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A Roman Lioness Devouring a Man

A Roman Lioness Devouring a Man

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Cramond lioness

In 1997, ferryman Robert Graham unearthed a sandstone sculpture from the mud of the River Almond, Cramond, Edinburgh. It turned out to be one of the most important Roman finds in decades.

Mid 2nd - early 3rd century AD

In the mud at the mouth of the River Almond, Cramond, Edinburgh in 1997 by the ferryman Robert Graham

Acquired by National Museums Scotland and City of Edinburgh Council with the aid of the Art Fund

Museum reference

Early People , Level -1, National Museum of Scotland

Did you know?

Cramond is the site of a former Roman Fort.

This imposing stone monument was discovered mired in mud at the mouth of the River Almond in Cramond, Edinburgh. You can explore the area in the map below.

Edinburgh, Cramond, Cramond Ferry

Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2021.


Administrative Areas

  • Council Edinburgh, City Of
  • Parish Edinburgh (Edinburgh, City Of)
  • Former Region Lothian
  • Former District City Of Edinburgh
  • Former County Midlothian

Archaeology Notes

(Location cited as NT 194 767). Cramond fort: erosion over the winter of 1996/1997 exposed part of a Roman sculpture lying in river silts immediately adjacent to the ferry steps on the E side of the River Avon [Almond], next to the fort [NT17NE 3.00]. It was found by the ferryman, Mr Robert Graham. Excavation and recovery were directed by Mr M Collard (for City of Edinburgh Archaeology Service) and Mr F Hunter (for the National Museums of Scotland). After consideration under the Treasure Trove legislation, the sculpture was assigned to both institutions jointly.

The sculpture, in a non-local white sandstone, 1.52m long, 0.46m wide, and 0.55m high, shows a lioness devouring her prey, a naked bearded male torso. The plinth, which had broken off, was found nearby: it showed two snakes emerging from under the lioness's body. The iconography, relating to the destructive power of death and the survival of the deceased's spirit, indicates that it came from a funerary monument.

The Cramond Lioness was first spotted by the local ferryman in late 1996, and excavated from the river bed in January 1997 by teams from the Archaeology Service of the City of Edinburgh Council and the National Museums of Scotland. It is an exceptionally fine piece of carving, and dates from the Roman period of occupation at Cramond in the 2nd and early 3rd centurues AD. The lioness, carved from a single block of sandstone, is 1.5m long, and depicts a crouching lioness with her paws on a naked man's shoulders, and his head in her mouth. On the plinth, two snakes emerge from below the lioness' belly. Pieces with a similar subject matter, of carnivores devouring prey, areccommon through the Roman empire, and are interpreted as symbolising the destructive power of death.

The piece was most probably originally part of a large tomb monument of an important Roman office, perhaps the fort commander or an important dignitary. At present, it is unknown where such a monument would have stood at Cramond. The sculpture has also drawn renewed attention to the possible existence of a Roman harbour at Cramond. Further investigation of this site is planned, particularly as active erosion is taking place and may expose further remains to damage.

The finder was granted a reward under Treasure Trove law, and on account of his prompt reporting. The sculpture is now in the joint ownership of Edinburgh City Museums and the National Museums of Scotland. Conservation (to remove salt and staining) is in hand, only the slow drying process remaining to be completed. The sculpture will be placed on display at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, in August 1998, before being moved to the (new) Museum of Scotland in November. It is hoped she may subsequently be displayed at Cramond.

M Collard 1998 [NMRS, G/98338/NC].

NT 1890 7702 An archaeological excavation was undertaken at the Cramond Ferry steps, and involved further work at the find site of the Roman statue of a lioness, discovered in 1997. Further quantities of Roman midden material were excavated from the silts associated with the Cramond lioness statue, and further information was gathered regarding the position of the River Almond's E bank during the Roman period.

Sponsor: City of Edinburgh Council.

J A Lawson and D Reed 2000.

