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The Lion King, Part 3

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

Let's look at some less-well-known uses of lions in medieval art, including art from outside the Christian tradition.

Sanctuary Knocker, early 13th century, Essex, British Museum

Sanctuary knockers appear in the Middle Ages, but what privileges they signified varied according to local laws. In England, a person fleeing certain secular crimes could seek protection from the church if he (usually "he") managed to grasp the ring of the church's exterior door. The lion as the holder of the ring became a common design, but I haven't found a lot of research on the importance of the lion as a symbol with the ring itself. Perhaps it is a gesture to the Church as protector, as shown in some of the exterior lions on church architecture at the beginning of this post. The ring is put forward as an extension of the sanctuary space (around the altar) inside the church.

Sanctuary knocker, Sant'Ambrogio, Milan

These knocker/door pulls at the entrance of the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio are in an enclosure for the monastery. A person seeking political sanctuary would have to gain access through the outer gates and traverse the controlled space of the enclosure before reaching the door. I haven't been able to decipher Greek in the inscriptions. I can only make out "Irae" on the top-left of the right-hand circular band. On its own, it would translate as "Day of Wrath" (I think), but if "Deus" precedes it (as opposed to "Dies," for "days"), it would be "Wrath of God." "Dies Irae" was a hymn sung on many occasions in the medieval Church, as a plea for mercy on Judgment Day. In either case, the lions, the ring, and the door itself create a space where a petitioner can beg for the protection of the church. The lion would be representing the Church (or God) as a protector to aid the sinner and ward off danger or punishment.

Chancel Screen, 12th century, Duomo San Cristoforo, Barga

Lions can mark boundaries within the church for members with varying degrees of privilege and access. This lion, essentially an etching filled in with black paint, marks the boundary between the nave and the chancel in Barga's romanesque cathedral. Images of lions in many churches seem to be used to designate areas for the clergy. Priests and monks may be seated or perform services beyond this point.

Bench end, circa 13th century, Conques Cathedral

Similarly, this much-damaged wooden lion bench-end marked the end of a choir stall in Conques cathedral. In this position, it acts as the warning that only clergy can occupy the stalls.

Stone bench-end, late 12th c., Church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura, Rome

Here is another bench-end in the sanctuary of an early Roman church, which under went a major remodeling in the 12th century. It fulfills a similar function as the one in Conques, marking a boundary and signaling a space reserved for officiants and other celebrants of the mass.

Cloister Capital, 12th c., Saint Peter's Cathedral, Moissac

The theme of Daniel in the Lions' Den was very common in medieval cloisters, where the monks could walk while saying their prayers. During the romanesque period, cloister capitals frequently referenced Biblical stories about temptation and/or deliverance. In representing the Daniel story, carvers usually depicted the point of the story where the lions have been tamed. Daniel typically is shown seated between two, where they flank him as protectors. This is similar to the lions which devour threatening people (as discussed in Part 2), where they flank the entrance to the church doors. Daniel himself appears seated, much like an enthroned monarch (as seen in Part 1).

Cloister Capital, Monreale Cathedral, circa 1200, Sicily

This capital carving of Daniel and his lions is, to my mind, delightfully ambiguous. It is thought to be the work of Muslim sculptors. Where the convention for the scene is the safety of the prophet, here the lions seem more ferocious and literally at his throat. The repetition of the strong, striped lines of teeth, front paws, and feet help underscore how nearly-perfectly symmetrical the composition is. Monks were cautioned to be on guard for temptations and traps, even within the monastery, such that the very place of sanctuary may be where could meet with one's spiritual downfall.

Sculpted pedestal, 12th c., Church of Saint Trophime, Arles

The pilgrimage church of Saint Trophime (formerly a cathedral), has a distinctive western portal program of Judgment Day, which goes into loving detail connecting Old Testament events to the Second Coming. Beneath bas reliefs showing sinners being dragged to Hell, and one of the dead beseeching Christ and angels to lift his soul up to redemption, we find this carving of Daniel and his supporting lions. His pose and position here could suggest that, as a prophet, he is watching the unfolding of his revelation, but it could also, in its position nearer the audience, be demonstrating how those in fidelity to God are safe from harm and damnation.

Bas Relief Carving, Orthodox Baptistry, late 5th c., Ravenna

Much less sophisticated, but no less charming, is this piece between the squinches of the dome of the Baptistry of Neon, in Ravenna. Its placement, with a figure in a Phrygian cap (symbolizing the East, and thereby, in all likelihood, the land of the Jewish prophets), shows him with his arms in a gesture of prayer, between two adorably expressive lions. These lions may be here to show how the figure's blessedness defends him from their harm, or they may be shown as symbols of the Church who are under his control to defend him from other threats. This is possibly a Daniel figure, but it could credibly be a Samson or David figure. There are other figures in the room which are shown to be prophets or apostles, and they are represented in togas, like Roman senators or philosophers, not this short tunic and cape. In any case, this scene contributes to the ideas embodied in baptism: divine protection.

Romanesque Capital, Northern Spain, last quarter of 12th c., Metropolitan Museum of New York

Sending a somewhat different message are church sculptures showing a figure wrestling with a lion. This capital is thought to be showing Samson (with his famously unshorn hair). The symbolism is similar to the stories from the Classical Era of Hercules, and of Aristotle's cardinal virtue of fortitude. The lion is the animal nature within one, which must be overcome by one's spiritual strength. Monasteries would circulate texts which contained these ideas, and, as with the Daniel story, these would be useful in warning them to control temptations to sin within themselves.

