Thursday, 28 July 2016

Leonine stories

Persian Astrological illustration for Leo,  gouache, c. 1800s. 
(from the Wellcome Library Images ) 

 This is the time when the constellation of Leo is in the ascendent.  There are many examples of the kingly Lion as a symbol from myth and legend, from the lion-killing hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Old Testament's  Samson and David, or the Greek Hercules, all often shown wearing a lion skin.  Gentler heroes are St. Jerome, who befriended a lion by removing a thorn from its paw, a story taken from the classics and reimagined by G. B. Shaw in Androcles and the Lion,  and of course, the fourth Gospel-maker, St. Mark and his winged lion, historically associated with Venice. 

But for my Lion illustration I have gone back to the Babylonian myth of the tragic lovers, a tale popular in the  later Renaissance: 
"In such a night  
Did Thisbe fearfully overtrip the dew, 
And saw the lion's shadow ere himself, 
And ran dismayed away."  (Merchant of Venice  Act V)

Pyramus and Thisbe, maiolica plate from Urbino, c. 1550s  © Fitzwilliam Museum

As Ovid recounts, the eloping lovers are due to meet at Ninus' fountain outside Nineveh, but Thisbe, arriving first, is frightened by a bloody-mouthed lion and flees, dropping her cloak. Pyramus arrives, sees the lion mauling Thisbe's bloodstained cloak, and, most true lover, falls on his sword.   Here we see Thisbe returning and desperately following  Pyramus' example, watched by Cupid.

Not the finest rendering in maiolica - a very cluttered image with all the city backdrop encroaching.  The painter (or his customers) obviously liked scenes of impalement, but the lion has not got Thisbe's bloodstained cloak in its mouth, in fact Thisbe still seems to have a cloak around her; nevertheless the painter has captured the popular tragedy with dramatic 3D effect.  According to Ovid, a mulberry tree grew beside the fountain and, drenched in the lovers' blood, its white berries were ever after deep purple.

There are other finer maiolica examples in e.g. the Wallace Collection, and this popular story appears in paintings, mosaics, on Venetian glassware and French tapestry, although you sometimes have to look hard to spot the deadly lion.

I could not resist this Footnote:  a fresco by Benozzo Gozzoli, c. 1425, from Montefalco, Italy.

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