(Location cited as NJ 190 767). Cramond fort: excavation was carried out by Mr J Lawson and Mr D Read of City of Edinburgh Archaeology Service, for City of Edinburgh Council, in advance of repairs to the foundations of ferry steps on the E bank of the River Almond, and close to the findspot of the lion sculpture. The profile of the river in Roman times was identified, and two wooden stakes were removed for radiocarbon dating. Midden material included a leather shoe, cereal grains, pottery, bone and stone fragments, the last possibly belonging to the plinth of the lioness statue. Environmental samples were taken, and sediment coring undertaken.

Six Scottish Archaeology Snakes

Serpents have slithered their way into thousands of years of Scottish history.

1) Maeshowe Graffiti

In the mid-1100s while Orkney was under Norwegian rule, Norse crusaders broke into Maeshowe (a 5,000-year-old tomb) during a snowstorm and carved around 30 runic inscriptions and a handful of sketches onto the walls, including a walrus, ‘dragon’ (or lion) and a serpent knot. They’re described as being small, “beautifully executed” and in “typically vigorous Scandinavian style”.

2) Aberlemno 2

On the reverse of the carved stone known as Aberlemno 2 as part of the Aberlemno Scultpures Stones in Angus is a battle scene long thought to depict the Blàr Dhùn Neachdain (the Battle of Dunnichen), where the Picts made one of the most decisive victories in the history of the British Isles. On the other side, you’ll find serpents and other creatures biting one another to form intricate patterns the work of a highly skilled craftsperson.

3) Cramond Lioness

In 1997, a ferryman unearthed a sandstone sculpture from a river near Edinburgh which depicts a lioness devouring a naked bearded man (now in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh). If you can tear your eyes away from this spectacle, you’ll also spot two snakes on the base. Why? It was probably a memorial for a high ranking Roman officer and they symbolise the survival of the soul by representing the good spirit of the deceased and the soul’s shedding of the body.

4) Wemyss Caves

The Wemyss Caves in Fife contain the largest collection of Pictish inscribed symbols in one place, with designs ranging from the unusual “Thor with his hammer and sacred goat” to the classic Pictish beast. In 2004, Channel 4’s Time Team investigated the Sliding (or Sloping) Cave, which was in use over 1,500 years ago, and discovered carvings which have been referred to as a “double serpent”.

5) Traprain Law

One of the world’s most infamous snakes can be found amongst the largest known hoard of Roman silver from outside the Roman Empire. The Traprain Law hoard – discovered in 1919 in East Lothian and now in the National Museum of Scotland – is made up over 250 artefacts (most of them hacked to pieces), including a wine jug with biblical decoration. As you may have guessed, it features Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with the deceptive serpent wound round a tree.

6) Culbin Sands Armring

Culbin Sands in Moray has been described as ‘one of the richest archaeological fields in Scotland.’ One of the many finds to emerge from the site is a 1,800-year-old bronze armring depicting a coiled double-headed snake, which would have been worn by a man or woman to show power and status. We know of seven similar bracelets from Scotland, with most of them coming from the north-east.

Stunning bronze bracelet, discovered 1820s in Culbin sands – read about it here: http://t.co/04p0kygr pic.twitter.com/rafAsAKu

— EKOsborneMartin (@EKOsborneMartin) August 20, 2012

If you’re feeling inspired by these finds, visit our Events & Digs page to find an activity near you.

Changing Beliefs

The example of the Shorden Brae lion makes the discovery of the Corbridge lion even more remarkable. How and why did such an important mausoleum statue come to be used as a fountain in a private residence? Violation of a tomb was a criminal offence in the Roman period, and tombs elsewhere in the Empire have inscriptions or curses warning of the consequences of such violation.

However experts believe the Corbridge lion was never actually used in a mausoleum. Due to the lack of wear, it seems likely that it was taken directly from a mason’s stock in order to adapt it into the fountain head. To our modern view, it’s an interesting choice for a fountain. Did the owners of the large house view the symbolism differently? Or was the symbolism seen as appropriate within a residential setting, not just a funerary one?

While the lion is not evidence of desecrating a funerary monument, there are other pieces from the site which are. Corbridge was occupied for around 350 years, and recycling of stone happened throughout the period, including with religious, funerary and building stones. For example in the 4th century – sometime after the Corbridge lion was turned into a fountain – tombstones were used to re-surface the Stanegate road running through the settlement. While it might seem wrong to us to reuse funerary monuments like this, the 4th century population did not seem to have the same qualms.

