The Lion as Symbol in Art

The lion has been a symbol in art since the origins of artistic representation have been documented (in pre-historic cave drawings to the later representation of the lion on city walls, coins, and household items such as vases and plates).  The lion in present day art realms is a symbol of strength and power[1].  The lion in more distant times was concurrent with these themes.  In order for a clear representation of the lion to be presented a look into its past dealing with art must be expounded.  Since artist draw the world around them, it must be inferred that in ancient Iran the lion was a prevalent animal and the artists of the time saw its powerful capabilities and associated that power with their own kings.  However, the lion is not a solitarily presented animal; it has other animal counter-parts such as the bull[2], the snake, the camel, the deer, etc.  In order for a precise discussion of the lion to be represented, these counterparts must also be included.

These animals are the prey for the lion.  The lion show dominance over the above-mentioned animals, and in artistic representations of this battle, the viewer may infer the artist’s intention by how the lion is depicted, but first, some history about the lion in art,

A study of the iconographies on vaes, seals, etc., from the earliest settlements of the Persian, Elamite and Mesopotamien area throughout the ages down to the Assyrian, Achaemenian and Seleucid periods, reeals a perfectly astrounding continuity of tradition in regard to a considerable part of the contellations, such as they were eventually transmitted to the Greeks.  That those uncounted reprentations of bulls, lions, scorpions and other figures, such ast he seven-headed hydra under the lion or the god with streams floating from his shoulders, are meant to be constellations, is in most cases clearly indicated by star symbols or by typical combinations and confrontations of two or more such astronomical elements, or else by other typical concomitant motifs.   (Hartner The Conquering Lion 1964, 162).

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There was a symbolic and veritable battle taking place in the heavens for each of these cultures with their constellations.  As such, the two prominent constellations were Leo and Taurus.  They were in opposition to each other even in 4000 B.C.

In the first half of February (counting according to the Gregorian Calendar), the constellations called later the “Hired Laborer” and the ‘plow’ had their heliacal rising and thereby indicated the time for Spring plowing, harrowing and sowing.  Just during this period, on February 10, the Pleiades, i.e. the leading star group of the Bull, Taurus, had their heliacal setting, i.e. were seen for the last time in the course of the year, to remain invisible (because in conjunction with the Sun) until, after 20 days, they rose again (heliacal rising), to indicate Spring equinox.  Now at the very moment of the Pleiades’ heliacal setting (February 10, 4000 B.C.), the constellation of  Leo, standing 90 degrees apart, at the Persepolis or Ur occupies exactly the zenith, the “Royal Star”, Regulus-sarru, culminating at ca. 8 degrees distance from the zenith point.  (Hartner, 163).

The significance in ancient culture of the above event was that it was interpreted as the victory of the lion over the bull.  The constellation Leo is at its apex during this time and is directly above the observer’s head and in its full spectrum of power.  It then is symbolic in this position has having killed the bull who has been escaping its equinox below the horizon to ‘hide behind the sun’s rays’.  After the lapsed time of 40 days will the constellation Taurus reappear and gain strength will the constellation Leo diminishes and set[5].  This is the classic Lion-Bull combat and can be seen in a plethora of paintings from this time to present art.  (Hartner (163).

As the Lion-Bull combat is dominant in Iranian art, especially with the lion as the victor is it imperative to juxtapose the lion with regality.  As such, one artistically representation piece that incorporates the beast is found on the cloak of Roger the second.  This cloak was created in Palermo around 528 H./A.D.  The cloak has an Arabic inscription that reads that the intention of the cloak is made for precise use for the treasury of the ‘Sicilian capital’ (Hartner 164).  Thus, the symbolic language of the cloak highlights the significance of the lion as representation of power , as Hartner states, “Indeed, the recent conquest of and rule over an Arab land, as well as Roger’s concern for the conversion of the ‘Saracens’, could not be better expressed than by the age-old motif of the lion slaying a big but weaker animal.  In this case, the latter was appropriately given in the shape of a camel” (164).

