Race to the death

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
A mass of pounding hooves...and coming straight at you! Alexander von Wagner's chariot race is a painting of epic and adrenaline-pumping proportions, as Liz Mitchell explains

Horses charge headlong out of the canvas, eyes staring wildly, mouths flecked with foam, bodies straining impossibly beneath the biting crack of the charioteer's whip. The furious pounding of hooves on the dusty dirt track, the relentless heat of the burning sun, raucous cheering from the adrenaline-pumped crowd - this is a glorious Technicolor movie race to the death, portrayed in widescreen CinemaScope. Alexander von Wagner's extraordinary painting is pure Hollywood spectacle, a biblical epic with a cast of thousands. The setting is the Circus Maximus in ancient Rome, the event almost certainly inspired by the best selling novel of the 1880s, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace.

Ben-Hur is a story of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption, set in the time of Jesus Christ. A wealthy young Jew, Judah Ben-Hur, is betrayed by his childhood friend Messala and sent to be a galley slave under the Romans. In time, he earns his freedom and becomes a champion of the Roman chariot races. He meets Messala once more in the brutal and frenzied arena of the Circus Maximus, where, in a dramatic and spectacular race, he enacts his revenge - Messala is defeated and mortally wounded. At points throughout the story, Ben-Hur's path crosses that of Jesus. The tale ends with Ben-Hur's presence at the crucifixion and his own subsequent personal salvation. Wallace wanted to retell the story of Christ, but religious sensitivity in the late 19th century prevented him from fictionalising the biblical story directly. Ben-Hur became an instant worldwide best-seller, outsold only by the Bible itself, and is a classic example of the so-called "toga" novel - melodramatic fiction set in the classical past that reflected Victorian attitudes to class, gender, religion and imperialism.

Toga novels and plays later provided the basis for numerous Hollywood epics and the story of Ben-Hur is now best remembered as the 1959 MGM Charlton Heston movie, something of a cultural icon itself. Wagner's picture was probably painted some time around 1882. Hungarian by birth, Wagner was a professor in the Munich Academy and specialised in scenes of ancient Greece and Rome. Like Ben-Hur, the picture was an immediate hit and was quickly reproduced as a popular engraving, widely and cheaply available to hang in countless schoolrooms and homes. The story and the painting must have become quickly associated, although the absence of specific identifying details in the picture prevents a definitive connection. Of course the subject matter was widely popular; the Victorians had a taste for narrative painting and a vested interest in the history of empires. Ancient Rome had all the ingredients for great storytelling: culture, philosophy and politics, power, tyranny and corruption. The theme of the chariot race captures this perfectly.

Chariot racing was a Roman obsession - the Circus Maximus could hold 150,000 spectators, from Emperor to slave, and charioteers were A-list celebrities, like football players today. Loyalty to the different chariot "stables" was deep-rooted and had political overtones, each stable associated with different political affinities. It was a glamorous, high-profile, ceremonial and brutal sport, qualities sensationally captured in Wagner's picture.

His use of the panoramic format with its exaggerated perspective increases the rush and thrill of the scene and was a fashionable device of the time, particularly for epic history paintings. His depiction of the horses, their legs straining forwards, adds to this headlong perspective, although it is not an accurate depiction of a gallop. In 1877 Eadweard Muybridge, an early pioneer of moving film, used photography to prove that a horse's legs all leave the ground only when underneath the body. Until this discovery, most artists depicted fast moving horses as Wagner does here, with legs outstretched like a rocking horse.

Whether or not the painting depicts the climactic race of Wallace's novel, it became finally and inextricably linked to the story when it was adapted for the stage. The 1899 production focused on the novel's dramatic qualities and the chariot race became its iconic image. The play's poster used Wagner's picture, subtly manipulated to show the chariots racing neck-and-neck and the charioteers clearly identified as Ben-Hur and Messala. In addition, producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Erlanger adopted the popular stage device of "realising a painting" - bringing to life a well-known image that the audience would find familiar.

The staging of the chariot race was a technical tour-de-force that conjured up all the frenzied exhilaration of Wagner's painting. Three moving backcloths were created from the background and sides of the painting, their movement synchronised to create the illusion of advancing chariots and retreating spectators. The chariots were pulled by real horses, mounted on treadmills facing downstage.

The effect must have been breathtaking, as a spectator from the time commented: "When the horses are tearing along, as though in a contest for life and death, the illusion... is all but perfect and thrillingly effective... A powerful blast of air from under the horses' hooves and under the chariot wheels raises what seem to be great clouds of dust, that are caught up and whirled away behind the charioteers... Just as the catastrophe occurs, every light in the house goes out for a second leaving the theatre black as night... up go the lights - and you see Ben-Hur and his panting, foaming steeds, victors" (New York Herald, November 5, 1899).

The Chariot Race was then and still is a hugely popular picture. In 2003 it was voted favourite artwork in a Manchester Art Gallery visitors' poll. It is a noisy, furious, exhilarating evocation of the brutality and energy of ancient Rome, or how the Victorians liked to imagine it. The viewer is, thrillingly, placed in an impossible position, immediately in the face of the oncoming teams. You can feel the dry dusty heat, the thunder of pounding hooves and the roar of the crowd. In a world of widescreen tv and IMAX cinemas, the picture remains a showstopper.

* The Chariot Race can be seen on permanent display at Manchester Art Gallery in Gallery 7, Victorian Dramas: History to capture the popular imagination Liz Mitchell is online gallery curator, Manchester City Galleries

Alexander von Wagner 1838-1911

Wagner studied at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, later becoming Professor of Art at the Munich Academy. As a painter of historical scenes of ancient Greece and Rome, he developed a popular reputation in Paris and the US. A panoramic picture, the "Entrance of Constantine the Great to Rome", commissioned from the Panorama Society of Munich, was 15m high and 120m long and was shown in Munich, Berlin and London before travelling to the US. His most famous work, "The Farewell of Isabella, Queen of Hungary, to Transylvania", is in the Hungarian National Gallery.

References Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, Wordsworth Classics pound;1.99 Playing out the Empire: Ben-Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films, 1883-1908 A Critical Anthology by David Mayer, Clarendon Press pound;52.50 www.manchestergalleries.org

Lesson ideas


Literacy Imagine that the painting is a TV set with the volume turned down. Find the volume control and turn it slowly up, leaving the children in silence to listen to the painting. Turn the volume partway down and ask them to discuss in pairs and then with the whole group what sounds they heard.

Discuss vocabulary; what might the characters be saying? Divide into groups for different "sounds areas" of the picture and build up a soundscape possibly introducing percussion. Swap and repeat.

KS2 A volunteer stands in front of the picture, impersonating a character, but with that character still visible. Adopt a suitable posefacial expression.

Others then offer what the character might be thinkingfeeling.

KS3 Speakinglistening: hot-seat a volunteer as a character from the picture.

The volunteer has to answer questions. It's a rolling interview - each volunteer answers only two questions before a new volunteer takes the hot seat: two questions per pupil. Any question can be passed.


KS 45 What assumptions can we make about the social status of individuals in the picture? Look at dress, position within the audience (ie who's got the best seat) and the reactions of people around them. Who here has the power and wealth? How did they acquire it? What are the similarities and differences between social standing in the Roman Empire and modern-day Britain?

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