Roman beliefs were incredibly varied and diverse, and continued to evolve and change throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. We will probably never know the true nature of the beliefs of the wealthy residents who turned their lion into a fountain, but the sculpture survives today to remind us of the complexity and richness of Roman art, culture and religion in Corbridge Roman Town.

A Roman Lioness Devouring a Man - History

Alexander Gordon, writing in 1726, noted that ‘at Cramond, about four miles west of Edinburgh … are still to be seen vestiges of another great Roman station. Here several Roman inscriptions have been dug up, and an incredible Quantity of Roman Coins …’. The site stands on a bluff overlooking the mouth of the River Almond where it flows into the Forth. Now the estuary is heavily silted, and accessible only to pleasure craft, but in Roman times the water was deeper and quite large vessels could have berthed here. The fort probably guarded a major Roman harbour.

Aerial view of Cramond. The Roman fort stood on high ground overlooking the river, centred on the present churchyard.

Houses now cover much of the site, and Cramond Kirk stands where the fort’s headquarters building once stood. Excavations have been conducted piecemeal in many parts of the site, and fragments of the remains can still be seen today. No direct evidence has been found for a late first century fort, although coins suggest that one may have existed in the vicinity. The first known structures date to the Antonine period, and are probably to be associated with Lollius Urbicus's invasion of Scotland and the building of the Antonine Wall. In the early third century the fort was reoccupied and refurbished, no doubt to support the campaigns of Septimius Severus in 208-10.

A bath-house, of which no remains are now visible, lay outside the fort, and on the other side of the river is a large rock locally known as ‘Eagle Rock’. On it a figure, now much eroded, has been carved in a niche. It may represent Mercury, the protector of travellers.

© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

Several inscriptions have been found at Cramond. They include a stone recording unspecified building work by a century of the Second Augusta Legion’s Fourth Cohort (above), and a dedication to the godesses of the parade-ground by the First Cohort of Tungrians under a centurion of the Twentieth Valeria Victrix Legion. Another altar (right) was set up to Jupiter by the Fifth Cohort of Gauls under their prefect, Lucius Minthonius Tertullus. This unit is also attested at South Shields, another probable Roman harbour at the mouth of the Tyne. South Shields appears to have been a major stores base, and it is likely that during Severus’s invasions of Scotland the river-ports at South Shields, Cramond, and Carpow on the Tay formed links in a maritime supply chain which supported the armies campaigning in the north.

© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

In 1996 a remarkable Roman sculpture was found in the river bed at Cramond. It represents a lioness devouring a naked bearded man. Two snakes emerge from beneath the lioness’s body. These symbols represent death, and the triumph of the deceased’s spirit. The sculpture was probably part of an elaborate funerary monument.

The medieval beasts of Westminster Abbey 1

A dog that solves murders, a manticore with a lion’s body, human head and venomous tail, and Adam naming the animals – these are just some of the wonders you might find in a medieval bestiary.

Looking at Westminster Abbey’s gloriously bonkers version (dating to c. 1275-1290) of these colourful treasuries of godly and otherworldy instruction – it’s easy to see why they were popular in the Middle Ages.

More like this

Offering both devotional inspiration and literary enjoyment the Westminster Abbey bestiary is packed with the usual mixture of known species and exotic animals – including wild beasts, birds, fish, snakes and insects. But it is the mythical creatures including a triple-headed dog, a griffin devouring a man, a chimera and a rather fine dragon that grab the attention.

The text accompanying these mythical beasts, written in the customary Latin, is deeply religious and often uses the creatures as a means of moral guidance or as allegorical devices for Christian teaching.

Chimera. Westminster Abbey Library © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

A dog detecting a murderer and bringing food to a prisoner. Westminster Abbey Library © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Walrus. Westminster Abbey Library © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

The Westminster Bestiary is thought to originate in York where the scribe clearly knew well the elements that secured the bestiary its reputation as one of the most engaging forms of medieval illuminated art. The book is currently on show at the Getty Museum in LA where 100 examples, representing around a third of the world’s surviving medieval bestiaries, are being displayed.

