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Sir Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) was one of the most successful and beloved English artists during the apogee of British power–in fact he was Queen Victoria’s favorite painter.  From a young age, Landseer was a painting prodigy.  He was ambidextrous and it was even said that he could paint with both hands at the same time.  Although he could paint people and landscapes with equal ease, what most endeared Landseer to the Victorian public was his skill at painting the emotions of animals.  Most of his paintings involve the faces and demeanor of dogs and horses–either by themselves or interacting with their owners.  These sentimental paintings of pets and favorite livestock animals made Landseer rich and famous, but there was more to his art than just portraying anthropomorphised creatures.

Isaac van Amburgh and his Animals (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1839, oil on canvas)

In this painting (completed in 1839) Landseer has put aside the spaniels, geldings, and water dogs which were his normal fare in order to address the thin line separating domestication from wildness.  Dressed like Mark Anthony, the American lion-tamer Isaac Van Amburgh reclines in a cage filled with tigers, lions, and leopards.  In his arm is a little lamb (which, hilariously, seems to share Isaac’s expression of languid arrogance).  Although the lion tamer and the sheep are nicely painted, the real subjects of the painting are the great cats which stare at the armored man and the lamb with mixed expressions of wild sly hunger, fear, ingratiating acquiescence, and madness.  Beyond the bars lies the entire panoply of 19th century society.  A mother holds her infant tight as a rich merchant stares into the cage.  A black man in livery turns his head toward a martinet standing beneath the Queen’s flag.  This is not a sanitized scene of dogs playing together:  there are multiple planes of control and subjugation as one proceeds through the levels of the painting.

Portrait of Mr. Van Amburgh, as He Appeared with His Animals at the London Theatres (Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, 1847, oil on canvas)

Landseer found the subject of the lion tamer fascinating and later he painted another painting of Isaac Van Amburgh which shows the great cats cowering and sad.  As ever, the whip-wielding Van Amburgh is dressed as a Roman and is behind bars.  Flowers and laurels lay at the edge of the cage but so do newspapers and detritus.  The huge felines are once again the focus of the painting, but, if possible, they look even more crazed and miserable [unfortunately I could only find a small jpeg of this work—the original is at Yale if you are near New Haven].

There was a dark, scary, & agonized side to Landseer as well.  He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties and was slowly devoured by insanity in the years thereafter.  In fact during his final decades he sank so deeply into substance abuse and strange bouts of gratuitous cruelty, that his family had him committed to an insane asylum.  Both of these paintings were crafted after Landseer’s initial emotional breakdown.  I wonder if he had noticed that the lion tamer is every bit as cruel and alarming as the beasts he is whipping (and is likewise behind bars). I wonder too if the artist had glimpsed an allegory of apparently genteel Victorian society within these disquieting pictures. But, most of all, I wonder if Landseer had already intimated that he too would end his life in a cage.

A Smilodon fends off the vulture-like Teratornis at what would later be called the Rancho La Brea tar pits, situated in Los Angeles, California (Painting by Charles R. Knight)

Lately this blog has been fixated on magnificent saber-toothed mammals.  We have featured the extinct saber-toothed whale, a saber-toothed marsupial predator, the little saber-toothed deer, and even the familiar walrus (in reality, a giant saber-toothed seal), but we realize that everyone has really been looking forward to the most famous saber-toothed animal of them all, Smilodon, the saber toothed cat.  Smilodon was actually a genus of several large cats, the biggest of which, Smilodon populator, weighed 360 to 470 kg (790 to 1,000 lb) and was larger than modern tigers or lions. In fact Smilodon species are sometimes known as “saber toothed tigers” or “saber toothed lions,” however taxonomists tell us such names are off the mark since the Smilodons belonged to the extinct Machairodontinae genus of felines rather than the familiar Panthera genus of big cats so familiar today.

About two and a half million years ago, Smilodon evolved in North America from an earlier genus of saber toothed cat Megantereon (there were a lot of other earlier genera of saber-toothed cats, not to mention even more genera of saber toothed carnivores which were not exactly felines—the whole story is complicated).  During the Great American Interchange with South America the big predators invaded South America at the same time armadillos were making their way up into North America.  Yikes, that’s a pretty lopsided exchange.

In addition to long razor sharp teeth, Smilodons possessed immense neck and forelimb muscles. Using the muscles of their front torso they would pull down and pin the great grazing metafauna of the American plains.  Prey animals almost certainly included bison, tapirs, deer, American camels, and ground sloths. Additionally Smilodons might have opportunistically killed juvenile mastodons and mammoths. To dispatch such large prey Smilodons employed their fearsome canine teeth with which they bit through the prone creatures’ necks.

