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Work Frieze of Lions

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Frieze of Lions

© 1996 Musée du Louvre / Christian Larrieu

Near Eastern Antiquities
Iran

Author(s):
Catherine Giraudon

The Frieze of Lions, a decorative glazed-brick frieze from the first court of Darius I’s palace at Susa, is a declaration of royal power, here embodied in the king of beasts. In its iconography and composition, it was one of the most markedly Mesopotamian elements in this Persian palace.

One of the few decorative features found in its place

The Frieze of Lions is one of the rare decorative features of Darius’s palace at Susa to have been found more or less in its original place, at the foot of the north wall of the Eastern Court, the first to be entered by the visitor upon leaving the esplanade. The court probably housed an open-air throne, which would have stood on a dais, sheltered by a canopy. The frieze ran along the top of the wall, crowned by the still-visible battlements, the whole punctuated by the tall verticals of poles that probably carried flags . The scattered fragments of a trilingual inscription were found at the same place. The lions probably stood on either side of this inscription, which would have been at the center of the symmetrical composition. This arrangement, often found in the ancient Near East, recalls the animals that face each other on either side of a palmette or tree of life.

Lions passant

Such decorative animals represent a substantial element in the iconography of the Persian palaces, and of the earlier palaces of Assyria and Babylon. The lion, royal animal and divine attribute, was an inhabitant of the ‘paradise,’ the enclosed hunting ground of Persian and Assyrian monarchs. The Frieze of Lions, easily visible in the first court of the palace, was a declaration of royal power, here embodied in the king of beasts. The lions are menacing: the mouth opens to show sharp teeth, the lips drawn back by the muscles visibly contracted beneath the eye, the muzzle bulging. Not yet in ferocious action, they advance in profile, with calm and measured step, between plant motifs (lotus flowers and rosettes) that symbolize the equilibrium of the nature over which they preside. The same stylization of the muscles, surrounded by a broad white line, and of the hair of the mane, rendered as tongue-like locks, can be seen in the lions of the Persepolis reliefs, and in such examples of the metalworker’s art as sword-hilts, rhytons and bracelets. The bricks are twice as thick as those in the Frieze of Archers.

Mesopotamian tradition

In its technique – using glazed bricks of powdered flint with a calcareous binder – and in its composition as a frieze, this decorative revetment is inspired by older Mesopotamian traditions, as exemplified in the facade of the second-millennium temple of Kara-indash in Uruk, adopted at Susa much earlier.
The repetition of symbolic animals within a monumental decorative scheme can be seen already in Babylon, where its significance is more religious than royal. The Frieze of Lions is thus one of the more markedly Mesopotamian elements in Darius’s Persian palace at Susa. Yet the style, combining extreme stylization (of the musculature and the mane) with a detailed knowledge of anatomy, is typical of the masterpieces of Achaemenid Persian art.

Technical description

  • Frieze of Lions

    Achaemenid Persian Period, reign of Darius I, c. 522-486 BC

    Eastern court of the royal palace of Darius I, Apadana of Susa, Iran

  • Polychrome glazed siliceous brick

    H. 3.60 m; W. 3.68 m

  • Excavations by Marcel Dieulafoy, 1884-86

    AOD 489 c

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Persian empire during the Achaemenian period: palace of Darius I to Susa, 6th–5th century BC
    Room 13, temporarily closed to the public

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