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'Diabolus Tamquam Leo Rugiens', A Contribution to Studies on the Significance of the Lion Motif on Pre-Constantine Christian Sarcophagi

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"Diabolus tamquam leo rugiens". Z badań nad znaczeniem motywu lwa na sarkofagach chrześcijańskich epoki przedkonstantyńskiej
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Wilpert, referring to the six pre-Constantine sarcophagi published by him, interprets the representations of lions decorating the tombs as symbolic depictions of the Devil. The sarcophagi mentioned by him, which are kept in the Louvre collections, S.Trinita Church in Florence, S. Saba in Rome, Museum at Tipasa, and Museo delle Terme in Rome, continue to function in the literature as Christian monuments dating from the 3rd century. Wilpert's thesis concerning the significance of the lion motif, albeit correct, has not been sufficiently justified - the German scholar refers solely to St Paul's words. The aim of the present paper is to supplement Wilpert's argumentation. As has been repeatedly emphasized in the relevant literature, Early Christian sarcophagi constitute both stylistically and iconographically an integral part of the heritage of the late-antique, pagan Roman workshops, embracing a relatively numerous group of objects in which the lion motif is universally interpreted as a symbol of death. This fact induced some researchers to content themselves with the recognition of such symbolic significance of a lion on Christian reliefs.However, in the Christian literature of the first centuries, referring to Biblical tradition a lion is generally identified with evil and sometimes even directly with the Devil thus confirming Wilpert's interpretation. Also death is regarded by Early Christian writers as the work and one of the names of the Devil , which in turn encourages the supposition that the Christians may have associated the lion - a pagan symbol of death - with the Devil. The German researcher's thesis finds additional corroboration in the appearance in Early Christian iconography of other compositions in which a lion unequivocally symbolizes evil or the Devil. The lion on the pre-Constantine Christian sarcophagi is a symbol which took form under the influence of Christian and Late Roman pagan traditions, the two descending from the same sources of ancient Mediterranean culture, which are inseparable. The interpretation proposed by Wilpert is correct, but it is not the only one, hence the necessity of extreme caution in drawing a conclusion from the considerations presented in the paper: it is possible that the Christians of the 3rd century, ordering sarcophagi with a relief whose composition was popular among their pagan fellow-citizens, regarded a lion not only as a symbol of death but also as that of the Devil.
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  • Instytut Historii Sztuki UJ
  • S. Skrzyniarz, Uniwersytet Jagiellonski, Instytut Historii Sztuki, ul. Grodzka 53, 31-003 Krakow, Poland
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