Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Archaic Lion from Miletos

What makes Miletos special?

Berlin StMus 1790 Length 1.76m.  Dated mid-6th century
In one of his earlier World of Art volumes, on Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period (1978), John Boardman put Architectural Sculpture, then Reliefs, and last of all Animals and Monsters at the end of the book.  The lions, separately rendered, are usually guardians, whether of tombs or of sanctuaries.   Boardman says, "apparently one of a pair", because exhibited right beside this one is the more battered rear one-third of another just like this one.
The Archaic lion from Miletos is very large for a grave, perhaps, and unique in all respects, I think.  When my old cat comes in muddy to the skin and half exhausted from ill advised fighting, he settles on his rug after only a bite or two and a sip of water and rests for hours, mostly asleep.  That is what big cats, males, do in the savannahs, on all those nature shows of television.
Face of Lion from Miletos
Why are all the lions from Egypt, beautiful as they are, so much less like real cats than this one?
Consider Tutankhamen's in the British Museum.  Consider the Corinthian lions in Boston and Copenhagen, figs. 207 and 208, in Boardman's GrSc: Archaic, a little earlier than the Miletos one and (for the reclining one) only one meter long, which Humfry Payne dated in Necorcorinthia (1931),  studying comparatively large sculpture together with metalwork and, of course, Corinthian black figure vases.  They are very Greek themselves, but almost as hieratic as Egyptian ones.  It is not that the Miletos lion is very realistic (but neither is the Late Classical one, which merely incorporates what Greek art had learned about nature in a couple of centuries and then stylizes the anger, as Pergamene sculpture will, and uses the formula for a lion's mane that is standard, too.
Berlin St Mus Late Classical lion from Attica, dated c. 330 BCE
This Late Classical lion surely, I think, guarded a tomb, though I can't say in the Kerameikos, because Athens is not the only town with a cemetery or, for that matter, the only city or town in Attica.  But there are many guardian lions in Greek art, from this time onwards, of basically this lion type, not least the Macedonian ones but also those from Magnesia in the Louvre.  I only found this image first.  They are no longer like the Egyptian lions that inspired the Greek use of lions as guardians, but Greek art had settled on a stereotype, which this fine one, tensed to strike with his right paw, exemplifies.

The Miletos lion is wonderfully abstracted in the planes of his flesh and skin over his skeleton.  His face is both still and watchful, very cat-like in this respect.  Everything about him bespeaks a great sculptor doing something new and unique, feline and human.  You can tell: I really love the Miletos lion.  So I give him to you here.

The Egyptian museum at Turin in northern Italy has a lion that I'd like to ask you all about, especially if you know that museum.  It had no label, but I knew nothing just like it.  I don't know where it was found in Egypt (but the museum is old, so it is not a recent find).  I am sure that it is post-Saitic, but whether it is Ptolemaic in date (as I doubt), or Roman Empire, or Late Roman Empire (as I suspect), I do not know.  Perhaps a reader of this blog can tell me.  I didn't have time in Turin to buy a book about the collection.
Turin, Egyptian Museum.  Lion, waiting for a date and other data.
Now, is that cute, or what?  Not stereotyped, either, though in exactly one of the poses and perfectly four-sided form that are age-old in Egypt.  It is not a masterpiece, not utterly unique like the Miletos lion, but it certainly isn't despicable.  I wish Turin would make greeting cards of him!

As for Ionian art, Berlin is one place to go for that.  They have one of the maidens dedicated to Hera by Cheramyes (the Louvre has the one known the longest, about which unutterably silly characterizations used to be written).  It is worth learning German well if only to read the publications on the kouroi discovered in the last several decades.  Great kouroi, and quite different from the Athenian ones, though the Athens Kerameikos cemetery is also a German Archaeological Institute excavation.  I can't put up images saved only for study of any of that material, but I do urge everyone to go to Berlin and Samos and to the Athens Kerameikos Museum (if only austerity doesn't mean closing museums that don't have any gold masks and the like).  A whole Greek world, complementary to what you probably have been taught from textbooks, awaits you there.
I can give you, though, a little kouros head hollow cast in bronze, about 2/3 life size as I recall, which I photographed through glass a decade ago.  You see how lovely and how unlike the more rugged art even of Athens and Corinth it is, yet it also is already unlike both Anatolian art and Egyptian art and the art of the places that will become Lebanon in our own time.
Berlin, StMus.  Bronze head of a kouros from the Samos excavations

P.S. I meant also to cross reference to the Marseilles pitcher in the Louvre, now itself assigned to Miletos.  See second image, with its discussion, in


  1. Hoping you rate John Boardman as regards Northern Mannerism too, as I'm expecting his book on that style in the post soon.

  2. Thank you for alerting me; I didn't know he had that title (but I haven't been to a general meeting with publishers' exhibits for years). P.L.

  3. Hello! I am doing my dissertation and I would like to explain the phrase "because exhibited right beside this one is the more battered rear one-third of another just like this one." Thank you in advance.