To human eyes, there’s something almost innately impressive about horses, which may explain why rulers have so often wanted to be portrayed on horseback. Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez all famously painted kings and emperors on horseback. Earlier, Verrocchio, Donatello, and Leonardo had all made (or in Leonardo’s case, planned) equestrian monuments glorifying great rulers or military leaders.
Horses were also associated with immense power in the Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) where this arresting sculpture was made in the 16th century — perhaps around the same time (1548) that Titian painted his great equestrian portrait of Charles V.
In Benin, horses were much rarer than in Europe, which only enhanced their prestige. This mounted ruler — possibly representing the 16th-century king Oba Esigie, who defeated his brother in a civil war, or perhaps the 12th-century founder of Benin’s royal dynasty, Prince Oranmiyan — has a squat, compact, and ferociously symmetrical presence that is designed to intimidate.
Made from a copper alloy, it came into the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts as a promised gift from Robert Lehman three years ago, and is one of the highlights of a terrific gallery specially devoted to bronze sculptures and ivory carvings from Benin.
These and other well-known works, now scattered around the world, were ransacked from the royal palace in Benin City in 1897 in the aftermath of a British punitive expedition.
Led by Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, the British wanted to exact revenge for a massacre the previous year by Beninese forces of soldiers participating in a poorly concealed British plot to depose the king. The two nations had been at loggerheads over trade.
The punitive expedition was catastrophic for Benin. But thanks to the particular efforts of two brothers – Felix Norman Roth, who was part of the expedition and salvaged this sculpture, and Henry Ling Roth, an anthropologist who wrote an extensive study of traditional Beninese society and received this work from his brother — the dispersal of Beninese sculpture helped many in the West to recognize the sophistication and unique power of that society’s royal artists.
These artists had, it seems, one job: to convey authority, to induce dread, respect, and fear. In this task, dress was of vital importance. This ruler is fitted out in a richly ornamented tunic over a chain-mail shirt. He has a wide, ruff-like collar — a sign of the impact of Portuguese traders (who brought guns in exchange for palm oil and other products). He also carries a shield made from plaited cane, a lance, a bundle of spears, and a sheathed dagger in his belt.
If his head seems out of scale with his body and his horse, it’s because in Benin, the head was regarded as both the seat of one’s destiny and a container for divine energy. Here, the ruler’s headdress is adorned with parrot feathers. Projecting from it is an ancient crown containing potent, magical substances with protective powers.
If all this regalia suggests an equivalence in the Beninese imagination between decorative profusion and power, it’s instructive to turn your eyes away from the figure of the ruler and back to the actual horse.
The animal’s head has been sheathed in its own intimidating headwear but, aside from that, its basic form is exquisitely distilled, its surfaces smooth and realistic. In fact, so quietly convincing is the creature that you feel it has been accorded as much respect by the unidentified artist as the ruler himself — just without all the fuss.
Mounted Rule (So-Called Horseman)
Edo peoples, Benin
At: Museum of Fine Arts, 617-267-9300,www.mfa.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.