War and battle have always had a place in art, says Jacqueline Thalmann, curator of Christ Church Picture Gallery, from cave paintings to current conflicts. Over the centuries rulers made sure their military encounters were glorified visually, choosing not only their own but also historical and mythological battles.

The 34 drawings in The Firing Line all come from the collection of Gen John Guise (1682-1765), the gallery’s main benefactor. Guise combined his profession as a soldier with a passion for Old Master drawings. Can we assume he had a special interest in military scenes? This is difficult to verify, says Jacqueline. Viewers must decide if his fascination with war comes across in these 16th- and 17th- century works from the collection.

They range from exploratory studies of details to finished presentation drawings made for patrons. Studies include Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Designs for a Cross Bow, and Lombard artist Giovanni Ambrogio Figino’s designs for a warrior on a rearing horse, a sheet that allows us to follow the artist searching for the form that will please him.

Among the finished works, a series of ten drawings by the Italian artist Niccolò Circignani offers insights into the compositions made for the wall decorations of the Palazzo della Corgna in Castiglione del Lago (Umbria). The frescos, painted in 1574, can be seen there today.

A monumental composition hangs outside the drawings gallery. It is a drawing of the Battle between the Greeks and the Amazons, after Sir Peter Paul Rubens, and an extraordinary mass of swirling bodies engaged in combat, designed to fill us with awe. It has an amazing energy. A smaller work in Rubens’s own hand of Mars, the god of war (pictured), has power, too, if less movement.

War and battle scenes may not be to everyone’s taste, but the soldiers, horses, centaurs, helmeted heads and fearful faces, struggles and strategies we see here make an outstanding exhibition. Open until August 29.