The Twitter community of medieval historians have a recurring thread called #notalion. I ventured a humble contribution myself after our jaunt to Lisbon last year, but today I have come across a horde (herd, pack, pride) of not-quite-lions, all conveniently close together in and around the duomo of Modena, where we are spending a few days before moving on to La Serenissima. (It’s a tough job, being rude about the Biennale, but somebody has to do it.)
I was a bit surprised at the alacrity with which Him Indoors took up the idea that we should visit Modena. Feel free to smirk at my ignorance, petrolheads, but I was completely unaware that one of Modena’s claims to fame (apart from pigs’ trotters, balsamic vinegar, Mary of Modena (1658–1718: aka Maria Beatrice d’Este), wife of James II, and Luciano Pavarotti, not necessarily in that order) is as the birthplace of Enzo Ferrari. There is a birthplace museum, and (God help us) a factory …
In the mean time I have been intrigued by the remarkable iconography of the cathedral of San Geminiano, bishop and patron of Modena. There are not-quite-lions everywhere: at all the external doors; inside at the entrance to the crypt; as finials on the banisters up to the higher level; in the carvings of door jambs and lintels; as column capitals; and on the roof.
The question of lions in European art – what species is depicted, and whether these beasts were in any sense natives, as opposed to representations of more exotic animals – goes back a long way. Think of the Lion Gate of Mycenae, c. 1500 BCE (not, as often thought, discovered by Schliemann, but mentioned by authors from Pausanias in the second century CE to the Venetian Francesco Grimani in 1700); or the inlaid dagger showing a lion hunt from one of the shaft graves at Mycenae, from roughly the same period.
Whether the lions on the gate, standing proudly on either side of a Minoan-style pillar, are male or female is a continuing subject of debate. The lions on the dagger are similarly undifferentiated. They do have manes, which would suggest males – though not however male African lions (Panthera leo), whose manes appear as a sort of wide frill round the face.
It has been suggested that these early depictions are of Asiatic lions (Panthera leo persica), once widespread from Turkey (and perhaps further west?) to India, but now clinging on only in one forested area of northern India. The Asiatic lion has a shorter, sparser mane than the African, which means that its ears are usually visible, as is the case both on the Mycenaean dagger and many medieval depictions.
It’s not clear if the latter (to say nothing of the many heraldic images) derive from travellers’ accounts or from the still visible remains of Roman sculpture in Italy and elsewhere: this lion, in the Roman Lapidary Museum at Modena, is from the first century CE.
As a Christian symbol, the lion – the most powerful of animals, king of the beasts – is an appropriate metaphor for God (see the Lion of Judah in the Old Testament), though it also serves as the symbol for an unstoppable destructive force. And of course, when the kingdom of God arrives, the lion shall lie down with the calf and no harm will come to the latter – though many of the beasts in the paws of the Modena lions don’t appear to be in this happy state.