DYCK, Sir Anthony van
(b. 1599, Antwerpen, d. 1641, London)

Charles I on Horseback

c. 1635
Oil on canvas, 365 x 289 cm
National Gallery, London

This likeness of the king on horseback takes as its point of departure the archetypal image on the obverse of all the Great Seals of England: the sovereign as warrior. King Charles is wearing Greenwich-made armour and holding a commander's baton. A page carries his helmet. In keeping with the imperial claim of the inscription (in Latin on the tablet tied to the tree in this portrait: CAROLUS REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE - Charles King of Great Britain), the pose and woodland setting echo Titian's equestrian portrait of the Emperor Charles V at Muhlberg. (Titian's painting itself recalled the famous Roman bronze of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback.) Over his armour Charles wears a gold locket bearing the image of Saint George and the Dragon, the so-called Lesser George. He wore it constantly; it contained a portrait of his wife, and was with him the day he died. Here, however, it identifies him with the Order of the Garter of which Saint George was patron. As Garter Sovereign he is riding, like Charles V, at the head of his chivalrous knights in defence of the faith. In a profound sense the portrait is a visual assertion of Charles's claim to Divine Kingship. Albeit high above our heads - the horizon line ensures that our viewpoint is roughly at the level of his stirrup - his face is undistorted by foreshortening. Van Dyck's three-quarter view refines his features, and he bestrides his horse with a remote air of noble contemplation.