Lions weren’t uncommon in southern Europe until their local extinction in about 100 CE, and even then they lived on in North Africa and the Middle East. As a result, they appear in literary sources from classical times, and posed European painters a problem: how to depict an animal that the artist had never seen. This article considers the reading of lions in paintings, and how well painters could imagine them.
Lions appear in some classical myths, of which the most extensive is that of the running race between Hippomenes and Atalanta. After their contest, the couple were so impatient to marry that they made love in an old shrine. The deities on Olympus weren’t amused, and as punishment they were turned into a lion and lioness to tow Cybele’s chariot. Antoine-François Callet’s magnificent Spring, or Zephyr and Flora Crowning Cybele (1780-81), now adorning the ceiling of the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, shows the couple drawing Cybele.
Lions were most notorious during the Roman Empire for providing horrific ‘entertainment’ when let loose on persecuted minorities like early Christians. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1863-83) is one of many paintings he made of this theme.
We are in Rome’s Circus Maximus, with the Palatine Hill in the background. The sand in the arena is rutted with the tracks from earlier chariot races. There are nine crucifixes planted at regular intervals around the periphery of the arena; on each, a Christian has been coated with pitch and set alight. Towards the right, a group of forty to fifty Christian men, women and children are kneeling on the ground, listening to and praying with an elder, who is standing and talking as he looks up to the heavens. To the left, a trapdoor in the arena floor is open and a succession of wild animals are emerging from it into the arena. A large lion is first out and is already heading for the group of people. Although the artist had the benefit of zoo specimens, this lion looks quite unnatural.
Towards the end of his career, in about 1902, Gérôme told the revived story of Androcles and the lion. Androcles was a slave in Rome, who ran away from his mean master. While hiding in the woods he ran short of food and grew weak. One night a lion came into the cave in which he was sheltering, roared, and scared Androcles, who thought he was about to be eaten.
But it was clear that the lion had a very painful foot; eventually Androcles plucked up the courage to look at the foot, from which he extracted a large thorn (or splinter of wood). The lion was overjoyed and amiable, and the two became firm friends, with the lion bringing Androcles food to recover his strength.
One day, passing soldiers found Androcles and returned him to Rome, where the law prescribed that runaway slaves were to be put in the arena with a hungry lion. When the time came for Androcles to be put in the arena, his lion was released and turned out to be the same beast who Androcles had been so friendly with; instead of the lion killing Androcles, he showed his friendship. When the slave explained how this came about, he was made a free man, and took the lion as his pet.
Lions also feature in some Biblical stories, the first of which was also painted by Gérôme.
Around 1895, he painted a series of eight works in grisaille telling stories from the Bible. One of the few survivors from these is The Disobedient Prophet, relating an obscure story from the first book of Kings (chapter 13) in the Old Testament. Following Jeroboam’s idolatry at Bethel, God commanded that no one should eat bread or drink water there, and must not return by the way that they came. When a prophet disobeyed God’s command, he was given to a lion, which killed him and left his body on the road, with his donkey unharmed beside him, as shown here.
As a specialist animal painter, Briton Rivière’s few religious paintings mostly refer to stories involving animals, of which Daniel’s Answer to the King (1890) is a good example. This is based on the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, told in the book of Daniel, Chapter 6.
By this time, Daniel was quite an old man, probably into his eighties, and serving the mighty Darius the Mede. The ruler was tricked by Daniel’s rivals into issuing a decree that, for a month, all prayers should be addressed to Darius rather than any god. Anyone who broke that law was to be thrown to their death by lions. Daniel continued to pray faithfully to the God of Israel, forcing Darius to have him cast into a pit of lions. When the ruler visited Daniel there at dawn, he asked him whether his life had been saved by God. Daniel’s answer to the king was that God had sent an angel to close the jaws of the lions because he had been found blameless before God.
Rivière must have used lions in the zoo at Regent’s Park in London as his models.
