The Lion in Romanesque Art, Meaning or Decoration?

  • Morten Stige


Even in Scandinavia, the lion is the most common predator in Romanesque church decoration. It is found in sculpture and mural paintings as well as in holy books, on church textiles and metalwork. This article discusses the symbolic meaning of all these lions and addresses the question of whether they can be attributed meaning or if they are to be considered simple decoration. Based on the Bible, the Bestiaries and a small selection of other written sources, the literary meaning of the lion in medieval culture is investigated. A wide spectrum of qualities is disclosed. Most are positive or even God-like, but there are also sources referring to the lion as a symbol of evil. This seemingly double character has been used as an argument against ascribing meaning to the image of the lion when outside an unambiguous context. The basis for all interpretations is the natural characteristics of the lion: strength, courage, stately appearance and noble character. From these, as well as some mythic characteristics a wide variety of roles for the lion have developed. 12 distinct roles can be clearly identified from the written sources and the Romanesque pictorial tradition. Nine of them are undoubtedly positive from a Christian point of view, while two are ambiguous and only the satanic lions are clearly negative. The potential meaning of the 18 lions or lion-like sculptures at Værnes church (1120-1160) is discussed. They are all placed close to external portals or other openings or at the end of roof beams in the interior. These all belong to the liminal zones of the church building. This gives them a general role as guardian lions, even if some of them also play other roles or lack attributes which makes them easy to interpret individually. Even if distinct roles can be identified, many of the sculpted or painted lions represent several roles at the same time. Some lions are also placed in ornamental contexts where there is good reason to argue that their main purpose is decorative. That does not mean that these lions did not also convey meaning to the medieval recipient. The idea of an unambiguous answer to the riddle of traditional iconography is just too narrow to fathom the many aspects of the lion. This article argues that even when aggressive, the lion is normally in the service of God, punishing the sinner. This as well as the constancy of the lion as symbol of strength, speaks for a general significance of the lion for the medieval viewer.
elo 17, 2016
Stige, M. (2016). The Lion in Romanesque Art, Meaning or Decoration?. Tahiti, 6(4). Noudettu osoitteesta