Long Live the King

Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles
Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles

21 September 2014, Berlin

Louis XIV, who saw himself as the new Alexander the Great, adopted the lion as one of his symbols. Although he didn’t wear a lion skin on his head like Alexander, real and imaginary lions surrounded him.

Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Historic distribution of Barbary and Asian Lions. Map by Peter Maas, http://www.petermaas.nl/extinct/speciesinfo/barbarylion.htm

The lion long pre-dated Alexander as a symbol of power and majesty. On visits to two of Berlin’s many wonderful museums, I recorded just a few examples of the many appearances of the king of beasts in antiquity.  We think of lions as animals of sub-Saharan Africa.  But two sub-species of lions existed outside that region: the Barbary lion of North Africa (Panthera leo leo),

Barbary Lion 1893
Barbary Lion 1893

now extinct in the wild, and the Asian lion (Panthera leo persica), with perhaps 250 individuals now living in India.   These are the animals we see represented in antiquity.

Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE, Pergamon Museum
Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE
Assyrian lion gate
Assyrian lion gate, Pergamon Museum
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE, Pergamon Museum
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century, Pergamon Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum

A Sonnet to an Anatomist

cabrol tpMontpellier surgeon Barthélémy Cabrol (1529-1603) first published his Alphabet anatomic in 1594. A series of tables that graphically represented the parts of the body, it was immensely popular, with eleven editions in the seventeenth century as well as translations into Latin and Dutch; the Dutch translation in 1633 was by Descartes’s friend and correspondent Vopiscus Fortunatus Plemp. Cabrol was surgeon to King Henri IV and taught surgery at Montpellier’s famous medical school. The front matter to Alphabet anatomic included a dedication to the king, several prefaces, and a number of odes and sonnets, in French and Latin, to Cabrol and his skill in dissection. One of them praised his skill in uncovering the skeleton. Here it is, with thanks to Marc Schachter for help with the translation.

To Sieur Cabrolcabrol sonnet

On his book of bones


He, who undertakes by the art of architecture

   To erect for his descendants some beautiful building

   In the first place always lays the foundation,

   Being pushed to that, by nature herself.


In its state the edifice does not endure for long,

   If the base, and the foundation are not very stable

   That which is well founded retains longer

   Its being, its beauty, its form, and its figure.


What Cabrol observes with his very expert fingers,

in the most beautiful structure of the entire universe,

He has reduced to an anatomy in a table


Writing in the first place the structure of the bones,

   Which are the solid pilings of our body,

for which he makes himself above all admirable.