“The bestiary’s images can be seen as the medieval equivalent of contemporary memes,” says Elizabeth Morrison, senior curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum. “They served as memorable and engaging snapshots of particular animals that went viral in medieval culture.

“The bestiary, in fact, still impacts how we talk about and characterize animals today. The very first line of the medieval bestiary introduces the lion as the king of beasts, an idea we take for granted even if most people don’t know its origin.”

However, another aim of the stories and illuminations was not to impart factual information or visual accuracy but rather to convey the wonder, variety, and hidden meaning found in the natural world.

One of the most common arrangements to be found in these medieval treasures are quadrupeds, birds, serpents and sea creatures. Then elephants, eagles, sirens, hippos and dragons – each accompanied by its own description and associated morality tale. Readers might be assailed by unicorns – or marooned on the back of vast whales masquerading as ocean islands in order to lure unwary fishermen into the watery depths.

Beehive. Westminster Abbey Library. © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Peacock and cocks. Westminster Abbey Library © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Dragon (draco). Westminster Abbey Library © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

“Many of the illuminated manuscripts produced in the European Middle Ages centred around stories from the Christian Bible,” adds Timothy Potts, Getty Museum director. “Less well known, however, are the various genres of writing and illustration that celebrate and ornament aspects of worldly life and popular belief.

“Both for their artistic inventiveness and for the insights they provide into the fertile medieval imagination these works are one of the most engaging aspects of medieval art’.

Yet, even though the medieval bestiary was never intended as a scientific work, much of its lore was eventually incorporated into the nascent field of natural history and the period of the bestiary’s greatest popularity corresponded with a movement toward the creation of encyclopaedia intended to gather together all knowledge.

Many of these included a section devoted to animals, which relied heavily on the bestiary but often stripped away the Christian symbolism. At the same time, the European conception of the world was being broadened by a growth in trade and travel that increasingly linked the West with other parts of the globe. The stories popularized through the bestiary continued to influence natural history texts and images well into the sixteenth century.

The Westminster Bestiary is one of around 60 medieval manuscripts in the Abbey’s collection, which also holds the Liber Regalis (‘Royal book’) containing ceremonial instructions for the coronation service and the Litlyngton Missal, a 14th-century service book made for the Abbey’s high altar.

Adam naming the animals. Westminster Abbey Library © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Elephant and castle. Westminster Abbey Library. © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Manticore with a human head. Westminster Abbey Library. © Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Westminster Abbey itself boasts a history stretching back more than a thousand years with the shrine of Anglo-Saxon king and saint, Edward the Confessor, at the heart of the building. Since Edward’s death in January 1066, his successor monarchs have come to the church for their coronation, and seventeen of them lie buried within its walls.

Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, runs at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, until August 18 2019.


Westminster Abbey

London, Greater London

Westminster Abbey is one of the world's great churches, with a history stretching back over a thousand years. A royal church from its first beginnings, it still has the shrine of its principal founder, the Anglo-Saxon king and saint, Edward the Confessor, at the heart of the building. Since Edward's&hellip


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The Story of Lucretia

The story begins with a drinking bet between some young men at the home of Sextus Tarquinius, a son of the king of Rome. They decide to surprise their wives to see how they behave when they are not expecting their husbands. The wife of Collatinus, Lucretia, is behaving virtuously, while the wives of the king's sons are not.

Several days later, Sextus Tarquinius goes to Collatinus' home and is given hospitality. When everyone else is asleep in the house, he goes to Lucretia's bedroom and threatens her with a sword, demanding and begging that she submit to his advances. She shows herself to be unafraid of death, and then he threatens that he will kill her and place her nude body next to the nude body of a servant, bringing shame on her family as this will imply adultery with her social inferior.

She submits, but in the morning calls her father, husband, and uncle to her, and she tells them how she has "lost her honor" and demands that they avenge her rape. Though the men try to convince her that she bears no dishonor, she disagrees and kills herself, her "punishment" for losing her honor. Brutus, her uncle, declares that they will drive the king and all his family from Rome and never have a king in Rome again. When her body is publicly displayed, it reminds many others in Rome of acts of violence by the king's family.

