The Lion in Christian Iconography

In the 12th and 13th centuries many church entrances featured a variety of frightsome beasts, often exotic or imaginary and sometimes mixed with scenes of human occupations. Mâle finds them "purely decorative," on the analogy of marginal images in manuscript pages. But Neale and Webb argue that they serve two real purposes relevant to the experience of entering sacred space: first to symbolize the martyrs' entrance into Heaven and second as signs "that we must turn our backs on…all worldly cares and employments if we would enter into the kingdom of God." The entrances that also feature lions clutching their prey certainly support the latter argument, for lions in scripture are indeed taken by the commentators to represent "power and deceit: power in the violence with which the martyrs were tortured and deceit in the fraudulence of heretics and false brothers."1 For the person entering the church, then, the fearsome beasts represent the large and small martyrdoms through which the Christian must pass on the way to salvation and also portray the reality behind the false friends that beset this world.

One of the most impressive artistic applications of this symbology is the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Lawrence in Trogir, Croatia, where the lions play a key role in presenting the moral and physical challenges of life in this postlapsarian world. As they clutch their victims (a lamb and a bird) their haunches support life-size statues of Adam and Eve, who flank a pair of engaged capitals featuring frightsome beasts and a sequence of scenes in which a pig is butchered, rendered into sausages, and cooked over a blazing fire.

(Follow this link for a full discussion of the Trogir entrance and its iconographic program and this link for a discussion of a similar program at Split. A conjunction of lions with Adam and Eve can also be found at the entrance to Šibenik Cathedral, although there the lions do not clutch victims.)

The association of lions with martrydom and the devil's wiles is not uncommon in other art forms. On one of the doors of St. Peter's Basilica the execution of St. Paul is echoed by a scene above in which a lion devours a doe or calf. In a relief now in the Piazza Armerina Diocesan Museum, Pilate is accompanied by a griffin, a hybrid of lion and eagle. Even more terrifying than a plain lion, griffins sometimes appear at the entrance instead of lions, for example at St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua, where one of them clutches the figure of a man and the other a calf or lamb.

Neale and Webb note that in the later Middle Ages English churches transferred the frightful forms to the chancel arch.2 In Dalmatia this was anticipated in the 11th century by ciboria bearing images of lions. On one the lion is attacking its prey, and on another it cavorts with its young, the "whelps" of Augustine's comment on Ps. 16:12: "You are of your father the devil." Yet another ciborium has a pair of griffins attacking a lion.


Christ as Lion

Sometimes in scripture a lion represents Christ, as in Revelation 5:5, "Behold the lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals." This symbolism sometimes carries into images of a lion with the crossed halo that is used only for the Divinity (Didron, I, 341-2). There are also some 14th-century sculptural works where the Madonna holds the child while standing on a lion (Schiller, I, 22; plates 44 and 45).

Christ Treading on a Lion

But in other scriptures, as interpreted by Christian writers, the lion represents the enemy that Christ will vanquish. For example, Psalm 90(91):13 says, "thou shalt walk upon the asp and the basilisk: and thou shalt trample under foot the lion and the dragon." This leads to an early iconographic type in which Christ does just that (example). From the earliest example in 5th-century Ravenna this type spread throughout medieval Europe well into the second millenium (E. B Smith, 153-55).

The Lion in the Bestiary

Medieval bestiaries set forth three behaviors of lions that make them like Christ. (All are, of course, quite factitious.) First, they use their tufted tails to hide their tracks so hunters cannot follow them, just as the Son hid his divinity from Satan in the human nature that he adopted.

Second, they sleep with eyes open. This relates to Christ in two ways: He went corporeally into the sleep of death on the Cross while his divinity remained awake; and he is always vigilant against the devil. The lion in this miniature from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry references both Christ's vigilance and his successful deception of Satan.

Third, lion cubs are born dead and are brought to life on the third day when the father breathes on them, just as the Father raised the Son to life on the third day. The third picture at right illustrates this third behavior.


Lions figure in the iconography of a great many saints:
  • St. Jerome was said to have befriended a lion, so the beast is often used as one of his attributes.
  • Scripture says the prophet Daniel survived a sojourn in a lions' den, so portraits traditionally have him flanked by a pair of lions.
  • On the basis of one of the visions in Revelation, St. Mark is represented either by a man with a lion or by a lion alone.
  • The stories of the hermit saints Paul and Mary of Egypt have them buried with the help of lions clawing at the ground with their paws.
  • Some of the martyrs' stories have them thrown to the lions, so one finds lions in portraits of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Thecla
  • In some Russian and early Byzantine images, the lion is an attribute of St. John the Evangelist and the eagle is assigned to St. Mark.
  • At this time I do not have a page on Samson. His slaying of the lion is a common subject in the art.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University


In Trogir a lion clutches its prey.
(See the description page.)

A lion clutching a lamb at the entrance to the Cathedral of St. Domnius, in Split, Croatia. One legend has the martyr St. Domnius executed on the order of Diocletian, whose mausoleum was converted into this cathedral in the 7th century. The figures above the lion's haunches may be Diocletian and Domnius. (See the description page.)

This illustration from a medieval bestiary shows the lion bringing his cubs to life after three days, which the text says is like God the Father raising the Son on the third day. (Source: British Library Royal MS 12 C XIX, fol. 6r).


  • High medieval: A lion holds a man between his feet in this fragment of an ancient column in Como, Italy.
  • 12th century: Door at Assisi Cathedral using lions as symbols of both Christ and the devil.
  • Mid-13th century: Lions at the base of columns in San Candido/Innichen, Italy.
  • 1380: Lion sculptures at the entrance to the cathedral in Ancona, Italy, attributed to Giorgio da Como.
  • 1140: An early example of entrance lions — a doorway in the west façade of Assisi's cathedral.
  • Late 12th century: An entrance lion at San Zeno Cathedral, Verona.
  • Date not ascertained: Two griffins clutching their prey at the entrance to Verona's Basilica of St. Justina.


1 Mâle, Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, 61. Neale and Webb, Introduction to The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, xciv. Glossa Ordinaria on Psalm 9:30 Vulgate (10:9 Hebrew), III, col. 502 (my translation). Many other comments on lions in the Psalms interpret them as symbolizing the devil. According the the Biblia Pauperum, "Samson is a type of Christ, who slew the lion, that is, the devil, when he freed men from his power" (Didron, II, 421).

2 Neale and Webb, ibid.