Approaching the Cid, the first thing you notice is its heroic size: about sixteen feet tall, on a pedestal of the same height. At its base are four over-lifesize sculptures of primitive warriors. It's the dominant element in a sculptural ensemble that includes reliefs of two figures from Spanish history (Boabdil and Don Quixote), and six groups of Spanish animals. (Illustrations of the elements of the ensemble are at end of this page.)
This context affects how we interpret the Cid, even before we study the details: he's an important figure and he's heroic.
What part of the sculpture catches the eye first? The triangle formed by the Cid's arm and lance, which frame his head. That puts the emphasis on his expression, his right arm, and one of his weapons.
Is he riding in a parade, like Washingtonat Union Square? Surely not; like Joan of Arc, he's standing in his stirrups and brandishing a weapon. He scowls with intensity as he twists to look behind him, encouraging his men to follow as he rushes into battle. The pennant on his lance marks him as the leader, making him a target, yet he shows no fear.
Chain-mail armor falls back to reveal the bulging muscles of his right arm: he's physically strong as well as courageous. What's missing from his medieval warrior's garb? A helmet. In the eleventh century, Spanish helmets were conical, with a nose-piece. But if Huntington had included one (for the sake of historical accuracy), we wouldn't be able to see the Cid's expression. His ferocity in battle would have been literally obscured. Sometimes historical accuracy in a sculpture is less important than getting the message across.
The behavior of a soldier's horse increases our knowledge of its rider. The Cid's horse is not merely strong (we can see its powerful muscles, and even the veins that feed them), but very spirited. It twists its head to one side and swishes its tail. From the way it leans forward on its right foreleg, it's clearly impatient to move. The fact that the Cid can control such a horse with one hand, while his mind is clearly on rousing his followers, emphasizes the fact that the Cid is both physically strong and commanding.
The theme of this sculpture of the Cid is: "A strong, courageous warrior encourages his troops to rush after him into battle." If the adrenalin rush of charging into battle or into a new project matters most to you, the Cid may be an inspiration. If, on the other hand, you value the sense of triumph after a job well done, you may prefer Washington at Union Square.
Most Manhattan sculptures are subject to the whim of city officials for their site (Sims, OMOM #47), to the growth of surrounding trees (Joan of Arc, OMOM #44) or to the construction of nearby buildings (Glory of Commerce, #26). The Cid is singularly fortunate: it sits in a privately owned, treeless courtyard where it's set against a blank wall. Today, on its high pedestal in the sunken courtyard, it still looks precisely as the sculptor planned it to eighty years ago.
On October 14, 1094, at the Battle of Poblet, near Valencia, a small force led by Rodrigo Diaz, known as El Cid Campeador (d. 1099), bested the previously undefeated Almoravids. Nine centuries later we recognize this as an important step in the Christian reconquest of Spain from the Moors. But looking backwards tends to make history exceedingly dull. Personal choices seem predetermined. Fortuitous events seem inevitable. (See Washington, OMOM #6.) Try for a moment to imagine instead what your situation would be if you lived in the Iberian Peninsula in the 1090s.
A millennium earlier the Peninsula was one of the most civilized and prosperous provinces of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, its prosperity and its position at the Empire's westernmost edge made it an irresistible target once the Empire began to disintegrate. By the fifth century A.D., Spain was overrun by the Vandals and Visigoths. In the eighth century came the Moors. By the late eleventh century the Peninsula was the scene of constant battles among a dozen or more Christian and Moorish rulers, linked or polarized by constantly shifting alliances.
If you were a military leader in eleventh-century Iberia, your first and most difficult goal was to stay alive. Your second was to get enough power to keep yourself and your followers safe. Death in battle was glorious. So were victory, riches and fame.
Later, it mattered whether your allies were Christians or Moors. Later, the expulsion of the Moors was proclaimed to be the goal of all good Christians. Later, Moors and Jews were forced to convert, face the Inquisition or flee Spain. But in the eleventh century, a warrior's and leader's alliances were determined by political and military expediency rather than religion. You formed alliances with anyone who could help you without becoming an immediate threat.
This is the context of the historical Cid (d. 7/10/1099), of whom the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910) says:
Should we judge the Cid by the standards of his time, or by those of the twenty-first century? Was he an amoral traitor or merely a man of his times? An objective historian would judge him both ways—while being quite explicit about which he or she was doing at a given time.
It doesn't matter which of the historical or romanticized versions of the Cid Huntington had in mind when she sculpted this statue. That would only matter if she were an illustrator, paid to present someone else's ideas. Huntington chose to show the importance of courage and leadership. In the end - and at the beginning, and in the middle - that's what a work of art should do: convey a message to the viewer about what's important about the world and those living in it.