Her rape is thus the trigger for the Roman revolution. Her uncle and husband are leaders of the revolution and the newly-established republic. Lucretia's brother and husband are the first Roman consuls.

The legend of Lucretia—a woman who was sexually violated and therefore shamed her male kinsmen who then took revenge against the rapist and his family—was used not only in the Roman republic to represent proper womanly virtue, but was used by many writers and artists in later times.

George Stubbs

Stubbs was obsessed with the subject of a lion attacking a horse, making at least seventeen works on the theme, most of which were in oil on regularly-shaped canvas . In this enamel on copper piece, Stubbs cut off the corners to form an irregular octagon, thus tightening the composition . The result is a forceful depiction which is perhaps his most successful treatment of the theme. This is Stubbs's earliest known experiment in painting in enamel colours, and was the first time the technique - previously limited to decorative objects and miniature portraits - was used by an artist of Stubbs's stature. He may have approached the medium out of scientific curiosity, although his exact reasons are not known. Before producing this piece, Stubbs spent two years studying the chemical changes to colours under high temperatures, and a further three years improving the support upon which the painting would be made. He used a copper plate support for this work, but was dissatisfied with the size limitations, and for later enamels commissioned the Master Potter Josiah Wedgwood to produce special large ceramic tablets.

In preparation for the work, he made many studies of caged lions at the Tower of London and at Lord Shelbourne's menagerie on Hounslow Heath. Stubbs's interest in the subject is traditionally presumed to originate from a scene he reportedly witnessed in North Africa during his return by sea from Italy. This was largely disproven, however, with the reappearance of an oil painting Stubbs made of the subject, Horse Devoured by a Lion, in which the horse is pressed to the ground (Tate Gallery T02058 ). It differs from all other known versions of the work, but is strikingly similar to a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture group that Stubbs could have seen at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome in 1754.

The innovative subject proved popular and influential. It allowed Stubbs to demonstrate his virtuosity as an animal and landscape painter, while enabling him, through his reference to a classical source, to elevate animal painting to history painting . The horse's noble submission to his inevitable fate suggests the heroic, moral overtones of stoical Roman virtue.

Also in the collection of the Tate Gallery is Horse Frightened by a Lion, ?exhibited 1763 (Tate Gallery T06869 ).

Further reading:
Basil Taylor, 'George Stubbs: "The Lion and Horse" Theme', Burlington Magazine, vol.107, no.743, Feb. 1965, pp.81-6
Bruce Tattersall, Stubbs & Wedgwood: Unique Alliance between Artist and Potter, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1974, pp.62-3, reproduced
Judy Egerton, George Stubbs 1724-1806, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery 1984, reprinted 1996, pp.90-99, reproduced p.96 in colour

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Display caption

Gallery label, September 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

George Stubbs 1724–1806
Inscribed ‘Geo: Stubbs pinxit 1769’ b.r. and, on reverse, ‘No. J (7 for ‘I’)’.
Enamel on copper, octagonal, 9 9/16×11⅛ (24.3×28.2).
Purchased through the Maas Gallery with the aid of the Friends of the Tate Gallery and a special government grant (Grant-in-Aid) 1970.
Coll: Penniston Lamb, 1st Viscount Melbourne his daughter, firstly Lady Cowper, secondly Lady Palmerston her son, Lord Mount Temple remained at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire until bought 1920 by Sir George Buckston Browne and presented with Down House to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, by whom handed over in 1952 to the Royal College of Surgeons sold 1968 to Speelman sold to a private British collector, by whose executors sold through the Mass Gallery to the Tate.
Exh: Society of Artists, 1770 (135, ‘A lion devouring a horse, painted in enamel’) Whitechapel Art Gallery, February–April 1957 (51).
Lit: Joseph Mayer, Early Exhibitions of Art in Liverpool, 1876, pp. 113, 119–20 Joseph Meyer, Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs, R.A., 1879, part 3, pp. 21–2, 28–9 Sir Walter Gilbey, Life of George Stubbs, R.A., 1898, p. 45 Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain 1760–1791 the Free Society of Artists 1761–1783, 1907, p. 250 Walter Shaw Sparrow, George Stubbs and Ben Marshall, 1929, p. 24 Walter Shaw Sparrow, A Book of Sporting Painters, 1931, p. 21 Geoffrey Grigson, The Harp of Aeolus, 1947, pp. 17–19 Basil Taylor, ‘George Stubbs: “The Lion and Horse” Theme’ in Burlington Magazine, CVII, 1965, pp. 81–6 Frederick Cummings in exhibition catalogue, Romantic Art in Britain, Detroit and Philadelphia, 1968, pp. 51–3.

