on the figures of the Bullion Stone

external link to National Museum page bullion stone thumb

The Pictophile's understandable obsession with the Pictish symbols, and the entertaining and erudite arguments they generate, has had the unfortunate consequence that other important elements in the corpus of Pictish Art have been neglected.

Some of the figuration in Pictish carving is quite extraordinary in its art-historical implications. There is a precocious tendency in Pictish reliefs to particularise the figure and emphasise existential qualities. This sophistication maybe hard for a modern observer to appreciate. On the one hand, if we have an aesthetic perception based on Classicism, it is easy to interpret elements deviant from idealism as mistakes. On the other, if we have a Post-Modernist, eclectic outlook we will be familiar with images from many cultural milieux. Oriental art and 19th and 20th century Modernism, for example, and thus may not fully appreciate the unusualness of a strong emphasis on the individual in the context of early European art, especially in major works necessitating large investments of time or wealth.

In the study of Pictish art we must always bear in mind that extant works can only be a small part of a much larger corpus otherwise lost. Nobody learns to draw with a chisel. As well as lost stones, there must have been a great deal of vanished work done in perishable materials. Given this limitation. I see the existentialism of Pictish art as reaching its apotheosis in Meigle 27, the work described below and a detail on St Vigeans no.7 (I refer to the figures on the lower right of the cross-slab. This is often described as portraying a bull sacrifice, however a basic consideration of bovine anatomy shows that the bull is in fact a heifer. The human figure has all the classic symptoms of advanced under-nourishment clearly shown, we should all be more than familiar with these from the photographic records of our own period. I believe the group shows a famine victim bleeding a cow for sustenance, a practice known in Scotland in comparatively recent times and widely practiced in modern Africa.)

In this article I intend to analyse the iconography of one work in particular: but first, a word on the nature of Pictish drawing.

The animal symbols of class 1 stones tell us a great deal about Pictish draughtsmanship. Without being at all illusionistic and using only line, the artist often conveys a considerable amount of information by diagrammatic illustration. The essential recognition features are used to pinpoint species and often gender; for instance, the salmon in the best examples has the shape and position of fins, tail, gill cover and mouth, etc. all telling us that this is not a haddock, and the lower jaw is shown to indicate the sex of the fish.

Bearing all this in mind, let us now consider the horse and rider from Bullion Angus. Discovered in 1934, one of the most extraordinary ancient works of art in Western Europe. (The original may be seen in the Dark Age sculpture collection at the National Museum of Scotland, Chambers St. Edinburgh.)

First let us consider the rider. This is no heroic warrior: he is middle aged and bald, with a paunch, jowls and an unkempt full beard. The bulbous nose and comically large drinking horn (approx. 3' by proportion) suggest something of a drink problem. His facial expression, indicated by the drawing of the eye and mouth and his posture, shows a wistful ennui.

Before we examine the horse, consider the standard horse in Pictish horse and rider representations. Usually we have a bright, alert, highly desirable pony with a curving crest, exceptionally good clean action and high rounded trot, a good depth of girth, strong quarters and good hocks. It is ridden, highly collected and bent at the poll, by a horseman with a good seat. The Bullion pony is its antithesis. It walks uphill lethargically with an exhausted expression that is brilliantly indicated by the most economical of means; eye, ear, mouth, nose and head angle1. It is a richt jaud, tied in below the knee, sickle hocked, weak in the quarters, the tail set too low, narrow chested, hammer headed, shallow in the girth with no heartroom and extremely tucked in at the loins. It has every possible confirmation fault yet it is portrayed with considerable affection. The rider does not so much ride as sit on his undersized mount, while it makes its own way forward, kept going presumably by the faint hope of an eventual meal.

There is also an interest in the bird head terminal of the drinking horn. It meets the rider's gaze with a sarcastic expression, the result of the positioning of the eye. The way in which it breaks the line of the frame is reminiscent of much later images, Rembrandt and modern illustrations.

Remember this is not a marginal pen drawing done in five minutes by a scribe awaiting the preparation of fresh vellum. It is a monumental stone carving in hard stone 1.88 metre high. Relief carved stone is not a spontaneous or throwaway medium, it represents a considerable investment of time and thought. It is not only a long way from the idealised forms of classical art, it is also very far from the stereotypes of primitive totemism and most medieval art. With its humanistic, individualised outlook it exhibits a great deal of 'modern' thought.

Outside of the Pictish I know nothing in western European art that comes close to these qualities before the 18th century and nothing of a monumental nature before the start of the modern period.

One last thought (but perhaps the most important), can this unflattering image possibly be in any sense a commissioned work? If not the implications are immense, a work of the 10th century or earlier produced by the motivation of the designer? Could this even be a self-portrait of an itinerant Pictish sculptor, drowning his sorrows or anaesthetising his hurdies against the effects of his pony's overlong and undercovered backbone?

Since this article was first published, in the summer of 1990, various comments have been made to me concerning some of its points. Firstly it has been said that the work is not Pictish. This of course depends on how we define Pictish. We do not have the linguistic or historical evidence to be dogmatic, with regard to the date of, either the beginning or the end of the period of Pictish culture. In my own opinion there is nothing intrinsic to the carving in terms of technique or style that would suggest it is not part of a Pictish cultural expression. Secondly it has been suggested that the work may have been commissioned as a politically motivated satire, this is perhaps a possibility. However unless our modern sense of pathos was totally unknown to our ancestors, the patron may have been rather displeased with the sympathy shown in the artists work.

Finally it is the opinion of R. W. Beck2 , that the stone shows a horse that was once of high quality, now suffering from age and infirmity as well as malnutrition and worms. the presumed result of its riders obvious alcoholism. There is possibly something in this although I am pleased to note that Mr Beck notes the low dock which can never have been anywhere else. Whether the horse was born inferior, achieved inferiority or had it thrust upon it does not really affect the nub of my argument. That is that the unheroic and individualised nature of this portrayal is of considerable significance in relation to our understanding of the world that it came from.

© David W. Hood

1. It can with profit be compared with photos showing the meaning of equine expressions in "The Language of the Horse" by Michael Schafer, Kaye Ward, London.
2.Scotland's Native Horse, R.W.Beck Wigtown, 1992.