The expression of the cloak is that of triumph over conquests and glory in those triumphs.  Not only is the lion in representation of royalty but also of military prowess.  In battle with different animals (snake, gazelle, bird, as the lion has often been represented slaying) the lion is victorious.  In cultural context, the lion’s symbols remain constant.  In Islam, for instance, the Great Mosque of Amid there is an archway that is framed on either side by the Lion-Bull motif.  These figures are excellently sculpted and juxtapose each other in a mirror image.  These figures were aesthetic by design but they also had political undertones

The double scenes of the lion overcoming a bull would, according to van Berchem’s ingenious hypothesis, signify the tyrannical power exercised by the Nisanid over the Inalids; this assumption—and in particular the identification of the Inalid amir with a bull—is supported by another symbolic representation close to an inscription on the city’s Aleepo Gate of 579 …Here the conqueror of the Inalids and of Diyarbakr, the Artuqid Muhammad, represents his victory by means of the emblem of a bird of prey over a bull’s head, which would again represent the same dynasty…(but the lion)should be regarded as a symbol of secular power. (Hartner, 166).

In the early sixth and seventh centuries the lion stands out as a central motif.  The lion is a political symbol representing the power of one kingdom over another.  The lion essentially is a symbol of great power.  This is represented in the enameled dish of the Artuqid Dawud b. Sukman b. Artuq of Hisn-Kaifa[6] which has a classic lion motif.  The lion is pictured in the dish with a deer in the upper right.  There are other animals pictured on the dish as well, all quadrupeds or birds.  These animals are dominant over weaker animals (the birds of prey are more powerful that is) just as the lion overtakes the deer, so do the birds reflect this predator/prey balance.  The central figure on the dish is Alexander the Great, ‘that is the apotheosis of the archetype of world ruler” (Hartner 166), so, the dish adequately represents the power symbol in the animal kingdom with the figure of one of the greatest rulers.

The lion and the bull are prevalent in a power struggle throughout out, and the lion remains the victor of this battle.  Another prime example of this symbol can be witnessed on the gate of the citadel of Diyarbakr.  This symbol is associated with ancient Islam, as it existed in abundance in the art found in Umayyad near Jericho.  Here, there is mosaic décor that emphasizes the lion.  In the bathhouse in the palace, there is a mosaic room that is nonrepresentational and is mainly filled with geometric shapes, which was the aesthetic of the times, however, on the raised apse, where most likely the lord of the palace resided while in attendance is the mosaic scene of a lion and gazelles.

This is a very naturalistic representation and more than likely the artist rendered it in accordance to true scenes found outside the palace.  The way in which this scene is compiled is reminiscent of Byzantine or Roman art.  The lion being incorporated onto the apse was not the only representation of power, but in the placement of the lion on the chair of the power figure of the palace is where strength could also be symbolized, as Hartner states, “This is underlined by the fact that the stucco figure of a ruler on the ceremonial gateway to the bath house complex is standing on two lions so that in this milieu the ion obviously had a royal connotation.  On the other hand, there has been found at Antioch a sixth-century mosaic frieze in which, on either side of trees, a wild beast is always juxtaposed to a tame animal…renders the older concept of uncompromising rule by the paramount power” (167).

The lion as a symbol carried into other art forms as well such as the textile print based on the concepts of the lion permeated by the Sasanian era.  The silk depicts two hunters on horses with wings while in the foreground is a field of lions.  The lions are roaring in a berserk fashion.  Each rider is simultaneously holding up a lion cub.  The unique factor on the silk textile is that neither hunter holds a solitary weapon.  The figures then are representational of kings since they are surrounded with regal animals (not only the lions and cubs but also an eagle in the background) and their power can be seen in the fact that they do not have any weapons but rely on inner strength to hold the cubs.

The Sasanian era is a plethora of lions being represented in art.  Assyrians were great supporters of the idea of lions as the king of the jungle and related this fact in artistic forms of their own kings or in art pieces were they wished to connote power,

Assyrians regarded lions much like human enemies and were thus eager to have their triumphs over them faithfully rendered; the image of the royal beast was then transformed into the conqueror himself, which meant that the kings identified themselves with the lion, be it in the metaphorical language of the historical accounts or visually, in the form or a royal emblem.  In this manner, the lion was shown in the act of triumph over the mighty bull, as we see it on the Boston disc[7].  Here the symbolic character appears quite evident from the fact that the ferocious lion looms so much larger than the less vitally rendered bovine animal, as it represented the point of view of patron and artist.  Such usage explains also why this motif occurs, for instance, as a design on the embroidered tunic of the ninth-century King Assurnasirpal (Hartner 168).