This picture was described by Horace Walpole in his copy of the 1770 Society of Artists catalogue as ‘Very pretty’ and is the earliest known enamel by Stubbs. Ozias Humphry, in his manuscript life of Stubbs, based on the artist's own account and now in the Liverpool Public Library, relates that ‘an octagon within a Circle of 12 Inches of a Lyon devouring a Horse was sold to Lord Melbourne for 100 Guineas being the first picture in Enamel that our author sold’ the price is the same as that noted for a similar work in the catalogue of the 1771 Society of Artists exhibition (155, ‘A horse and lion in enamel’, annotated ‘105£ with frame’—see Graves loc. cit.).

Basil Taylor, in the article listed above, has analysed the origins and development of Stubbs' treatment of the theme of a lion pursuing and attacking a horse. Reinforcement for his view that Stubbs' source was an antique sculpture rather than the supposed occasion on which he is said (by a writer in The Sporting Magazine for May 1808) to have witnessed such an encounter near Ceuta in North Africa has come from the reappearance in the saleroom of a further oil painting of the subject. This is the picture of ‘A Lion devouring a Horse’ from the collections of Horatio Miller and Sir Walter Gilbey (op. cit., p. 156 n. 17) sold by Mrs H C Leader at Sotheby's on 3 April 1968 (142, repr. 27×40 in.) and at present on loan to the Tate Gallery. In this work, unlike all the other versions of the subject including T01192 , the horse is pressed to the ground rather than on its feet, and in this respect it is particularly close to the sources suggested by Taylor, the Roman copy of a Greek original that Stubbs could have seen at the Palazzo dei Conservatori when he was in Rome in 1754 and its derivatives, especially the 18th-century version acquired by Henry Blundell of Ince-Blundell Hall, who also owned a version of Stubbs' painting (the two sculptures and a related engraving are repr. Taylor, op. cit., p. 84 figs. 39, 41 and 42). The rediscovered picture was presumably Stubbs' first treatment of the subject. It may have been exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1763 (119) as ‘A horse and a lion’, which Horace Walpole described as showing ‘The horse rising up, greatly frightened’ (see Graves, op. cit., p. 249).

The large oil painting now in the collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon (96×131 in. formerly Earl Fitzwilliam collection, see Gilbey op. cit., p. 168 no. 5 repr. Taylor, op. cit., p. 87 fig. 44) may be the work exhibited at the Society of Artists the following year, 1764 (113, ‘A Lion seizing a horse’ see James Barry's reference to this picture and its companion, ‘A lion and stag’, probably exhibited in 1766, in a letter to Dr Sleigh dateable 1765, reprinted in The Works of James Barry, 1809, I, p. 23). The horse is again brown, not white as in the pictures painted later in the decade, but the horse is shown standing, the lion supported entirely on its back. The animals bulk much larger in the design than in the first version, making the composition much more monumental. It is this version of the subject that Stubbs himself engraved, in reverse, in 1788 (repr. Basil Taylor, The Prints of George Stubbs, 1969, p. 29 no. 4).

