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  • Andre Lamartin

Torso of Banovic Strahinja – 1908

Torso of Banovic Strahinja – 1908 Marble

Ivan Mestrovic - V&A Museum

Banovic Strahinja was a knight and a legendary Serbian hero depicted in an epic poem by the same name. He is thought to have lived in the 14th century and had a small estate near Kosovo. While he was absent from his castle, the Turks ravaged his home and kidnapped his wife. Banovic then asked his wife’s family for help in trying to rescue her, but they adamantly refused. In their eyes, she had disgraced the family’s name because she had been raped. Despite all social pressure to the contrary, Banovic refuses to abandon his wife. He argued that she had not disgraced the name of the family simply because she was forcibly compelled to have sex with her assailants. In his eyes, what mattered most was consent, not the act itself.

In this sense at least, Banovic can be seen as one of the first champions of women’s rights. In a recent poll conducted in Brazil, 63% of the respondents said that women who are sexually assaulted are to blame when their choice of clothes is too titillating. In India, these same misogynistic views are still quite prevalent. In many other countries around the world, rape not only compromises a woman’s health and psychological well-being, but also her social stature as well.

To believe that a nobleman, in the true sense of the word, would have the courage to challenge these views in the 14th century is truly mindboggling and inspiring. Time and time again, history seems to show, that social change in the face of injustice only seems to come when one human being takes a step forward and displays the requisite courage to challenge accepted norms in the name of higher moral and spiritual values. Banovic Strahinja was one such man.

According to the poem, the Serbian hero eventually rescues his wife and kills the rapists by ravaging open their jugulars with his own teeth. He then returns home only to find that the brothers of his wife were assembled waiting to kill her. Banovic shields her body with his own and offers an impassioned defense of his wife, finally swaying the hearts of the mob who decided to let her live.

As a final note, the artist Ivan Mestrovic trained in Vienna but moved to Paris where he studied with Rodin and adopted the same naturalistic techniques. As seen above, the torso is very well proportioned, displaying a developed musculature with minimal amounts of body fat, representing the idealized body type known as the mesomorph. The wide shoulders and small waist create a v shaped torso that is still prized by modern day society and stands as a classical ideal of male beauty.

In depicting this classical standard of beauty, the artist wanted the body of the legendary hero to reflect the inner beauty of a man who was willing to risk his life for the undying love of his wife and to attack misogynistic social conventions in the name of justice. For all these reasons, this is certainly one of my favorite pieces in the museum.

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