“Horseman and Dog” at Boston’s MFA


Horseman and Dog

“Horseman and Dog,” terracotta, Italy (Sicily), Late archaic period (500 BC), The Museum of Fine Arts

Almost every time I visit Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I have a look at this small sculpture. It’s a favorite, and I often take guests to see the piece in the Greek galleries. The terracotta figurine is a funerary object made for a grave. Presumably, the young boy depicted with his horse and dog has already passed into another world. I go to this sculpture because it so captures some in-between place—a moment balanced between life and death—somehow found and preserved. It finds that exact place—an exuberant place—and it stays there telling me the truth: This is what life is. This is also about death.

My late thirties were characterized by loss. Three young people from my milieu died suddenly—two through unrelated murders and the other because of a heart arrhythmia that took him as a young man. It was a time of grief and also of rebellion against what had occurred. My feelings went beyond sadness or questioning. I felt rage. It seemed unfair. These things were not supposed to happen at all, and, certainly, they were not supposed to happen to anyone who was close to me!

Gradually, the anger and the sadness gave way and something else replaced it—the beginning of a new kind of vision—a new world seen through the tears of loss—a kind of hyper-vision infused with light. I saw in a way that could make a glass of water look like the loveliest thing in the world. I could look through a paned window at the branches of a tree and weep.

I’m not sure scholars would agree with me, but I identify the expression on the boy’s face as having something to do with the “archaic smile.” It is found on other Greek sculptures from this period, especially on the faces of highly stylized statues of young boys called kouroi. The meaning of the smile is both debatable and debated by those who speculate about cultural expression. I’m okay with that. For me, the archaic smile always represents the ultimate in serenity, a kind of confidence in both life and death. In the case of my horseman and his dog, the memory is about three beings who were once very alive and then were taken. That’s enough to give the piece its sad and joyous meaning.