MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Lucerne’s Lion Monument – with Pig


No reference I’ve ever seen to the popular tourist attraction known as the Löwendenkmal (Lion Monument) in Lucerne fails to trot out the quote by Mark Twain claiming this is “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.” He also wrote this, in the same book (A Tramp Abroad):

The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.

This massively proportioned monument is indeed an impressively stylized expression of a mode of tragic grief. It was designed by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and executed by Lucas Ahorn in sandstone in a spot to the east of the Altstadt, with a pond situated below. The inscription reads HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI (“[Commemorating] the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss”).

As for what it commemorates, the event wasn’t exactly politically correct among European liberals when it was unveiled in 1821, since the lion is a tribute to Swiss mercenary troops in the service of Louis XVI who were massacred by revolutionaries while trying to defend the Tuileries Palace in the insurrection in August 1792.

One intriguing detail about the sculpture is usually glossed over: why does the outline surrounding the lion figure seem to trace the shape of a pig, complete with pointy ears and snout? Do you see it here?


I’ve heard several possible explanations, but the most popular one is that it represents payback by the sculptor for being cheated by the town council out of the agreed-on payment for the commission. He’s memorializing a parody of them as pigs on top of the noble monument. Or perhaps, goes another theory, it’s a middle finger aimed at the French for this massacre. Or — certainly the least-fun theory — could it just be coincidence?

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