Eurpean Silver Medallion representing a Horse man killing a Chimera (Bellerophon ?)
Culture: European, Euro-Migration-Period, Euro-Medieval
Period: 5th-7th century A.D.
Dimensions: D: 13.7 cm
Ex-Spanish private collection, collected ca. 1960
This unique piece with a beautiful, slightly golden patina is a thin silver plaque, circular in shape, worked in repousse and decorated with small incisions. Although showing minor cracks and breaks, this superb piece is a rare evidence of secular work of silversmiths from the early Middle Ages.
The medallion is surrounded by a stylized laurel wreath interspersed with flowers and shells. The center is occupied by a horseman galloping from left to right. He is armed with a spear that he points at the open mouth of a chimera. He wears a long tunic and a cloak floating behind his shoulder. The very stylized face is seen frontally, whilst the body and the horse are represented in three-quarter view. The harness of the animal is rich and composed of pendants (croup and chest), as well as of a blanket, the edge of which copies the dotted pattern of the lower tunic of the rider.
The chimera (a mythological creature with body and head of a lion, the head of a goat and the tail of a snake) moves to the opposite direction of the horseman. The open mouth of the creature is pierced by the pole of the spear, while the goat’s and snakes heads exhale their last breath.
This iconography strikes our visual memory, because it is close to the representation of the horseback saints, such as St. George. Nevertheless, this representation stylistically refers to the early Middle Ages, during which the cult of this saint had not appeared in the West yet. The veneration of this saint, who would have been born in the 4th century, developed a century later in Palestine and in Egypt. The colorful legend of this man was nonetheless considered as apocryphal by a council from the 5th century onward. Hence, this horseman cannot be the representation of a saint. The absence of Christian symbols also definitely refutes this hypothesis. One should rather look to the Greco-Roman cultural heritage of the Iberian Peninsula. In the West, Spain is indeed one of the places where Roman culture survived longest, due to the tight network of the cities and to the large Roman population established in the peninsula. A revival and strong awareness of the heritage of Antiquity also spread to this Western region in the 6th-7th century in the impetus that associated the Visigoth dynasty to the Catholic bishops in order to establish and legitimize one’s power and to guarantee other’s religious peace. The libraries inventories of major bishops do therefore reveal the presence of the great texts of Greco-Roman ancient times alongside the writings of the Fathers of the Church. Finding a late work representing a mythological theme in Spain during the Visigothic period, just like what happened in the other parts of the Roman Empire, would therefore not be impossible.
In the first place, this medallion belongs to ancient iconography for reproducing a typically Roman ornament, that is, the laurel wreath sprinkled with shells and flowers. This reference to Roman decoration can also be seen in the Visigothic sculpture of reliefs that are now in the Museum of Cordoba and of Merida (6th -7th century).
Secondly, for representing a noble rider associated with the chimera, an image that can be linked to the myth of Bellerophon killing, with the aid of the winged horse Pegasus, the terrifying Chimera which was ravaging Lycia. This Greek hero, who was very popular among the Corinthians and whose legend has many parallels with that of St. George, is often represented both in Greek and Roman art. This myth will also appear, although very rarely, in the early Byzantine period, embodying then Christian virtues that ensure the lasting of the story (the Bellerophon plate, Museum of Art and History, Geneva; a large gold disc necklace, Phoenix Ancient Art gallery).
The representation of Pegasus as a single horse can be explained by the lateness of the work (iconographic misunderstanding of this detail, voluntary absence because of religious prohibition, …). This silversmith’s work, which is perfectly isolated in the secular Visigoth art, can stylistically be related to the reliefs found in the Hypogeum of the Dunes, near Poitiers (7th century). This ancient tomb houses several funerary sculptures, among which the base of a monumental cross adorned with two martyrs. These human figures are very close to that of the rider.
The rare examples of works dated to this period have retained only a very few human representations and are often provincial works coming from remote places, little affected by the Arab invasions. Horsemen representations are therefore very isolated: three shields from Santa Maria de Naranco (fighting horsemen) and the pedestal of the chancel screen of San Miguel de Lillo, now in the Museum of Oviedo (a rider pointing his spear at a monster – a lion? – fighting against a snake).
Hubert, J., and alii, L’Europe des invasions, Univers des Formes, Paris, 1967.
Puig, I., and Cadfalch, J., L’art wisigothique et ses survivances: recherches sur les origines et le développement de l’art en France
et en Espagne du IVe au XIIe siècle, Paris, 1961.
Schlunck, H., Arte visigodo, in: Ars Hispaniae, vol. II, 1947.
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC), t. VII, 1-2, Pegasos.