The lion bull combat then is depicted as a regal power struggle with the lion being the victor.  This can be seen not only in the fact that the lion is, and has been the symbol of power but also in the way in which the battle is placed in relation to other objects (as was demonstrated on the apse and the picture of the owner atop two other lions, which showed dominance) as can be demonstrated by the great Apadana staircases.  Although the symbolism of royalty is not directed connoted with the lion, the juxtaposition of the relief can be found next to  an inscription by Xerxes which states, “of this wide, far-stretching earth” which is in reference to his celestial appointment.  (Hartner 169).

The lion was also once on the flag representing Iran with the lion in front of the sun[8] and a sword in its grip.  The Iranians then have a prominent history involving the lion which seems to be a source unto itself as a symbol of kingly strength, as Hartner infers,

At this point it is appropriate to indicate that a comparison of the Achaemenid reliefs with the earlier Assyrian version reveals that the Iranians had made great progress in perfecting the design.  While originally the symbolic situation necessitated the sharp contrast between a large, dynamic, and realistically rendered lion and a smaller, more inert and stylized bull, the actual relationship between the two animals is vague and remains artistically unresolved (169).

The lion then becomes allegory in Iranian art, not only as it has been depicted in the past but as it is being represented in modern Iran as well.  Albeit, the lion has become more realistically draw in scale with the bull, so that the dominance of this beast over the lesser and inadequately equipped for battle quadruped, is exerted as an even more astounding display of heroics, dominance and strength.  Since the smaller lion is capable of defeating the more enormous bull, the association of a king with such allegory is representation of the king, though with lesser forces, can defeat his enemy who has many.

Work Cited

Adams, Liliana Osses.  (2003).  Sumerian Harps from Ur.  (Online).  Available:

Dorfles, Gillo.  (March 1957).  Communication and Symbol in the Work of Art.  The

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  Vol. 15, No. 3.  pp.  289-297.

Hartner, Willy.  (December 31, 1964).  The Conquering Lion, the Life Cycle of a Symbol.

Oriens, Vol. 17.  pp.  161-171.

Janson, H.W. & Anthony F. Janson.  (1997).  History of Art.  Fifth Edition Revised.  Prentice

Hall, Inc., and Harry Abrams, Inc., Publishers.  New York.

[1] The epic of Gilgamesh derives from Mesopotamian culture (Adams 2003) involving a super-human man, two-thirds god and one-third human.  Thus, the theme of the lion with human qualities or humans with super-human qualities likened to animals is not strictly found in Iran.  In the translated stone tablets that exist of the story Gilgamesh is king of Uruk in Babylonia, which is located today in modern Iraq.  The story, historically, takes place approximately 2700 B.C. however; the story itself was only orally passed between audiences until being written in cuneiform in 2000 B.C..

[2] The bull did not reside in the culture of Iran alone but throughout the Middle East.  As Gilgamesh was given as an example prior, the bull is found in this story as well with Gilgamesh conquering the bull as depicted on the Lyre found in the British museum of London. This Lyre stresses the importance of music in Uruk as well as in Mesopotamia.  The pictorial representations of Gilgamesh on the lyre are very elaborate and innovative.  The image of the bull is greatly utilized in Mesopotamian art and on the Harp or Lyre of Ur at the British Museum the animalistic traits and images is no different.  The significance of the bull on the harp is that Gilgamesh slew the sacred bull at the walls of the Ishtar Temple.  The harp was then reputedly clothes in garments of gold and adorned with horns and then

Gilgamesh dedicated it to his father
[3] From 200 B.C. but Ptolemy is attributed with making a calendar as early as 150 A.D.
[4] from the 10th century.
[5] Not only is the Lion-Bull combat well-known and represented in art, but there is also the Lion-Deer combat that also has its settings with the stars, and will discussed later in the thesis.

[6] This period is between 508 and 538, and the dish being discussed is thought to have been created by a Persian-speaking craftsman who may have leaved around Iran or in Central Asia in general.
[7] The Boston disc being referenced is that found in Khorsabad which is supposedly the shield that had belonged to the Assyrian King Sargon the second.
[8] The sun is a symbol of eternal life, as is the lion.  The sun represents fertility since in agrarian culture it made plants grow.  The sun is a duality just as much as the lion is one because while the sun is impressive in its scope of aiding in growth it can also be deadly as in times of draught.

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