Discovered in Yemen in more than eighty pieces, this bronze horse was artfully recomposed into the spirited animal displayed today. Fragments of a matching horse were subsequently uncovered confirming the mention of two horses and their riders in an incised inscription on this horse’s shoulder. The pair of statues may have flanked and protected the entrance to a temple precinct or a temple doorway.
The three inscriptions on the horse are in Himyaritic, an ancient language of southwestern Arabia. This land, strategically located along the sea and landroutes between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, controlled a large part of the luxury trade in frankincense, myrrh, and spices. The wealth derived from this trade and the connections with the Roman Empire fostered a taste for cast-bronze sculpture, not a local art form but a revered medium of artistic expression in Mediterranean culture. In particular, equestrian figures symbolized the elite status of those who were represented; in this case, the two riders may have been adaptations of the Roman gods Castor and Pollux. The figure on a rearing horse also had an inherent reference to the indomitable hero Alexander the Great, who was often shown this way in Hellenistic and Roman sculpture.
Though less than life size, this rearing horse projects the imposing character of many larger bronzes that have survived from antiquity. It seems to breathe forcefully through its wide nostrils and be balanced between unruly movement, observed in its flexed muscles, and docility, revealed by the curves of flesh around the open mouth indicating the bridle that once guided it. The sculptor has succeeded in the rare feat of displaying the horse’s dynamic character by capturing the fleeting moment between action and elegant form.
- S. Zwirn
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The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection, (Washington, D.C., 1946), 18, no. 3, fig. p. 28.
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H. v. Roques de Maumont, Antike Reiterstandbilder, (Berlin, 1958), 72-76 n. 41, 98, fig. 39.
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J. Ryckmans, Rapport préliminairesur le cheval de bronze de Dumbarton Oaks, (unpublished manuscript, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C., 1973).
P. Costa, "Note su Alcuni Pezzi del Museo Nazionale dello Yemen a San'a," Annali dell'Istituto universitario orientale di Napoli 34 (1974): 286-89.
J. Ryckmans, "The Pre-Islamic South Arabian Bronze Horse in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 29 (1975): 285-303.
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G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 26, pl. p. 27.
R. Stupperich and P. A. Yule, "Himyarite Period Bronze Sculptural Groups from the Yemenite Highlands," in Issledovaniya po Arabii i Islamy (Arabian and Islamic Studies; A Collection of Papers in honor of Mikhail Borishovich Pyotrovkij on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, ed. A. Sedov (Moscow, 2014), 338-67, esp. 350-362, fig. 9-11, tables 3, 4.
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Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, "Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade," June 25 - Sept. 18, 2005.
Washington, D.C., Freer Gallery of Art & the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, “Ancient and Medieval Metalwork from Dumbarton Oaks,” Dec. 16, 2005 – Apr. 1, 2007.