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Human domination of nature has been represented in art and objects since ancient times. Often this is done through scenes showing wild animals being hunted. Imposing order on the chaotic and unpredictable natural world has often been used as a metaphor for the power of kings, or of gods, over ordinary people. The hunter subdues the lion or the tiger, just as the king subdues his enemies.
The triumph of order over chaos
On a gold pendant from a group of objects known as the Aigina treasure, a male deity figure stands among lotus flowers, his arms outstretched to grasp a goose by the neck with each hand. The animals allow us to identify him as a god. This pose, known as that of the 'Master (or Mistress) of the Animals', is intended to show that the deity subdues the wild animals, and therefore has control over nature. It is more common with a female central figure.
At the dawn of Egyptian civilisation, around 3150 BC, wild lions, ibexes and ostriches are amongst the animals being shown hunted on a ceremoinial palette. This theme evoked the struggle between ordered civilisation and the chaotic world beyond.
Beauty and power
Although we wonder at the beauty and power of the wild animal, we may also secretly admire its apparent freedom to act without restraint. The unpredictability and strange beauty of the wild has fascinated us through the ages.
The wild animal, although fearsome, may also be seductive. The predator may lull its prey into a false sense of security before striking without warning.
The cat-like lioness in a Phoenician carved ivory panel from around the ninth to eighth century BC embraces a submissive (or perhaps already dead) Nubian boy, apparently with tender care, as she delivers the fatal bite. However, we cannot see her deadly teeth and the boy isn’t struggling. This predatory female could almost be kissing the boy’s neck.
Lions were regularly represented in art on wall reliefs and as elements of furniture in the ancient Near East. The lion symbolised the power of nature and is often associated with the king to demonstrate royal power, as it was his duty to defeat the forces of nature that the lion represented.
This small alabaster panel was part of a series of wall panels that showed a royal hunt. It has long been acclaimed as a masterpiece for Assyrian artist’s skilful observation and realistic portrayal of the animal.
Struck by one of the king's arrows, blood gushes from the lion's mouth. Veins stand out on its face. From a modern viewpoint, it is tempting to think that the artist sympathized with the dying animal. However, lions were regarded as symbolizing everything that was hostile to urban civilization and it is more probable that the viewer was meant to laugh, not cry.
There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium BC. The connection between kingship and lions was probably brought to Western Europe as a result of the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when lions began to be used to decorate royal coats of arms.
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