Bellerephon & Pegasus (Or Young Man with a Ferrari)
If the visitor to any major city raises their eyes from the pavement (or their smart phones) they will find a multitude of signs and symbols adorning its buildings which announce the wealth and social standing of the individuals, merchants, societies, religious orders and businesses for whom the structures were built. The adornment of buildings can range from large figurative, sculptures to small decorative details taken directly from pattern books.
What is striking is that women and the working classes are freely used within building decoration as allegorical figures or examples of dignified labour. Who cares that Pomeroy's Fortitude and Truth at the Old Bailey are women with their breasts on show, they're visual metaphors and not representative of real women, right? Philip Lindsey Clarks
figures of workmen on a building in Widegate Street, near Spitalfields, are imbued with a sense of physical and inner strength which is part and parcel of the dignity inherent in manual labour, correct? Wrong. These are examples of the images of women and toiling folk being appropriated by a patriarchal, ruling class in order to create a visual language that can be understood by an educated elite, using codes and symbols to their own ends in order to reinforce political affiliations, social status and a general propensity for overthetop decoration. To understand what these carved and cast adornments reveal about the patrons of these edifices of enterprise it is important to recognise that these images mark territory like a tomcat spraying its scent.
Much architectural adornment looks to classical mythology to imbue its message with a faux intellectualism. Take, for example, this image of Bellerophon and Pegasus, from the pantheon of Greek mythology. Reminiscent of a crest and with its inscription which urges the onlooker to 'take time by the forelock' or seize the moment, we see the naked, yet tastefully posed Bellerophon presumably tugging Pegasus' forelock – which translates simply as him capturing the beast. In the myth Belleropon tamed the winged horse with the help of the goddess Athena who, realising he wasn't really going to manage it on his own, gave him a golden bridle. If we're looking at allegory, myth and metaphor, this is an early example of a woman saying to a man, “There you go dear, you'll never manage it like that, let me help you” and then watching him take all the credit.
The image of Bellerophon and Pegasus is used by the British Airborne Forces as an example of the first airborne warrior. But one must ask, what did the mythological, airborne warrior achieve? He slayed the Chimera. And what was the Chimera? This mythical creature was the kind of animal that Dr Frankenstein might have put together as a lab experiment before moving onto using human body parts. Comprising lion, goat and snake, the unfortunate firebreathing beast is generally considered to have been female. After defeating the SheBeast Bellerophon then turned his attention to the Amazons, that nation of onebreasted, mankilling warrior women who fought in the Trojan wars.
What I am suggesting here is simple. There are often many levels at which images can be read and those that are placed on buildings are no exception. In citing classicism there is a clear implication that the viewer who would understand the reference would unlikely be a member of the uneducated, lower classes. However, look beneath this and there is a further and altogether more worrying subtext. Bellerophon's form of metaphorical 'forelocktugging', and by implication those who choose to be represented by this image, was to slay the feminine. Aboard his tamed stallion (and if we're talking modern metaphor, is there not a similarity with the banker climbing into his own wild stallion – the Ferrari, and we all know what that symbolises...) this is a symbol of masculinity overcoming all that is frightening to society – strong women, be they warrior-like or untameable, wild 'animals'.
Might it be a step too far to suggest that Bellerophon and Pegasus represent an acceptable image of virile and physical male strength that is not only seen as being socially preferable to any form of female potency, but has historically slain it? I would suggest that many a building adornment is a symbol of patriarchy, sticking two classically proportioned fingers up at woman and the lower classes whilst stamping its mark on the buildings and streets that it built, runs and confidently strides down. It is the role of the Feminist Art Historian to uncover the true meanings behind the imagery of the oppressors that decorates the buildings of our cities.