European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

21 August 2015

A lion at my feet

In the 1440s Juan de Mena dedicated a central section of his long political-moral allegory Laberinto de Fortuna (Labyrinth of Fortune, not apparently its original name), to the portrait of his patron John II of Castile:

Al nuestro rey magno, bienaventurado,
vi sobre todos en muy firme silla,
digno de reino mayor que Castilla:
velloso león a sus pies por estrado,
vestido de múrice, ropa de estado,
ebúrneo ceptro mandava su diestra
e rica corona la mano siniestra,
más prepotente que el cielo estrellado (Stanza 221)

[I saw our great blessed King
above all,on a firm throne,
worthy of a kingdom greater than Castile:
a furry lion at his feet for a footstool,
dressed in purple, clothing of state,
his right hand commanded an ivory sceptre
and his left a rich crown,
more powerful than the starry heavens.]

 Commenting on the text in 1499, Hernán Núñez, professor of Greek at Salamanca, says:

El rey don Juan, segund dizen, tenía consigo un león manso y familiar, en el qual, estando él assentado en la silla real, ponía los pies

[King Juan, so they say, kept by him a tame and friendly lion, on which, when he was seated on the royal throne, he put his feet.]

Reading this the other day I thought Núñez was guilty of taking as historical fact what was obviously a piece of royal symbolism of the sort the Middle Ages loved, an example of which can be seen on the tomb of King John of England, a replica of which is displayed in the Magna Carta exhibition, though his lion looks more like a draft-excluder.

Tomb of King John of England with an effigy of the king with his feet resting on a lionKing John’s tomb in Worcester Catherdral (Photo by Bob Embleton from the Geograph Project via Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]

But in a further note in De Nigris’s edition I was proven wrong:

Después desto vinieron allí los embaxadores del Rey Charles de Francia ... El Rey estaba en su estrado alto, asentado en su silla guarnida, debaxo de un rico doser de brocado carmesí, la casa toldada de rica tapicería, e tenía a los pies un muy gran león manso con un collar de brocado, que fue cosa muy nueva para los embaxadores, de que mucho se maravillaron ... los embaxadores se partieron del Rey contentos e alegres (The Chronicle of Juan II, cited by De Nigris, p. 294, referring to events of 1425)

[After this came the ambassadors of King Charles of France ... The King was on a high dais, seated on a garnished throne, under a rich canopy of crimson brocade, the house hung with rich tapestries, and at his feet he had a big tame lion with a brocade collar, which was a very new thing for the ambassadors, at which they marvelled greatly.  ... The ambassadors left the King feeling contented and happy.]

Manuscript illustration of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy seated on a throne surrounded by courtiers and with a lion at his feet
Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419-1467) portrayed with a lion at his feet, from Chroniques abrégées des Anciens Rois et Ducs de Bourgogne (late 15th century), British Library Yates Thompson MS 32

I wonder: was this a tame lion, or an elderly one?  Thornton Wilder, author of the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey and the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth, also taught modern languages at Harvard.  He has an article that reveals that lions appear no less than three times in the plays of Lope de Vega:

For a year or two [the actor-manager] Pinedo was in possession of a lion or a costume made from a lion-skin.   [...] I am inclined to think that Pinedo enjoyed the services of a poor aged and edentate beast, simply because the lion is always called upon to do the same thing – to come to the feet of a leading player and lie down.  Were it an actor in a skin the lion would certainly have been given more varied and more thrilling things to do.

But a senior lion can look no less regal for being of pensionable age: remember the MGM lion, so tame the stars happily had their photos taken with him.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


Juan de Mena, Laberinto de Fortuna y otros poemas, ed. Carla De Nigris (Barcelona, 1994) YA.1995.a.643

Thornton Wilder, ‘Lope, Pinedo, Some Child Actors, and a Lion’, Romance Philology, 7:1 (Jan. 1953); 19-25. P.P.4970.gc.





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