“ ‘The cat sat on a mat’ is not a story.
'The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”
~John le Carré
Every painting tells a story, as do other forms of visual arts, like sculptures and statues.
Whenever a lion graces the entrance to a building or district, it most certainly symbolizes something – but what? What is the context, the story, behind how it came to be there? What message is it supposed to be delivering to those who see it? Who placed it there, and what were their intentions when they chose the “king of the jungle” as the statuary for all to witness as they transition between spaces?
This particular lion greeted us at the gate of my husband’s relatives in Pordenone, Italy. As I recall, it looked friendly enough and appeared to be extending its paw in a welcoming gesture.
As I painted this portal, I began to wonder about the various meanings that lions have had over time, and the ways different cultures, religions and institutions have appropriated this figure as a symbol, message, or a way to punctuate their story.
When I am in the process of creating, a shift happens in the universe - all manner of things related to my subject are brought into my orbit and catch my attention. So it happened then, that I began to notice lions everywhere I went: A postcard of the New York Public Library, showing two massive lions, named Patience and Fortitude, on either side of its entrance; driving into Calgary, along the Centre Street Bridge, and suddenly I’m keenly aware of the lions on each side of the bridge; the logo of the Royal Bank of Canada on which a gold coloured lion’s head is visible, with its paw holding a globe…Perhaps the image was chosen by the bank to display the attributes of strength and ability to manage wealth globally? I took this as a sign to dig a bit deeper, to understand the origins and meanings associated with lions.
Lion statues, and images of lions, have been used since time immemorial, and have different cultural meanings. Did you know that cave art paintings depicted lions as early as the Paleolithic period, possibly dating back 32,000 years ago? Egyptians carved stone into sphinxes, which are sculptures with a human head and shoulders, but with the body of a lion. Chinese culture has had many versions and styles of lion statues guarding temples, Imperial tombs and palaces since the Han dynasty. Italians used marble to create the Medici Lions, symbols of power and prestige. Buddhists see lions as bringers of peace.
In more recent history, it is known that lions were put at the entrances of homes as guardians, to ward off evil spirits and defend the home against negative energy, accidents and theft. These majestic beasts are variously used to symbolize a wide range of concepts. Strength and nobility, courage and pride. Power and ferocity, conquest and stamina. Majesty, protection and empowerment. The list could go on. Of course, its colour, the pose, and the material it is made from, who created it, and for whom it was made, provide additional information to the story.
All of this information made sense to me and confirmed what I already knew, or presumed, to be true about lion statues. That is, until I came across the story of Pixiu.
In China, statues of a mythical winged lion, called Pixiu, can be seen on all four corners of the roofs of houses – mostly houses of people who are held in high esteem. Pixiu are fierce looking creatures with large fangs. They are considered to be protectors, as one might expect, but more interesting to me was that Pixiu have the power to attract wealth to the inhabitants of the homes they adorn. How did Pixiu get the reputation for attracting wealth? Wikipedia was consulted:
“One story of the Pixiu tells that it violated a law of Heaven by defecating on the floor of Heaven. When it was found out, it was punished by a spanking executed by the Jade Emporer. The spanking was hard enough to cause its rectum to be permanently sealed. The Jade Emporer further declared that the diet of the Pixiu would be restricted to gold, silver and jewels. This is why Pixiu can eat gold, silver and jewels but cannot expel it. This is one of the origins of the status of Pixiu statues as a symbol of the acquisition and preservation of wealth.”
Every piece of art tells a story. Now, THAT is a story!