NARRATOR (Clive Russell): What’s up with all the lions in the borders of this German textile? Medieval lions did a lot of symbolic work, which crept beyond the pages of the bestiary to other intricate decorative items, like this one. Lions were meant to remind medieval audiences of important Christian stories.
Let’s go over the lion’s story again.
The lion is the very first animal mentioned in the medieval bestiary. In fact, if you’ve ever heard the expression “king of the beasts,” that’s where it comes from. In the Middle Ages, lions were revered and considered most noble. Bestiaries resemble encyclopedias with their descriptions and accompanying illustrations. But instead of thinking of animals in natural history terms, as you might expect, they were seen as symbols of Christian Bible stories.
Within the bestiary legend of the lion, there are several key tales of its many virtues.
Lion cubs are born dead. They stay way for three days. Only the father-lion’s breath or roar can revive them, which is why so many medieval lions are portrayed breathing on their little ones.
They use their tails to erase the trail of paw prints they create as they make their way through dangerous terrain, especially if they detect the odor of impending hunters.
Lions sleep with their eyes open; another stealth tactic of self-preservation.
What did these tales mean to audiences of the Middle Ages? The three-day death and awakening of the cubs stood for Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. So, too, did the lion sleeping with its eyes open—Christ as physically dead, but divinely alive. The lion erasing its tracks represented the savior concealing his divinity to all but his followers.
In art and popular culture, the noble lion still personifies power and nobility, inhabiting seals, coats of arms, flags, and logos.