Tomb Effigy in Gothic Chapel, late 13th c., Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Medieval nobility had uses for lions within churches. Tomb effigies would convey status with lion imagery in heraldry, but also as a way to affirm veteran status, particularly after the Crusades. In this photo from the Met Cloisters, you can see the lion at the feet of the effigy of a knight. The knight was of minor nobility, but the lion distinguishes his family for their service to the Church. In the photo, you can see how such an effigy creates a theatrical presentation of the knight's importance as a Christian soldier. This would, in its original chapel, have communicated his importance to other privileged members of the community (who would have access to chapels that were often of restricted access to the general public), preserve his memory (through his likeness and symbols of his service) for the family, and argue on Judgment Day his record upon his rising in the crypt below.

Effigy of Sir Richard Pembridge, circa 1375, Hereford Cathedral

Sir Richard's effigy is prominently displayed in the nave of Hereford Cathedral. He is in full armor, hands clasped in prayer, and he appears to be turned toward the light of the windows. The lion at his feet is not particularly realistic (hardly unusual), but its elaborately curling coat suggests that it is a lion and not a dog, which befits a noble who served in war. Effigies of women and men who were not knights typically had dogs at their feet, suggesting devotion to husband, king, or God (or all three).

Effigy lion of male member of the De Lucy Family, circa 1340, Kent, Victoria and Albert Museum

This lion, more in line with the medieval conventions of how to depict them than the one in Hereford, is a remnant of a tomb broken into pieces (perhaps during the Reformation). The face of the knight is lost to obliteration, but what is striking to me is how the lion is shown lovingly gazing up at the knight whose feet rest on his back, like a loving companion. This strikes me as a personalizing touch.

Lion head on public fountain, circa early 13th century, Pitigliano

Many public water fountains survive from the Middle Ages in France and Italy. Usually, they have a lion's head as either the spigot, or just above it. This tradition probably dates back to imperial Rome, where the fountains were managed by the state. The lion would represent the beneficence of the imperium. In the Middle Ages, the image might be adopted by the bishop or nobility who controlled a town. The protective symbolism carries over from the noble and religious uses.

Aquamanile, circa 1200, Germany, Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

Lions were frequently used as forms for another conveyance of water--the aquamanile. This is a ewer for hand-washing. It could have been for religious ritual or elite household use. The handle is an elongated form of a bird (possibly a peacock, but given its attacking position, possibly an eagle) latching onto the lion's back. The mane, forelegs, brow, eyes, and muzzle are highly ornamented.

Romanesque Sculpture, 11th century, Girona

Perhaps the most mystifying to me of medieval lions in art is the lioness of Girona. It's outside the town's cathedral, but in the square. It's probably not religious in sponsorship or meaning, but I have no proof of that. There are numerous legends, but I can't find any scholarly takes on it. It is quite uncharacteristic of the usage and depictions of medieval lions, in that it is clearly afraid and in retreat. Somehow, it is the city's mascot, with even a declaration of allegiance to the city to kiss the lion's bottom. I'm also a bit perplexed as to how it's been deemed a lioness, since it has a mane, and most lion depictions do not include genital confirmation.

Gold statuette, 11th c., Cordoba, Minneapolis Museum of the Arts

The lioness of Girona gives me the occasion to move into Spanish medieval art using lions. My examples here are of Muslim origin in creation and usage. This golden lion statue displays the finest gold-smithing available at that time. There's some debate over its purpose. It's tiny (4.75 x 4 inches) and delicate, and thereby clearly meant to be mainly ornamental. The pedestal-like topping on its handle suggests to me that it might have been an incense burner. This piece, though small, symbolized the apex of sophistication and opulence of the caliphate at Cordoba.

Below is a shot of the entire statue:

Casket of Leyre, early 11th century, Museum of Navarra, Pamplona

Carved ivory boxes were another luxury item demonstrating great wealth, taste, and prestige. This photo shows a detail from the Casket of Leyre, a gift to general Abd al-Malik al-Muzaffar from caliph Hisham II for winning a battle which secured his rule. This medallion portrays a hunter fighting off two lions. The shield reads, "In the name of God, God be blessed, felicity and prosperity." The box is signed by the artist, Faraj. The hunter fighting off lions was a popular theme in arts for courts both Islamic and Christian. Because of the high quality and preciousness of the object, when it found its way to a convent in northern Spain (perhaps as the dowry from a nun's wealthy family), it eventually became a reliquary. Lions in this instance connote the heroic nature of the Abd al-Malik, and how courtiers in general viewed themselves as brave and special. Lions would be a worthwhile opponent for a lion among men.

Marble Fountain, 11th century, Patio of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada

There was no higher place of status in medieval Spain than the Patio of the Lions in the Alhambra. I have written about it at greater length in a previous post. These lions have a poem on the basin where they speak of their devotion to the caliph, and their threat to attack visitors with bad intentions. Though each is slightly different in some ornamental features, they are uniformly ramrod-straight in their presentation, like an army of attendants. As with medieval Christian art discussed above, they are simultaneously ferocious and tamed for the authorities of the building. They represent nobility, bravery, protection, and threat. They may have once been made for the garden of a Jewish vizier of an earlier caliph. If this is so, then these lions are, like those in the casket of Leyre, a sign of a successful general and valued courtier.

This list of lions in medieval art is by no means exhaustive, but my hope is that it gives you enough examples that in your travels (both in armchair and in medieval spaces) for you to notice and recognize what these creatures are being used to say to their audience.

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