Why Medieval Artists Could Never Draw A Good Lion

The artists were clearly talented, so why were their portrayals of lions so far off-base?

If you look at any medieval artistry, especially what you would find in a book, you may see that not everything is as it should be. Some of the animals are a little distorted, and perhaps the worst is the mighty lion.

When the Roman Empire was in its heyday, lions were a symbol of strength. For many years, they continued to be a part of European culture, and they were also common when these medieval pictures were being drawn.

Photo: Flickr/Nicolas Raymond License: CC BY 2.0

As a result, lions were a part of the culture and were drawn almost everywhere. You can find them in manuscripts and in books as well as paintings and even a fabric that would protect horses (or so they thought).

It isn’t just a matter of seeing these unusual animals depicted in medieval art. The simple fact that they weren’t drawn very well doesn’t speak well for the artists. Then again, those artists did some amazing drawings.

In many cases, a lion would not often look much like an actual animal. Some of them appeared almost humanlike or they may have been off-color or perhaps even sickly looking. Some lions had wings and others were playing musical instruments.

Photo: Flickr/Eden, Janine, and Jim License: CC BY 2.0

This may make you wonder: Why were the lions painted in such a strange way? According to research shared by Oxford, perhaps one reason is that nobody who drew one had ever actually seen one in the wild. They were relying on what they saw in other depictions for their own drawing.

According to Art in Context, in many cases, the artists during that time weren’t interested in being very realistic with their drawings. It just went along with the other features in the drawing to show them that way.

It was also interesting how religion was woven into the drawings as well. Sometimes artists would illustrate an idea about religion by drawing the behavior of the animal in its physical depiction.

Photo: Flickr/JOHN K THORNE

At that time, lions were often associated with Christ, which may be why they had some physical features that were similar in the drawings.

Although it can be disturbing if you look at it that way, it is actually just a part of history that we can find entertaining. It shows something about the culture of that time and we can be happy that they are no longer drawn in that way.

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