If you're looking at prestige art and architecture, it's likely that you're going to find lions in its decoration. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more (far more) depictions of lions in art than there are living lions. Medieval lions in art often bear little resemblance to actual lions, or even cats. While the fact that European artists had scant opportunity to see a living lion is certainly at the heart of this, I think it's also important to take into consideration that what lions represented was much more important to these artists than verisimilitude.
In the first part of this topic, I'll cover mostly eastern Mediterranean representations of lions in art, to lay the groundwork for understanding the long traditions and uses of lions in pre- and non-Christian cultures. Part two will focus on how these representations are appropriated and repurposed for medieval Christian art.
Ereshkigal, the Babylonian Queen of Night. (circa 19th c. BC, British Museum)
You might be forgiven for not noticing the lions first-off in this bas relief, but it does offer evidence of lions going way-back in their association with deities and nobility. In this artwork, the owls, the goddess' wings, and her raptor-like feet associate Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld, with dominion of the skies as well (apparently the night skies, since owls are nocturnal predators, primarily). But her steer-horn crown and the lions' backs she stands upon connote dominion over earth. The carving is not aiming for realism in depicting the female figure or the creatures, but owls really do have long legs like that, if you can find an ornithologist who has the rapport with the bird to show you. Their unusual standing posture echoes that of the goddess in the scene. The lions here seem to be quite stylized in their manes and the fanciful tufted tails which are curled over their forelegs (they might look like flowers upon first glance). Mesopotamian culture did know real lions, though, and this depiction is not far off the look of the real thing. The recumbent lions are the occasion for the deity to assert her power--she stands upon the apex predators.
Lion Attacking Bull, Throne room of Darius at Persepolis, 5th c. BC, British Museum
It's abundantly demonstrable that stylized ancient art is not "primitive" for deviating from literal representation. The lion in this piece has all the key elements which say "lion"--mane, massive paws, triangular ears and heart-shaped face. In this instance the style of the portrayal emphasizes his musculature: he almost looks armored, as does the bull. In the throne-room, the lion is symbolic of the king, and the bull is thought to be representing challengers to his rule. The throne room is "speaking" in metaphors of dominance.
Lion from the "Ishtar Gate" of Nebuchadnezzar II's throne room, 7th century BC, British Museum (on loan from Berlin Museum
In this seventh century BC piece, you see one of several lions which form processional lines of protection for the monarch. In this sense, the lion performs an apotropaic function, but may also represent the legions of fighters positioned to serve the king.
Lion confronting Siren, Etruscan funerary urn, 5th century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art
On the north side of the Mediterranean, lions are, among other things, guardians on grave goods. Here we see two lions flanking a male figure, possibly representing the decedent. They are prepared to protect the man from threats in the afterlife. The sphynx, however, may be another character who aids the dead in crossing to the underworld, rather than a threat.
Hercules fights the Nemean Lion, Ancient Greece, 6th century BCE, Getty Villa Museum
Lions are also represented in narratives of bravery and endurance. Here, Hercules is engaged in one of his twelve labors: killing the Nemean lion, which cannot be killed by using any weapon. So, Hercules wrestles and strangles him with his bare hands. This is a trope which shows up frequently for centuries all over the Mediterranean: Christianity will pick up this image and use it to represent Samson, for example. Many centuries later, the image of Hercules and the lion figures in tarot card representations of Strength, where one has to wrestle with one's internal drives to gain the upper-hand.
Cybele Chariot, 2nd Century AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Even two thousand years on from Mesopotamia, lions in service to deities (like the Ereshkigal relief which began this post) remains an idea which communicates majesty. This Roman statuary group is likely a miniature of a processional item used in celebrations of the goddess Cybele, perhaps celebrating planting in the spring. It was a decorative component of a fountain. Cybele is also, like Ereshkigal, a manifestation of the Mistress of Animals. To have lions as tamed beasts of burden is to put the one holding the reins at the top of the Chain of Being, where they were seen as the king of animals.
Silk Textile of Man Wrestling Lion, Syrian, 9th century AD, Victoria and Albert Museum
This woven piece from Muslim Syria was ambiguous enough in subject to be sold throughout the Mediterranean as either an image of Hercules, or for Christian merchants, of Samson or David. It's damaged, so it's hard to tell how realistic the lion's head would be, but the rampant position echoes back through the Roman imagery and will project forward to medieval heraldry.
To summarize: lions in pre-Christian art may be more realistic because the artists' sources were in greater proximity to actual lions, but they could still be more stylized because they were altered to emphasize particular symbolic concepts, such as strength, dominance, or grandeur. Symbolic meaning was much more important than realism in prestige art. Lions would be used to express the great power of a divinity, to the point that lions become nearly synonymous with divinity or royalty. In other instances, they serve an apotropaic or guardian purpose, especially in rooms where a monarch may be entreated or threatened, and in funerary spaces, to protect the dead from robbers or dangers in the afterlife. A further purpose may be to represent challenges to the self, circumstances in which one must combat adversaries actual or metaphysical.
In the next post, I'll show how medieval uses of lions continued with these symbolic uses of lions, and the new applications artists made.