Ozias Humphry, writing of this version, provides further evidence of Stubbs' working methods. ‘Mr. Stubbs painted also several pictures in London for the Marquiss [of Rockingham]—the most considerable of which, were two pictures the Size of Life. —one of a Lyon devouring a Stag, the other of a Lyon devouring a Horse. —The Studies for the former of these animals were made from a Lyon of Lord Shelbournes at his Villa on Hounslow Heath, by the permission of his Lordships Gardner. —The Lyon was confined in a Cage, like those at the Tower of London. —after having often viewd and considered the Lyon well, he made a design, and prepared his materials for painting the picture from Nature:- but as the posture of the animal was a given one for the purpose he wanted, it could seldom be seen in the position therefore as the progress of the picture was often suspended, it afforded our author an opportunity of making many other studies from the Lyon. Whilst he was executing these drawings many opportunities occurred of observing the disposition of this animal of the manner in particular in w ch they watch & spring upon their prey. —one day when he was making two drawings from the Lyon. the Lyon looked with surprize over his Head & suddenly stopp'd short (at the sight of a Man who just appear'd in view in a distant part of the Garden that was coming to see [what] the artist was doing) standing, with one leg up as a Dog points—while he thought the man was without the reach of his Spring, and in this posture he continued so long as to give Mr Stubbs an opportunity of making a complete outline of him w ch he had scarcely done, when the Lyon sprang fiercely towards the Man, his Breast of Body flat against the Bars of the Cage, and his Fore Claws spread and to their utmost stretch with an Intention to seize him! —and seem'd greviously enraged at the Impediment—. It was generally our author's practice when his pictures were advanc'd towards finishing to go frequently to the Tower and make his observations from time to time, w ch was always highly useful—’

The small enamel of 1769, Tate Gallery No. T01192 , shows a still further tightening up of the design, helped considerably by the cutting of the corners to make the picture an irregular octagon. What is presumably a try out for the enamel, perhaps because of the novel and unfamiliar technique, is the oil on panel , similar in size and format, in the Mellon Collection (10⅛×11⅝ in. ex Benjamin West and Sir Walter Gilbey, op. cit., p. 157 no. 20). In this as in the enamel the horse is on its feet, forming a tight cameo-like group with the lion, but, as compared with the large oil painting, Stubbs has increased the drama by making the horse white and by depicting it with its head and neck strained still further back.

In other near-contemporary treatments of the subject Stubbs developed the more spacious composition of the first version exhibited in 1763: the animals, in the same upright position as in T01192 , are set in fairly extensive landscapes . Examples, both in oil on canvas , are in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (26×38 in.: repr. Taylor, op. cit., 1965, p. 83 fig. 37) and, signed and dated 1770 and with the incident placed off-centre under a dramatic stormy sky, in the Yale University Art Gallery (40⅛×50¼ in. ex Marquis of Rockingham and Sir Walter Gilbey, op. cit., p. 157 no. 19 repr. Cummings, op. cit., p. 52). What seems to be another lost version is represented by Benjamin Green's engraving, ‘Done from an original picture in the Collection of Luke Scrafton, Esq r ’ and published on 1 September 1769 the figures are closest to those in the Melbourne picture though in reverse but the setting is completely different with an elaborate landscape and, in the foreground, a prominent tree and a large dock plant similar to that in T01192 . In the later version of this more open composition, acquired by Henry Blundell and dated by Taylor to 1790–5, Stubbs reverted to the brown horse and slightly less dramatic grouping of the animals of the large oil in the Mellon Collection, even to the extent of letting the lion's tail fly free instead of being tucked between his legs (27½×40½ in. Weld Blundell collection).

Stubbs executed companions to many of the versions of ‘A Lion devouring a Horse’ these can be identified by similarities of scale or format though they were not necessarily exhibited the same year. They usually show a horse frightened by a lion, either nearby or in the distance, though the large oil in the Mellon Collection is paired with ‘A Lion Killing a Stag’ (see Taylor, op. cit., for various examples). T01192 may have had at least two companions in enamel on copper and of the same shape with the corners cut across: ‘A Horse frightened by a Lion’, signed and dated 1770 and presumably the work exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 (155, ‘A Horse and Lion, in enamel’), now in a private collection in the USA (repr. Taylor, op. cit., p. 83 fig. 35 engraved in reverse by Stubbs 1788, repr. Taylor, op. cit., 1969, p. 27 no. 3) and ‘A Lion and snarling Lioness’, also signed and dated 1770 and apparently exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771 (153, ‘A lion and lioness’, medium not mentioned), now on loan to the Tate Gallery from Mr Pierre Jeannerat. A third work exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1771, ‘A lioness and tiger’ (154, medium not mentioned), may also have been an enamel in the same format though no example has been traced (later versions on china are recorded, one dated 1779—Gilbey, op. cit., p. 160 no. 24). The sale of Stubbs' studio, held at Peter Coxe's on 26–27 May 1807, included a ‘Tiger and Tigress, in enamel—octagon’ (1st day, 66) as well as the ‘Lion and Lioness’ mentioned above, similarly described (2nd day, 79) and a number of other enamels of similar subjects.