Masaccio had no zoo to go to, and when he painted St Jerome and St John the Baptist in 1428 (as one of his last works), he was unable to gauge the lion’s size accurately. His panel shows Saint Jerome, dressed in a cardinal’s scarlet robes and hat on the left, with his signature lion at his feet, and Saint John the Baptist, looking rugged on the right.
Lions also appeared in menageries, such as that shown in Maerten de Vos’s Temptation of Saint Anthony from 1591-4. In addition to portmanteau creatures inspired by the paintings of Bosch, there are two lions in the centre foreground, based on contemporary prints rather than observation from life.
Although the zoo in Buen Retiro Park, Madrid, is considered to be the second oldest in Europe, and was opened in 1770, Francisco Goya clearly didn’t see a lion there before painting one in 1817.
That year he was commissioned by the council of the cathedral in Seville to paint its patrons, Saints Justa and Rufina for the altar of the Sacristy of the Calices in the cathedral. These two saints were potters who were martyred for refusing to worship an image of Venus, and are shown holding their work and looking up to the heavenly light. At their feet is a broken statue of Venus, and a rather strange lion licking the injured foot of Saint Rufina, who had been forced to walk from the mountains to the city of Seville.
A lion features prominently in the story of the Redcrosse Knight in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. When Una is searching for the Redcrosse Knight, she enters a dark wood, where a fierce lion emerges and charges at her, its mouth agape. It stops short of her, its ferocity overcome by her beauty, and it meekly licks her hands. The lion then attaches itself as her constant companion as she continues her search.
Although George Stubbs is known for his paintings of horses, he perhaps needed better information about lions for his Portrait of Isabella Saltonstall as Una (c 1765-75).
William Bell Scott did his research more thoroughly, for this wonderful portrait of Una and the Lion from about 1860.
Briton Rivière’s undated Una and the Lion also appears lifelike, and makes the interesting contrast with a lamb.
Lions appear in the occasional fable, including one of those painted by the specialist Jean-Baptiste Oudry.
Oudry’s The Lion and the Spider (The Lion and the Fly) from 1732 shows a fable that doesn’t appear in those collected by La Fontaine, although it’s included in some more modern collections of Aesop’s Fables. A gnat or fly was buzzing around the head of a lion, who became annoyed as a result. When the gnat stung the lion several times, the lion tried unsuccessfully to kill it, upsetting the lion further. Defiantly, the gnat told the lion that he wasn’t scared of him, and flew off to broadcast his success, straight into a spider’s web, where he was eaten by the spider.
Inevitably, lions have strong symbolic associations.
In Benjamin West’s Omnia Vincit Amor or The Power of Love in the Three Elements from 1809, the lion is a symbol for the element earth.
Venus is at the left, as the goddess of Love, with her son, the winged cherub Cupid, complete with his bow and quiver of arrows. Standing near-naked with a burning torch in his left hand is Hymen, the young god of marriage, who holds three red leashes attached to symbols of three of the four elements of the classical world. The eagle stands for the element of air, a horse-like hippocampus for that of water, and a lion for earth.
William Dyce’s Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847) is an impressive fresco, still in pristine condition on the wall above a staircase in Queen Victoria’s seaside palace of Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight.
Neptune stands astride his three white seahorses (with fish tails), holding their reins in his right hand, and passing his crown with the left. The crown is just about to be transferred by Mercury (with wings on his cap) to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand. Neptune is supported by his entourage in the sea, including the statutory brace of nudes and conch-blowers. At the right, Britannia’s entourage is more serious in intent, and includes the lion of England, and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation.
Even lions grow old, though.
Georges Rochegrosse’s undated Orientalist fantasy of The Slave and the Lion is set in one of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. A nearly naked woman slave is seen fanning a lion which is asleep on the carpet, in front of a huge divan occupied by her bearded master. Another woman, elaborately dressed, looks on from her seat on the edge of the divan.
Now that’s a lion I can identify with.