The Discourse of Law and Justice in Medieval Europe
24th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday, March 27, 2004
From Piazza to Church: Profane and Sacred Justice in Romanesque Stylobate Lions from Northern Italy
Giovanna De Appolonia, Boston University

Scholarship on Romanesque iconography has attributed a variety of meanings to lions: from pure architectural elements to symbolic guardians of gateways, from hostile forces and devils to allegories of Christ. This paper will explore the symbolism of Romanesque column-bearing lions, whose meaning is strongly related to the function of the architectural element they belong to: the porch portal. It is well documented that porch portals served a dual function, sacred and profane at the same time. In fact, not only were they entrances to the church but they were also used to proclaim public sentences and practice law. The goal of this paper is to prove that stylobate lions on Romanesque porch portals were associated with the theme of justice in both a religious and civic sense, symbolically representing the impartiality of the judge – Christ and man – overpowering evil.

According to C. Verzár, the “lion beneath the column” in the Romanesque North Italian tradition probably derives from the “lion on the column”, which served in papal Rome as symbol of justice. In fact, both the Ecclesia Romana and the Senate were identified with the lion, as manuscripts from the late middle ages can confirm. During the middle ages, a lion on a column stood in front of the transept of San Giovanni in Laterano (Rome), in a square that served as open-air law court. In fact, at that time law was not only administered in courts, but also in marketplaces and squares. Lions were often associated to the theme of civic justice as the freestanding marble lion in the Piazza Mercantile in Bari (Italy) can attest. Such lion carries a collar with the inscription Custos Iusticie, and it must have marked the place of a medieval open-air law court. In medieval juridical sources the place of the judge was often described as inter leones.

On the south side of the Ferrara cathedral, the porch of the Porta dei Mesi must have played an important role for the city. In fact a Ferrarese document dated 1140 confirms that legal affairs were held sub portico. Together with a civic role, the door represented a demand for penance and purification, and a promise of forgiveness and salvation for the faithful. In Amos 5,15, we read “hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate”.

Lions standing in front of church entrances are also symbolically identified with Divine justice. In the porch portal of the Verona cathedral, surrounding the tympanum with the Virgin in throne, the following inscription runs: “Here God is seen as the great lion, Christ as the Lamb”. A monumental tympanum of the Jaca cathedral in southern Spain bears figures of two confronting lions facing an inscribed circle with a cross and the monogram of Christ. Such images and their Latin inscriptions suggest the theme of judgment in the juxtaposition of figures that will be speared and figures that will be crushed. According to S. Caldwell, the south portal of the early twelfth century Hermitage of San Martin in Artaiz emphasizes the theme of judgment based on images alone: on the two sides of the portal, two lions are respectively devouring and spearing a human figure. These and many other examples will be used to prove how the representation of the final judgment - which in France was often displaying the second coming of Christ - in Italy appeared in an allegorical form. Different types of lions from cathedrals such as Modena, Verona, and Ferrara, will be analyzed and compared to better understand their role as “messengers of justice in stone”.

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