the associated person, without his characteristic curved golden sword.
In the classical legend of Perseus, he then flies off in his winged sandals, leaving Pegasus; during the Middle Ages a variant arose, in which Perseus flies off on Pegasus instead. Early artists therefore tended to paint the rest of the Perseus myth without any winged horse. This changed after the Renaissance, when the later variant became dominant in narrative art.
Before Pegasus became embroiled in the Perseus myth, he was most frequently shown in paintings of the Muses. This association arose from a different myth, which may also be of post-classical origin, that the horse made his way to Mount Helicon where the Muses had gathered to sing. This was because wherever Pegasus’ hooves struck the earth, the hoofmarks turned into springs. The mountain was so enraptured by the sound of the Muses singing that it was in danger of swelling, so Poseidon (the father of Pegasus) sent the horse there to relieve the pressure in the ground with a convenient spring.
The first painting commissioned of Andrea Mantegna for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo, now inappropriately known as Parnassus (1496-97), shows this association, with the Muses dancing to Apollo’s lyre. Pegasus is here staring into Mercury’s eyes.
A century later, Lavinia Fontana painted her very unusual Apollo and the Muses (1598-1600), setting it at night, as an al fresco music concert complete with Pegasus and (at the top left) a flying nude. The explanation lies in it having originally been the painted panel cover of a spinet. It was later removed from the instrument, the upper right added, and was put on display above a door.
By the time that Rubens came to paint Perseus and Andromeda in about 1622, the newer revised version including Pegasus seems to have become popular. Andromeda is at the left, unchained from her rock where she had been placed as a delightful morsel for the sea monster Cetus, which has here just been killed by Perseus and now lies at the lower edge with its fearsome mouth wide open. Perseus is in the process of claiming Andromeda’s hand as his reward, for which he is being crowned with laurels. Although he clearly flew in on Pegasus, he is still wearing his winged sandals, and holds the polished shield which reflects Medusa’s face and snake hair.
Just a few years later, Nicolas Poussin brought Pegasus into an unusual association with the myth of Aurora, personification or goddess of the dawn, and her attempts to seduce the human huntsman Cephalus, in his Cephalus and Aurora from 1630. Behind Cephalus is Pegasus, or perhaps the winged horse which draws the chariot of the dawn. This story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses was popular with painters, but this is the only version that I have seen which involves Pegasus.
The association between Pegasus and the Muses was revived in one of Gustave Moreau’s ‘new’ history paintings, of Hesiod and the Muses in 1860. This is the first of a series of works in which he shows Hesiod, generally considered to be the first written poet in the Western tradition to exist as a real person. He is shown to the left of centre, as a young man holding a laurel staff in his right hand. The Muses are squeezed in together, and one is on her knee to present Hesiod with a laurel wreath.
There are four swans on the ground, and one in flight above Hesiod, a winged Cupid sat on the left wing of Pegasus, and a brilliant white star directly above the winged horse. However, the Cupid and Pegasus were only added in about 1883, when the canvas was extended.
Later in the nineteenth century, Georges Rochegrosse painted this beautiful watercolour of Perseus and Andromeda, which shows us a moment long after the climax of that story, where he rides off on Pegasus to marry her.
Another narrative artist who followed the later variant of this myth was Frederic, Lord Leighton in his Perseus and Andromeda from 1891. Andromeda has here been attached to the rock to await Cetus. Just as the monster returns to eat the young princess, who should arrive on the scene but Perseus, astride Pegasus and fresh from his trip to kill Medusa.
My final painting for today dates from 1900, and is Odilon Redon’s non-narrative portrait of Pegasus, often referred to as the ‘White Pegasus’. Although very modern in his style and use of media, Redon’s images often had traditional references, as here.