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War and Peace in the Arts

The Heroic Soldier

The second most commonly depicted individual in war art is the heroic soldier. In the Western world the characteristics of the archetypal hero were defined in Homer's ninth-century epic poems about the Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Homeric hero, as personified by Achilles, was courageous in battle, loyal to his friends and comrades, and quick to anger. He suffered grievous loss, sometimes even death, and was curiously attracted to the thrill of battle but was equally appalled by its horrifying consequences. In the visual arts the Homeric heroes were repeatedly depicted in the red and black figures of painted Ancient Greek pottery. The image of Ajax carrying the body of Achilles is particularly poignant as it reminds the viewer that death often accompanies heroic actions on the battlefield.

More commonly the hero has been depicted as the protector of society who symbolically defeats the enemy as snake or dragon, as demonstrated by the innumerable depictions of Saint George, who was adopted as the patron saint of England in the fourteenth century. Or the hero is depicted, often on horseback, leading his troops into battle with firm conviction of the high moral purpose of the battle about to be fought, as when William the Conqueror leads his troops into the Battle of Hastings (1066) in an early piece of war propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry.

It was sometimes acknowledged that to be a hero one had to be a little bit mad. To willingly face physical harm or death and to be able to urge one's fellows to do likewise and to lead them into battle required a sense of commitment that might appear to verge on madness. Albrecht Dürer caught this in his copper engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil (1513), where the steadfast knight, accompanied by his loyal dog, looks intently forward, trying to avoid the distractions of Death, who brandishes his hourglass, and of the Devil, who leers at him.

Two countertypes stand in contrast to the model of the heroic soldier: the heroic female soldier, or "warrior queen," and the antihero. Many warrior queens who led nations but not armies into battle wished to show themselves the equal of their male counterparts, at least in works of art. A coronation painting of Empress Catherine II of Russia (r. 1762–1796) shows her on horseback, in uniform, holding a sword but with armed troops almost hidden in the background; Maria Theresa of Austria also wanted to be painted on horseback but, although she brandishes a sword, she wears robes, not a military uniform, and sits side-saddle.

Actual warrior heroines like the ancient Briton, Boadicea, are depicted riding a chariot (a bronze statue by Thomas Thornycroft, 1902) or standing on a slight rise above her troops exhorting them to battle; Amazons were depicted on an equal footing with Greeks in art; Joan of Arc is often depicted wearing full armor but kneeling in prayer or standing with a battle standard, and less frequently on horseback. In India, the Rani of Jhansi, who led men into battle against the British in 1858, is depicted on horseback and brandishing a sword.

The Robin Hood of legend was the classic antihero—an aristocrat who donned the garb of ordinary peasants and took up their cause of opposing taxation and other feudal obligations while an absentee king fought in foreign wars. Courage and resistance are among the hallmarks of the antihero. John Simpson Kirkpatrick, an Australian soldier who served in the Gallipoli front (Turkey, 1915) in World War I, demonstrated his courage not by killing the enemy but by rescuing the injured, often under fire, and bringing them back to the first aid stations on the back of his donkey. The image of "Simpson and his donkey" became a potent one in photographs, posters, and, later, statues. It was used both as propaganda for Australian recruitment and as an antiwar statement of how one man turned his back on the killing and sought to save life.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWar and Peace in the Arts - The Military Leader, The Heroic Soldier, Civilian Casualties In War, The World Wars In Film