Climbing the steps to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan as a child, I was greeted by Patience and Fortitude, the two male lions carved from porous Tennessee pink marble that have been flanking the main entrance since 1911. Friendly and regal, they warmly welcome readers and researchers into the building, and it’s always fun to see them accoutered with seasonal garb like a Christmas wreath or a graduation cap, or reading an oversized book. They were the first example I can recall of animals depicted in art (short of all those wonderful animations in cartoons and childhood books). Since then, I’ve kept any eye out for animals that show up in marble or mosaics, in photographs and on canvases. Some artists capture them so magnificently that you almost expect the subject to chirp or roar or neigh. These are my favorites.
#1 Lion Monument (Lucerne, Switzerland)
In Lucerne, one of Switzerland’s most beautiful cities, I found what Mark Twain called “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” Unlike the cheerful, young, healthy duo Patience and Fortitude, the lion at the Lion Monument will fracture your heart a bit — truly deserving of Twain’s hyperbole. Viewed from across a pond in a quiet, sheltered place, a dying lion commemorates the death of more than 600 Swiss Guard members killed in Paris in the line of duty. Established in 1506, the Swiss Guard, one of the oldest military units in continuous operation (you can still see them in their striped carnival-color uniforms around St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City), found themselves caught up in the turmoil of the French Revolution. On August 10, 1792, disaffected revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace where King Louis XVI and the Royal Family were staying. Running low on ammunition and vastly outnumbered, the Swiss Guards were doomed. While heroically trying to defend the king, more than 600 were killed that day, either during the fighting or massacred after they surrendered, with more than 100 dying later on from their wounds. One of the Guards was lucky: Second Lieutenant Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen wasn’t even there that day; he was on leave in his hometown of Lucerne. Once the revolution ended and the political situation in Switzerland calmed down, von Altishofen, still distraught over the loss of his comrades-in-arms, began collecting donations in 1818 to create a worthy monument. The Lion Monument was inaugurated in 1821 on private property that was purchased by the city decades later, opening it to public viewing. At 20’ high and 33’ long, the monument features a dying lion carved in high relief into a cliff face in a former sandstone quarry. The prone lion, with his mane defluffed, lies on his side, a broken spear impaled below his shoulder. His closed eyes and furrowed brow convey both the physical pain he is experiencing and the emotional pain of not being able to successfully defend his charge — a crushing disappointment for any proud Guard. His mouth is ajar, emitting his final breaths; his right paw rests on a shield with the fleur-de-lis of the French monarchy while another shield with the Swiss coat-of-arms leans beside him. Dedicated, in Latin, “to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss” who died in France, designed by a Dane, and sculpted by a German, the monument’s pan-European origins extend to a much broader appeal: Nearly 1.5 million visitors from around the globe stop by to view the saddest piece of rock in the world every year.
#2 Lion Attacking a Horse (Rome, Italy)
Atop Capitoline Hill in Rome, I entered the Capitoline Museums, a single museum (one of the world’s oldest, dating back to 1471) now housed in three interlinked former palaces, the oldest of which was built in the 13th century. Within its galleries I found the utterly remarkable marble sculpture group Lion Attacking a Horse. It’s a pretty fierce depiction, and shockingly lifelike, and it harbors a long history, beginning with its creation in Greece in approximately 325–300 BC. As the Roman Empire expanded, this masterful work of art was toted back to Rome as victory booty. At some point, it got dismembered, with only the horse’s torso and the top half of the lion remaining. Even so, it retained a prominent place outdoors in the piazza conceived by Michelangelo fronting the three palaces. Restored in 1594, with all body parts returned, you can clearly see where two of the horse’s legs were attached. At about 4.5’ high, almost 5’ wide, and nearly 8’ long, this sculpture is a study in frightful realism. A fallen stallion is captured in its terror, mouth gasping and eyes wide open, as a lion tears into its flank with its teeth and front paws. The extraordinary detail reveals pulls in the horse’s flesh where the lion is ripping into it. One might think this is just a representation of what happens out in the wild kingdom, but, alas, no: That horse is domesticated, revealed by its horseshoes.
#3 Elephant and Obelisk (Rome, Italy)
Just around the bend from the Pantheon, I entered the Piazza della Minerva to see the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva in my quest to find the five most beautiful churches in Rome. But something in the middle of the piazza attracted my attention first: the playful Elephant and Obelisk. It seemed wonderfully out of place: elephants and obelisks in Italy? Well, maybe not so incongruous, after all. Thirteen obelisks can be found around the city, including at the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s top five fountains. And elephants were used by the ancient Romans (and by their rival Hannibal, who famously crossed the Alps atop one) during the Punic Wars. So there’s some precedent here. But how did this one come to be? The smallest obelisk in Rome, at just under 18’ and created sometime in the 500s BC, arrived in the city via the emperor Diocletian (284–305), who brought it from Egypt. Eventually lost for hundreds of years, it was rediscovered in the 17th century, and Pope Alexander VII commissioned its erection in a public space, a stone’s throw from where it was found and where it stands today. Gian Lorenzo Bernini won the commission and designed the elephant base that I was admiring (although one of his assistants probably did the actual sculpting). He chose the elephant because it symbolizes wisdom, but Bernini may have tapped it for its practicality: An elephant is large enough to support the column’s weight; an obelisk atop a sheep or a mouse would have made even less sense. The elephant doesn’t seem particularly pleased by its burden, which makes this sculpture unintentionally amusing. Standing on top of a high, narrow pedestal, the marble elephant appears steady, except for its head swinging off in one direction. With its eyes caught in a dramatic eyeroll upward, as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me with this,” the elephant’s long trunk flies behind its head and upward, trying, perhaps, to swat away the weight from its back and wishing it had only the tasseled caparison instead. Since its unveiling in 1667, the statue has been the source of a wonderful, unsubstantiated, urban legend. A Dominican priest involved with the creation of the monument (he had lost the commission himself) and Bernini butted heads: The priest didn’t like the elephant idea (he wanted four dogs, each supporting a corner of the obelisk); he also didn’t think Bernini’s elephant could support the weight of the column, and the artist was obliged to amend his design, but not without a crafty solution that probably irked the dissentious cleric: Although you can still see that forced concession as a solid block under the elephant’s belly, Bernini used the saddlecloth to cover most of it, seemingly getting his own way and creating something even more beautiful in process. So far, all true. The rumor stems from the elephant’s position: Its backside faces what had been the windows of the priest’s office in the monastery on the piazza, so he had to look at the animal’s bottom every day instead of a more appealing view. To add insult to injury, the elephant’s tail is raised and the posterior muscles look a little tense, as if it’s about to answer a nature call — an appropriate and shockingly rude salute to the man who had aggravated Bernini a little too often. True or not, the tale certainly adds flair to this engaging sculpture, as does its nickname: Pulcino della Minerva (“Minerva’s Chick”), which comes down from a mispronunciation of its earlier nickname, Porcino della Minerva (“Minerva’s Pig”), introduced by Romans who didn’t believe the whole story about Bernini being inspired by wise elephants and felt that he had, in fact, sculpted a pig.
#4 Attachment (St. Louis, Missouri)
In spring 1805, a young man went hiking on Helvellyn, a mountain in the English Lake District, with his trusted companion, a reddish-brown terrier named Foxie. He met his end the same day in an unknown manner, but most likely from a tragic fall. No one is sure how long he lived after the fall, but he eventually died where he laid, and his body was found three months later. But he wasn’t alone: Foxie, now fairly emaciated, had stayed by her master’s side the entire time, chasing away ravens and foxes that might have made a snack, or a full meal, of her master. One year later, Sir Walter Scott immortalized the incident, and Foxie’s astounding fealty, in his elegy “Helvellyn,” in which another climber arrives at the spot where his predecessor perished:
…One huge nameless rock in the front was ascending,
When I marked the sad spot where the wandered had died.
Dark green was that spot mid the brown mountain heather,
Where the Pilgrim of Nature lay stretched in decay.
Like the corpse of an outcast abandoned to weather,
Till the mountain winds wasted the tenantless clay;
Not yet quite deserted, though lonely extended,
For, faithful in death, his mute favorite attended,
The much-loved remains of her master defended,
And chased the hill-fox and the raven away.
How long didst thou think that his silence was slumber?
When the wind waved his garment, how oft didst thou start?
How many long days and long nights didst thou number
Ere he faded before thee, the friend of thy heart?
And, O, was it meet that — no requiem read o’er him,
No mother to weep, and no friend to deplore him,
And thou, little guardian, alone stretched before him —
Unhonored the Pilgrim from life should depart?
But meeter for thee, gentle lover of nature,
To lay down thy head like the meek mountain lamb,
When, wildered, he drops from some cliff huge in stature,
And draws his last sob by the side of his dam.
And more stately thy couch by this desert lake lying,
Thy obsequies sung by the gray plover flying,
With one faithful friend but to witness thy dying,
In the arms of Helvellyn…
In 1829, the English painter Sir Edwin Henry Landseer gave visual life to Scott’s poem with his own interpretation. The result is Attachment, an oil painting that now hangs in Missouri’s St. Louis Art Museum. On the nearly 40” x 33” canvas, Landseer created the scene of the fallen hiker, lying on his back, at the bottom of the composition. Rocks and mountain soar up above him, emphasizing the height from which he probably fell. His lower body is hidden by (perhaps under?) the nearby rocks. Some dark shadows add drama to the scene, its exact time impossible to determine. Had he just fallen? The grayish hue of his hand suggests no; he may have been there for a while, and this may be his quietus. On her hind legs beside him, his very own furry Achates leans forward, looking down at her master, with a paw upon his chest, as if trying to rouse him. It’s a positively heartbreaking scene that flawlessly capture’s Foxie’s loyalty and the special bond between man and his best friend.
#5 Floor of Siena Cathedral (Siena, Italy)
One of the most beautiful churches in the world, Siena Cathedral goes back to 1264, when the building was mostly completed with the addition of its dome (although lots of alterations came later). Once you get past the grandeur of the façade, with its mosaics, statues, and white and greenish-black marble stripes, and step inside, you’ll need a moment to regain your breath. The lavish interior is guaranteed to overwhelm you, and you’re going to need a few hours to take it all in. Start with the floor. Inlaid marble mosaic covers the entire floor of the cathedral, one of the most ornate of its kind in all of Italy. One of the cathedral’s later additions, the floor was added during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, employing about 40 artists during that time to create 56 panels, most of which are still in their original state. The first one I noticed, however, is not: What was left of the original (from 1373) is now housed in a museum; the current version is from 1864. That hardly matters, though — it’s a remarkable piece of art. In a central medallion of The She-Wolf of Siena, the mosaic, done in white, black, and a rusty orange, portrays the mythological founding of the city: a somewhat ribby she-wolf nursing the twins Senius and Aschius. If that sounds familiar, you’re right: Rome has the same lupine legend regarding its own founding, by twins Remus and Romulus. But this isn’t a copycat situation: The Sienese twins are the sons of Remus, who embarked on a hegira from Rome to escape their nasty uncle. Here, one of them is suckling his accommodating mother; the other is about to. Surrounding this central circle, eight additional roundels depict the animal symbols of Siena’s allied cities in central Italy, including a hare for Pisa, a spotted panther for Lucca, a horse for Arezzo, a stork for Perugia, a unicorn for Viterbo, and an elephant for Rome (arguably a forerunner for Bernini’s Elephant and Obelisk). In the corners, four additional cities and their zoological symbols appear in circles. This menagerie is too beautiful to step on; you’ll find yourself subconsciously walking around it instead. It also will spur your curiosity to find out more about those symbols. How did Florence end up with a lion? The free Republic of Florence chose it as its symbol in the 12th century because the lion can shred the eagle, the symbol of imperial power that Florence had liberated itself from. And what about Orvieto’s goose? Even more curious: A flock of boisterous, clamoring geese woke a sleeping soldier in 390 BC, alerting him to the Gauls who were just about ready to launch a surprise attack and enabling him to rouse his comrades and successfully repel the invaders — not in Orvieto, but in Rome, about 75 miles away.
- Tigress and Boar (mosaic, 5th century, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland)
- The American Horse (bronze sculpture, by Nina Akamu, 1999, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan)
- Bears (bronze sculptures, Elrach Monument, 1849, Bern, Switzerland)
- Chief (acrylic on canvas, by Robert Bateman, 1997, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, Wyoming)
- Horse frescoes (1732, Salzburg, Austria)
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