Arms and the man: Delacroix goes on a limb for his lions

Eugène Delacroix’s 1829 lithograph of a lion munching a rabbit looks like a stuffed animal next to the animated creatures he painted some 30 years later in Lion Hunt (1861), the signature image of “Delacroix’s Influence: The Rise of Modern Art from Cézanne to van Gogh” (on view in Mia’s Target Galleries, now through January 10, 2016).

Delacroix knew the two animals in Lion of the Atlas Mountains (1829) from dissections.

What changed? Delacroix came to believe that lions and tigers, which captivated 19th-century Romantic artists, were more than symbols of exotic adventure and uncontrolled power. Lions in particular, he decided, shared anatomical traits with humans, and he gradually expressed this notion in his paintings and prints.

Delacroix’s feline fascination was fed by visits to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, where he had permission to draw the zoo animals. Mia’s pocket sketchbook from the French sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye ( 1796-1875) , who accompanied his friend on these outings, shows the wonderful spontaneity of their life studies.

Of Delacroix’s nearly 60 tiger prints, Royal Tiger (1829) is perhaps his most renowned.

Two of Delacroix’s most celebrated prints owe their striking realism in part to those sketching trips: Lion of the Atlas Mountains (detail above), and its pendant, Royal Tiger, both from 1829 and both in Mia’s Department of Prints and Drawings. They alone are worth a trip to the Print Study Room. Each animal also reflects the vogue in 1820s France for finding outward correspondences between animals and humans—as in the Atlas lion’s nonchalant demeanor and the tiger’s pretending as if he couldn’t summon his bulk into a deadly pounce.

Around the time he was completing these masterpieces, Delacroix leaped at the chance to draw a flayed lion, a rare opportunity in 19th-century France. He had already done dissections, including a hare at around age 20. But art historian Eve Twose Kliman reports that seeing the flayed cadaver impressed upon the artist the similarities between human and lion limbs.

Gradually, Delacroix’s felines started taking on certain human characteristics. In Mia’s lithograph Lioness Clawing an Arab’s Chest (1849), for example, the lion’s muscular foreleg and bent elbow resemble a man’s. Kliman says Delacroix may have intended the lion’s sharp elbow in Mia’s Lion Devouring a Horse (1844) to look human, too.

The lithograph Lion Devouring a Horse (1844) demonstrates the ferocity and untamed spirit the Romantics loved.

By the time he painted Lion Hunt, Delacroix was exploring these affinities at full bore: The hand grasping the foreground lion’s mane looks like the paw below it, the side-by-side knees echo each other perfectly, and the lion’s right wrist affects a very human bend. There are subtler parallels, too, like the way the lioness’s tail curves into the billowing white cape of the swordsman behind her.

Antoine-Louis Barye sketched animals with Delacroix at a Paris menagerie. Barye’s sketchbook in Mia’s collection shows their cooperative subjects.

In 1861, the year Delacroix finished Lion Hunt, it appears he wanted fervently to believe that humans shared not just their limb structure with lions, but their energy as well. Art historians believe that he gained strength from simply painting these beasts. That year he wrote in his journal: “Now nothing charms me save painting and now, into the bargain, it gives me the health of a man thirty years old.” Frail nonetheless, he died two years later, at age 65.

Of Delacroix’s three late Lion Hunt paintings, many viewers find the one currently on display at Mia the most successful.

Watch the video: Man Feeds Himself To Lions Because He Thought He Was Jesus (July 2022).


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