236. A Cast Bronze Fountainhead in the form of a Lion

South Italy or Sicily, circa 1200
Size: 39 cm long

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That this bronze is medieval is not in doubt. Its thick casting is typical of bronzes of the 12th and early 13th centuries in Europe, and when it came up in the Flannery sale, Sotheby’s attributed it to north Germany. Cary Welch came to London to view it and declared that it was Indian, either Sultanate, early Mughal or Deccani. The reason behind his thinking was that he had acquired another bronze lion, larger and sitting up, which he was persuaded was made for Emperor Akbar after he had seen the Ashokan pillars supporting similar rampant lions in stone (see: Cary Welch, India, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is true that the two lions share certain characteristics, their ears and facial features for example, but the question remains as to whether Cary’s bronze is Indian, or in fact European, as most people suspect. It is superb, whatever it is. Nevertheless, the opinion of such a respected scholar and collector caused confusion in the market-place, which still endured when it was re-offered at auction in 2002.

Opinion has changed since then, firmly attributing this lion to Europe, around the year 1200. Analysis of the bronze and its composition has provided no firm clues, apart from excluding north Germany and suggesting a possible Islamic origin. The problem is that it does not conform exactly in its style and detail to the categories of lions known, catalogued and attributed to the main centres of artistic production in Europe at the time. And yet, wherever it was made, there existed a sophisticated knowledge and tradition of casting bronze. Southern Italy and Sicily was one such area, with its mixed heritage of Byzantine, Arab and Norman cultures, which would also explain the ‘exotic’ features that led Cary Welch to suggest an Indian origin.

In fact this lion does have close relatives, quite a number of them, that have been overlooked to the extent that they have never been comparatively categorized as a distinct group. An exception was a paper in the Journal of the David Collection, Vol. I (Kjeld von Folsach and Joachim Meyer, eds., Copenhagen, 2003), to celebrate the acquisition of their magnificent Lion Door Knocker and demonstrate its Sicilian/Apulian origin. The authors, Joachim Meyer and Peter Northover, point out that the Islamic enclaves in Sicily and Southern Italy only came under Norman domination in 1091, and in the following century there are many examples of Islamic artistic influence in Sicily and in the Romanesque art of Apulia. There were communities of Muslim artisans at Lucera in Apulia and Messina in Sicily whose expertise in bronze casting had already been passed on in the Christian-dominated areas by the early 12th century. 

The obvious way to check whether objects belong to the same family is to compare their facial features, if they have them, rather like with people. On this basis this Lion Fountainhead, the C.L. David Door Knocker, and the large bronze Lion on loan to the Metropolitan Museum are closely related: prominent eyebrows, almond-shaped eyes with sharply defined eyelids, a human-shaped nose, and curved upper lips that stand out like a moustache. The curls of the mane are another common feature. There are numerous other details on this Lion that are of interest: the copper plug in the top of the head; the sharp teeth that resemble those on the lion’s head on the doors of Bohemond’s tomb at Canosa (early 12th century); the definition of the ribs; the detailing of the fur; and the elegant swish of its tail.

The large bronze Lion in the Metropolitan was sold at auction in 1993, and described as Spanish. Subsequently, in 2002, Anna Contadini, Richard Camber and Peter Northover published research that convincingly re-assigned it to Southern Italy, partly based on evidence that came from comparative metal analysis. The reattribution equally affects this Lion Fountainhead, establishing the general area of Southern Italy where once it refreshed an Hauteville or a Hohenstaufen.

Provenance: Flannery Collection. Sold at Sotheby’s, London, 1st December 1983
Private collection, UK. Sold at Sotheby’s, London, 9th July 2002
Private collection, UK