Smilodon fatalis (reconstruction/specimen at the Page Museum)

Paleontologists have collected a great deal of fossil evidence concerning Smilodons, which suggest that the big cats were sophisticates social predators like today’s lions or wolves.  The number and nature of saber-toothed cat fossils recovered from tar pits suggests that Smilodon prides would converge together on prey animals caught in the petrochemical ooze–only to become trapped themselves.  Also some fossilized smilodons have shown evidence of badly broken bones healing—a rarity in carnivores which is generally only possible for pack/pride animals which can (sometimes) rely on a support network.

Thanks to their size, ferocious appearance, and highly characteristic teeth, Smilodons have a special place in human culture to the extent that few other extinct animals do.  The Flintstones had a pet smilodon named “Baby Puss” which evicted Fred from his house in the title sequence and the moral struggles of Diego the saber tooth constituted the moral hook of “Ice Age” a cartoon movie. Ironically for all of our apparent fondness for the great cats, it seems that human migration into the Americas may have been the downfall of the great cats (which vanished 10,000 years ago) but whether their extinction was the result of humans overhunting their prey, shifting climate, or some other factor remains an open question.

Smilodon by Knight

Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome in his Study (Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1527)

In addition to troubling paintings of severed heads and dark allegories of German society, Lucas Cranach the Elder liked to paint animals.  He painted several splendid pictures of Adam and Eve in a paradise teaming with creatures (including human headed parrots and unicorns) and he also frequently portrayed the bloody business of large scale stag-hunts by the aristocracy.  One of my favorite of Cranach’s animal paintings is the one above titled, which was completed in 1527.  A generous supporter of the arts (and personal friend of Erasmus), Albrecht was the Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  Ironically, to secure this position, Albrecht had taken out an immense loan “to discharge the expenses of his elevation.”  In order to pay this money back he obtained permission from Pope Leo X to sell indulgences.  The agent Albrecht utilized to sell these indulgences, John Tetzel, was so odious and grasping that Luther wrote his 95 theses partly as a direct response to Tetzel. Albrecht was the first to notify the papacy of Luther’s theses (which he suspected might be heretical).

Although dressed as a 16th century cardinal, Albrecht is affecting the style and symbols of Saint Jerome, the 4th century hermit and scholar who had translated the bible into Latin.  Jerome was frequently painted with a tame lion due to an ahistorical medieval legend about how he had removed a thorn from a marauding lion’s paw (and thus gained the creature’s friendship).  Cranach expands on this iconography to fill the painting with animals including not just a pensive lion, but also an industrious beaver, a pheasant, a rabbit, and a stag.  In gothic iconography, the stag represented Christ and here we see a handsome stag beneath a crucifix apparently speaking to Jerome.  The ecclesiastical contemplation and tame animals of the foreground are contrasted starkly with the more realistic background, where aristocratic hunters ride back to their great hall with their hounds while real stags joust with their horns in the forest.

In our continuing exploration of the uneasy world of mascots, it’s time to meet Wenlock and Mandeville, mascots for the 2012 London Olympics.  Hmm, oh dear…  They each have a camera for an eye, which seems eerily appropriate given England’s dystopian fascination with Orwellian surveillance equipment.  They do not have mouths, probably so that they are unable to scream.  Understanding their back story makes them no less disquieting:  according to their creators, they are steel nuggets handicrafted by an eccentric grandfather and then given life by children’s love for sports.

“The mascot will help us engage with children which is what I believe passionately in,” London organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe told Reuters.

“The message we were getting was that children didn’t want fluffy toys, they didn’t want them to be human but they did want them rooted in an interesting story. “By linking young people to the values of sport, Wenlock and Mandeville will help inspire kids to strive to be the best they can be.”

Um, what?  Toy designers know how easily children can be (mis)lead during marketing research. You have to watch their hands and eyes in order to find out their real answers. Or maybe I’m wrong and English children really do like mouthless, handless, soulless one-eyed robot-monsters.

Come on English designers! Just slap a bearskin on a bulldog and head for the pub.  Everyone would be happy and you would have an enduring winner instead of the travesties which Wenlock and Mandeville so clearly are.  As an added bonus, here are some alternate ideas for 2012 London Olympics mascots:

Trafalgar the pigeon (by Danny Ihns)

The lion and the unicorn from the UK coat of arms (as re-envisioned by Woodrow Phoenix)

‘Dodgee – the Olympic Hoodie’ (created by Aaron Robinson)

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