Many studies and papers have been written about how arts education helps students become more successful. In fact, The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities suggests that child arts education can result in better academic performance and social engagement over a long term period, perhaps with life-long benefits. As the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator, one of my main duties this fall is to make sure that all public, private, home school and post-secondary students have an opportunity to experience art, especially in our feature exhibition, The Horse in Ancient Greek Art.

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Attributed to the Sappho Painter [Cahn], Greek (Attic), Black-Figure White Ground Lekythos, ca. 510 BCE, Quadriga chariot horses being harnessed, terracotta, Private Collection.
It can be difficult for students to relate an ancient vase to their every day lives. Some of these objects spent hundreds of years underground, and the people who made them aren’t on SnapChat. But I have discovered some human connections between modern Americans and ancient Greeks that the students have really enjoyed.

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Attributed to the Workshop of Hermogenes [Heesen], Greek (Attic) Band Cup, ca. 540 BCE, Achilles, Troilus on horseback, and Polyxena, terracotta, Private Collection.
1. They drank out of bowls. The variety of vase shapes used in ancient times can be overwhelming at first. How could each be used differently? And why didn’t Ancient Greeks drink out of cups like normal people? They actually drank out of shallow bowls called kylikes. Drinking out of a kylix sounds strange at first, but just about every kid eats breakfast cereal and then slurps the leftover milk straight from the bowl.

2. They spruced up on the go. Ancient Greeks did not have silky bubble baths and showers like we think of today, instead they used oil to clean off a sweaty body after exercising at the gymnasium. Not many middle school students roam the halls with an arybollos of perfume or oil tied to their belt, but they understand needing deodorant or body spray after gym class. At least, we hope they do.

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Greek (Corinth), Stater, ca. 340 BCE, Obv: Pegasos, silver, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Fund (63.13.3)

3. They are inspired by impossible, magical things. Some of the most engaging pieces of art in the exhibition are those that show mythological creatures. There’s something inherently heroic about a gleaming silver pegasos, something curious and powerful about a centaur crouched, ready to leap across the lip of a bowl. Amid historic recounts of Greco-Prussian wars or horse races, the mythological figures hold a child’s gaze the longest. Children understand the draw of fantastic dishware. ‘I have Power Rangers spoons’ says one student, ‘I have a Minions cup’, ‘I have a whole Frozen tea-party set’, they can relate to these characters.

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Students practice making connections across history.

What is so special about their character dishes at home? On the last tour, one little girl recounted a story about how her favorite fictional character came to be. She paused, struggling to convey what it is about the supernatural, mythical, magical world that pulls her in so.

“I just love it”, she sighed. She was telling me about her favorite cup at home, but her eyes are still glued to the pegasos. 


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Anne Marie Barnes is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail

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Xenophon Marmorbüste im Kgl. Museum, Berlin, 1905. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Some things just never change. The visitors to our Museum who ride horses are often impressed how timeless is the wisdom in the equestrian literature of years past: advice given 200 years ago is usually as pertinent to handling horses today as it was when it was written. Equestrian literature is extremely traditional, and most are unaware how far back the chain runs. When it comes to the written word, what we know and practice today truly began with the Greek soldier, historian, and philosopher Xenophon.

Xenophon of Athens (c. 430-354 BCE) was born to a wealthy Athenian family and served as a mercenary cavalry officer under Cyrus the Younger during his campaign against the Persians. After a complicated series of military misadventures, Xenophon and his fellow mercenaries were recruited to fight for Sparta, the enemies of Athens.

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Plate 8-I, from Richard Berenger’s translation of Xenophon, The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771). National Sporting Library & Museum.

“The same care which is given to the horse’s food and exercise, to make his body grow strong, should also be devoted to keeping his feet in condition. Even naturally sound hoofs get spoiled in stalls with moist, smooth floors.”

 

For this (and possibly for his admiration of Socrates) Xenophon was exiled from Athens and settled into a life of writing in Scillus. It was here that Xenophon penned his treatise On Horsemanship, widely credited as one of the earliest works on the selection, care, and management of horses.

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Plate 4, from Richard Berenger’s translation of Xenophon, The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771). National Sporting Library & Museum.

The earliest printing of Xenophon appears to have been around 1516. On Horsemanship was widely re-popularized during the Renaissance with the explosion of equestrian literature from the mid-1500s forward.

“If you desire to handle a good war-horse so as to make his action the more magnificent and striking, you must refrain from pulling at his mouth with the bit as well as from spurring and whipping him.” — Xenophon, On Horsemanship Morris Morgan translation, 1893.

By the 1580s, authors were debating fine points of the precepts laid down by Xenophon. On Horsemanship was translated into English by Richard Berenger in 1771.

“[I]t is evident that by word of mouth you can teach a horse nothing. If, however, you reward him with kindness after he has done as you wish, and punish him when he disobeys, he will be most likely to learn to obey as he ought.” — Xenophon, On Horsemanship Morris Morgan translation, 1893.

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Left: Greek (Cretan), Fragment from Pithos or Relief Amphora, ca. 660-630 BCE, terracotta, Tampa Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Knight Zewadski in honor of Dr. J. Michael Padgett, Curator of Classical Art, 1990-1992. (1991.023.001). Photo Credit: Courtesy Tampa Museum of Art Right: Plate 5-I from Richard Berenger’s translation of Xenophon, The History and Art of Horsemanship (1771). National Sporting Library & Museum.

“When the horse bolts suddenly off, the rider should lean forward, for then the horse would be less likely to draw in under the rider and jolt him up; but he should bend back when the horse is being brought to a poise, as he would then be less jolted.”

On view in the Museum right now is The Horse in Ancient Greek Art, an exhibition of Greek pottery depicting horses from the time of Xenophon and beyond. Visitors to the Museum can experience the unbroken chain from the ancient world to today by visiting this great exhibition and our permanent collection works on view.


Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail