A proud, sad symbol

March 19, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

The stone lions standing guard at the BMA remind us that their real-life counterparts have a less than noble existence.

The lions have never looked happy. From the day some 70 years ago when they took their guard posts at the steps of the Baltimore Museum of Art, they have greeted each sunrise with a scowl. To visitors they present growling, brow-furrowed faces of Teutonic intensity, as if the sculptor changed course after starting a bust of Beethoven.

No one in authority at the museum knows who made the cast stone lions or exactly when they appeared. They arrived sometime between 1929, the year the building was completed, and 1933, the earliest date of a photograph showing the lions at the steps. No one knows if the lions ever had names or if something specific was meant by the image of a lion in mid-stride, holding a sphere beneath one extended front paw.

At the moment, the image is to connote the Bad Old Days of unenlightenment and oppression. So says Baltimore artist Joyce J. Scott, whose exhibition, "Kickin' it with the Old Masters," runs at the BMA through May 21.

Above the lion on the right, mounted atop a metal tripod, stands a Scott sculpture, an exuberant composition of red steel wire loops and undulations identified as a "symbolic self-portrait" called "The Millennial Negress."

As the plaque says, "Scott rises triumphantly above the classical lion, leaving behind the injustice of the past and reaching toward a more hopeful future as we enter the new millennium."

So Scott becomes the latest in a succession of lion interpreters dating to the days when people saw art mostly by firelight in the mysterious depths of caves. In one such place in the French Pyrenees, the sanctuary of Les Trois Freres, a lion is shown at the summit of a great gathering of animals: King of the Beasts. The drawing was made some 12,000 years before the birth of Christ.

Since then, lions have declined in number but in image flourished. While people have hunted Panthera leo to near extinction in Asia and crowded the animals into ever-diminishing space in Africa by advancing human populations, we have always found ways to expand their territory symbolically.

In every part of the world, lions have stood guard, sprouted wings, carried goddesses on their backs, crushed sin in their powerful paws. They have represented the sun and moon, goodness and evil, majesty, vigilance, and ferocity, maternity, Earth. For their power, they have symbolized war. For the belief that lion cubs were born dead and life was breathed into them by their father, they have symbolized resurrection.

In Christianity, the lion has variously represented the power of Christ and the evil from which a saved person is delivered. In early Christianity, a winged lion was the emblem of St. Mark, as his gospel stressed the majesty of Christ. In Christian catacomb paintings, Daniel in the lion's den symbolizes God's redemption.

Buddhists hear the lion's roar as the Buddha teaching Dharma. A lion with a cub under its paw represented the Buddha ruling the world with compassion. A lion cub represented a bodhisattva, a spirit on the path to enlightenment.

The ancient Egyptians lived among an array of beasts with the bodies of lions and the heads of humans, hawks, rams. A lion shown with a solar disk was the sun god, Ra; with a lunar crescent, Osiris, judge of the dead.

Because lions were believed to sleep with one eye open, they became symbols of watchfulness -- of spiritual and physical well-being. Hence the stone lion as sentry, guarding the entrances of tombs, libraries, museums, apartment houses and private homes.

Two immense lions carved by Edward Clark Potter in pink Tennessee marble have guarded the front of the main branch of the New York Public Library since the building was completed in 1911. Unlike the snarling BMA lions, these pose in majestic serenity, heads held high and noble, front paws flat on the ground. In the 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia nicknamed them Patience and Fortitude, as those were the qualities he believed New Yorkers would need to endure the hardships of the Great Depression. The names stuck.

The BMA lions remain anonymous. Joyce Scott has said she has fond memories of visiting the museum as a little girl, walking up the steps between the stone lions to the main entrance, which has been reopened in honor of her show for the first time in 15 years.

As an adult, Scott gives us her symbolic sculptural figure ascending in space. The lion is left behind. The lion's symbolic roots in an iconographic tradition make it a suitable representation of the sins of the Western World; the animal's predicament in the natural world makes the image of human triumph sadly appropriate.

Pub Date: 03/19/00

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