Right up front and center in our mural are two rampant lions supporting the Tablets of the Law. When the mural was painted in 1910 every Jew knew this symbolism. Though lions appear in the art and heraldry of many cultures, in Judaism they are central and count among the most popular and meaningful symbols. Along with the Menorah, the Star of David and the Tablets, the lion is among the most used symbol, and almost certainly the most popular animal image in Jewish art. The eagle comes a distant second.
So when did Leo become Aryeh? When were lions first paired in Jewish context? The use of paired lions in Jewish religious art, in draws inspiration from ancient Near Eastern art, and lions were frequently depicted in Greco-Roman art many ways – including in zodiac images and hunting scenes. Paired lions are found in some of the earliest synagogues, from the 3rd to 6th centuries C.E., and are associated with some of the earliest representations of the synagogue Ark. Of course, Ben Zion black did not know these examples when he painted the Chai Adam mural in 1910 – he drew on more recent sources. But the visual tradition of paired lions is a very old one in Jewish art – and it resonates through the ages.
Lions are frequently mentioned in the Bible in all sorts of situations; literally and symbolically. David kills a lion, Samson wrestles with a lion, Daniel faces lions in their den, etc. etc.
The Tribe of Judah is traditionally symbolized by a lion. In Genesis, the patriarch Jacob gave that symbol to the tribe when he refers to his son Judah, when blessing him, as a “Gur Aryeh” (גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה / Young Lion) in Genesis 49:9. Jerusalem became the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, and later Judah and the lion became symbols of all the surviving Jewish people.
Carved lions are said to have supported the throne of King Solomon. The design of the physical throne itself is described in 1 Kings 10:
“18 Moreover the king made a great throne of ivory, and overlaid it with the finest gold. 19 There were six steps to the throne, and the top of the throne was round behind; and there were arms on either side by the place of the seat, and two lions standing beside the arms. 20 And twelve lions stood there on the one side and on the other upon the six steps; there was not the like made in any kingdom. (JPS 1917).”
In Roman times we find relief carvings of paired lions on synagogues. According to art historian Gabrielle Sed-Rajna: “The lion, another theme borrowed from the artistic repertoire of the ancient Near East, appears in the most diverse contexts. On the lintels of Caperneum, Horvat ‘Amudim, and Khirbet Summaqa, a lion is represented on either side of an amphora, in the purest oriental tradition. Sculpted lions flank the Torah ark at Chorazin and at Kefar Bar’am, acting as guardians of holy places, as in Syrian sanctuaries.” (Jewish Art, p. 99).
Paired lions also appear in the Late Antique synagogue floor mosaics Hammath Tiberius and Beth Alpha.
Paired lions are also shown flanking the representation of a Torah shrine in gilded glass decorations found in the Jewish catacombs in Rome. Lions first shown associated with the Torah at Nabratein, where a pair of lions carved in relief flank the Torah niche. As shown above, lions flanks the figure of Daniel on a Torah Shrine base from El Samsum (Golan)
The association of paired lions supporting and defending the Decalogue (Tablets of the Law) develops in later centuries, as we will see in later posts.