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A drawing of a horse with gridlines to help with proportions

The Perfect Horse; or the Proportions of Paradise...


What does the perfect horse look like? Does such a thing exist? Renaissance drawings tried to capture it...

Since humankind has had consciousness, the mechanics of nature have fascinated us: lunar cycles, the seasons and planetary transits, cycles of water and earth, stages of animal and plant life, and forms (spirals, triangles, spheres, and circles) which reveal stable, superior and sacred orders.

The beginning stages of drawing a horse, with grid lines to assist with proportion

In ancient Greece, and later during the European Renaissance, mathematicians, geometricians, and artists determined the exact proportions of things; ideal forms from which all other forms proceeded. Such fixations —objective and artistic— raised questions about ideal proportions in animals: what might the perfect horse be like? What might be “the ideal horse”? What proportions should be the bones of the legs, rib cage, ears, and eyes?

Perhaps for obvious reasons, early references were to the human body —with Vitruvian Man as one of the very cusps of style. During this era of discovery, such theories about animals and their ideal proportions were also developed using squares and circles as guides for artists and apprentices. The problem was in determining if there had been some initial model, a kind of perfect mold which had originally bestowed the bodies now inhabiting the world.

To answer this question, horse breeders played a preponderant role, and rightly so: of all the world’s animals, horses are the most dazzling examples of strength and beauty. The dominion or fall of an empire could depend on the perfection and potency of such animals. Not only were they the most common means of transportation, they were a determinant part of the agricultural process, a luxury for aristocrats and, above all, a basic component of the world’s armed forces.

Drawing of a horse with gridlines to help with proportion

As with any intellectual enterprise of the time, inevitably things came down to a concept of God, of perfection and absolutes, and to the importance of emulating divine creation. The perfect horse was thus considered to have been the one that Noah included on his ark. If a species was to be saved, it was because it was exemplary. If not perfect, it was the closest to the one which had once inhabited Eden, the Paradise on Earth. Imperfections and subsequent failures in animals were the result, or more precisely the fault, of humankind and the fall from the Garden of Eden. For all these reasons, it was humankind’s mission to restore the original unity and sacred order through works which were, at the very least, virtuous, measured, and proportional.

Thus, the breeders of horses looked for breeds that were better proportioned, guided always by measurements. And artists, in turn, created guides for the breeders. After many trials based on these mathematical-geometric (but also aesthetic) considerations, and based, too, on circles and squares, some of the most important engravers and artists of the period concluded that an Italian horse from Naples was the most perfect of all. But it had to be admitted that this “ideal” was not representative of every breed. And since climate played such an important part, “daring” cross-breeds were made. Among them were a Turkish horse crossed with an English mare, for example. This explains the significant importation of Turkish horse breeds into the British Isles during the Renaissance.

Thus, a discussion about what might be the ideal horse carried on for many decades. It always led to discussions of a theological order, as the search for perfect models led always into the universe of the abstract. Just how was the perfect horse made by God? The answer could only be given, it was believed then, through geometry (an expression of the divine), and above all through art, from those who led the world of ideas, of concepts, to the palpability of paper or a blank canvas. We can see now that in an era like the Renaissance, even the most extraordinarily complex issues led to the implausible possibility of art approaching the sacred —something unchanged even to this day.

Detailed drawing of a horse


Image: Hans Sebald Beham, Dieses Büchlein zeigt an, und lernet ein maß oder proporcion der Roß — Bayerische Staatsbibliothek 

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