The Lion of Lucerne

Aslan, is that you?

The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff—for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion—and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.

— Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

If you’ve ever been a tourist in the Swiss city of Lucerne, you’ll know that one of the must-see attractions is the Löwendenkmal or The Lion Monument. Carved lying in a grotto of stone, the tip of the spear that killed it protruding from its back, it’s an arresting image for both its pathos and sense of grandeur. Who killed this lion, and why? Why was it monumentalized and put on display? I certainly asked those questions when I was a young’un seeing it on a family vacation to Switzerland. If a younger C. S. Lewis had been in my shoes, he might have asked himself the same questions, so inspiring the pivot point of the plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Reality is different. For starters, the sculpture is on display behind an iron fence and across a pool, requiring a telephoto lens to take a proper photo of. And it honors not a lion, or a member of nobility who had the bearing of a lion, but a group of Swiss guards — mercenaries, basically — who were killed during the French Revolution while protecting Tuileries Palace. Though the inscription below the sculpture on the rock face states 760 guards were killed, recent estimates align more with 300 and that it was a more even-handed battle than the massacre that was initially presented. Plus the fact that the slain soldiers were glorified for defending the last gasp of the moribund French royal family and thus rebuking notions of liberty and equality gives the monument some controversy in spite of its emotional tugging on our heartstrings.

Today only one regiment of Swiss guards are left: those protecting the Vatican.

The other great tourist attraction of Lucerne is the gruesome Spreuer Bridge dating from the 16th century, a covered footbridge which sports an interior covered with paintings of cavorting skeletons and plague victims, a theme called by Germans the Totentanz.

Do I sense a theme here?

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