The lion, king of the beasts, and the eagle, king of the birds, frequently appear together in later Jewish art, particularly on the Holy Ark. We first hear reference to this combination of creatures in David's lament over Saul and Jonathan. David, whose "heart is as the heart of a lion" [1], declares in his lament over Saul and Jonathan that "they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions."[2]

The two reappear together in the prophet Ezekiel's vision of the celestial chariot (merkavah), which consists of four living creatures.[3] These resembled men in form but each had four faces — of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle, representative of the four most majestic creatures and together symbolizing the divine spirit. "As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man and the face of a lion, on the right side; and they had the face of an ox on the left side; the four also had the face of an eagle."[4] Numerous commentaries and homilies were devoted to these verses.

Click to view enlarged

Ezekiel's Vision
c.1518 (detail)
Oil on panel.
Raphael (1483-1520)
Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

Said Rabbi Avin: "Four sorts of proud creatures have been created into the world: the proudest of creatures — man; the proudest of fowl — the eagle; the proudest of animals -the bull, the proudest of beasts — the lion, and all have assumed kingship arid have been granted greatness and all have their rightful place under the Chariot of God Almighty."[5]

The kabbalists, inspired by the merkavah image, developed an entire school of mystical speculation called Ma'aseh ha-Merkavah, the account of the divine chariot, and the merkavah texts served as the basis for the mystics of Europe. In addition, echoes of the fanciful merkavah traditions are present in the liturgical poetry (piyyutim) of both Spanish and Ashkenazi authors.

Interestingly, however, despite the symbolic importance of the merkavah, it was rarely included in Jewish art in its entirety. Different opinions are expressed in the Talmud as to the permissibility of reproducing these figures; the popularity of this motif in Christian art (as a symbol of the four evangelists closest to Jesus) most certainly further deterred Jewish artists from using it. The general rabbinic consensus was that while reproducing the four together or the complete human form was forbidden, it was permissible to present the three animals separately.

The lion was allowed special leniency, possibly because of its national association with the kingdom of Judah, and possibly because in was already represented in the Holy Temple and on the steps leading up to and on the side of Solomon's throne.[6] It is also possible, too, that the singular popularity of the lion and the eagle as artistic motifs, both separately and together, may have stemmed from the influence of early Middle Eastern civilizations.


[1] II Sam. 17:10 [back]
[2] II Sam. 1:23 [back]
[3] the Hebrew word used is hayyot, a word that may also be translated "beasts"; in Ezekiel Ch. 10,these four are called "cherubim" [back]
[4] Ezekiel 1:10, 10:14 [back]
[5] Exodus Rabbah, 5, 23-24 [back]
[6] 1 Kings 7:29; 1 Kings 10:20 [back]
Lion in Jewish art in this edition
Fantastic creatures in Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly chariot

LIONS Table of Contents



Subscribe to the JHOM mailing list for updates.

Contact us

Tell a friend