The winged lion is a relatively common symbol and has appeared in many cultures, mythologies and religions.
Most commonly, the winged lion is connected with Saint Mark and, through him, with the Italian city of Venice. As king of the animals, the lion represents earthly powers, justice, and domination over others, while the wings represent a connection to the divine realm.
Thus, the winged lion symbol can be interpreted as a symbol of political power (the lion) blessed by a God (the wings).
The Venetian winged lion almost always carries a book, which can symbolize either the power of knowledge or, if the book is a Bible, the power of God.
In the case of war flags, the Venetian winged lion is shown carrying a sword.
Throughout history, there have been many creature variations of the winged lion symbol, but each of these creatures has evolved to become its own, independent symbol:
The winged lion and Saint Mark
St. Mark is one of the four “Evangelists” who wrote the Gospels of the New Testament. In the 7th century, a legend emerged claiming that Mark had been sent by Paul to preach to the people in the northern Adriatic region.
According to the legend, on his return journey, Mark’s boat encountered trouble in the marshes where the city of Venice would later be built. In a dream, an angel with the body of a lion and the wings of an eagle told him that his bones would find their final resting place there:
PAX TIBI, MARCE EVANGELISTA MEUS, HIC REQUIESCET CORPUS TUUM
(“Peace be to you, my Evangelist Mark; here your bones will find rest”).
Each of the four Evangelists is associated with a symbol: Mark with the lion, Matthew with a man or angel, Luke with an ox, and John with an eagle.
These symbols were incorporated into religious artwork, particularly mosaics. They served as tools for worship and education, making them widely recognizable among a population that was predominantly illiterate.
Venice becomes the city of the Winged Lion
As mentioned previously, in Western culture, the winged lion is most closely associated with Saint Mark.
The connection between Venice and St. Mark has its roots in politics.
In the 9th century, Venice had by now existed for nine centuries but found itself in a delicate political situation since it was a small state bordered by the Holy Roman Empire on one side and the prosperous Byzantium on the other.
Like any superpower, each of these states wanted to increase their influence at the expense of Venice.
As a way to obtain prestige and influence over regional rivals such as Aquileia and Grado, the Venetians decided to claim the remains of St. Mark, a significant figure who had Christianized the region.
At that time, possessing relics was highly valued. It provided a sense of spiritual protection, a unifying symbol, and a source of income through pilgrimage.
However, St. Mark’s tomb was in Alexandria (modern day Egypt), a city well-known to the Venetians through trade. His bones had been moved several times and were now set to be relocated to accommodate a mosque.
Venice argued that it was time for the great saint to rest in a place that appreciated him.
In 828, two Venetian merchants, Bonus and Rusticus, traveled to Alexandria and convinced the Greek guards of the tomb to support their cause. Using cleverness and audacity, the merchants stole the body and concealed it with pig flesh, causing the Muslim cargo inspectors to panic and flee.
They returned to Venice, where the body was entrusted to the Doge and a shrine was built. Eventually, the grand Basilica of St. Mark was constructed around it. Adopting St. Mark as their protector elevated the Venetians’ status in multiple ways.
They transcended a petty dispute between cities, heroically rescued a Christian saint’s remains, avoided a confrontation with the Carolingians, gained a significant pilgrimage site, and established a compelling national myth about the city of Venice.
Furthermore, St. Mark’s patronage brought several advantages to Venice:
- First, Mark held a prominent position as an Evangelist, ranking just below the Virgin Mary and Christ in the eyes of the Church.
- Second, Mark’s association with water in early Christian art aligned perfectly with Venice’s watery environment, providing an appropriately aquatic patron. Moreover, Mark had connections to places familiar to the Venetians, such as Antioch, Cyprus, and Alexandria. He was sent by Peter to the Veneto, and his noble background, cosmopolitan nature, and heroic death resonated with the Venetians.
- Third, the choice of Mark over St. Theodore, the previous patron saint of Venice, symbolized the city’s declaration of independence from Byzantine influence. St. Theodore was a Greek saint, a reminder of Venice’s colonial ties to Constantinople that they preferred to forget.
- Finally, with Mark came the lion, which became a symbol of Venetian self-awareness and aspiration during the Middle Ages. A colossal statue of a lion was brought to Venice as war booty, wings were added to it, and it was placed atop a column in front of the Doge’s Palace.
Therefore, through the theft of relics and the acquisition of a winged lion, Venice obtained a distinctive identity with significant political implications. The lion symbolized Venice’s desired image—an independent entity separate from Rome and Byzantium, emerging from the water and aspiring to rule over its expanding territories.
Non-Venetian uses of the winged lion
Besides Venice, the winged lion has been used as a symbol by many other cultures:
- Palacio de Velázquez, Madrid: The Palacio de Velázquez in Madrid, Spain, features two winged lions that guard the main entrance. The modern day Palacio is currently a museum.
- Winged Lion Memorial, Prague: The Winged Lion Memorial in Prague, Czech Republic, is a monument dedicated to the Czechoslovak airmen who served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II. The monument features a bronze statue of a winged lion on a plinth, surrounded by the names of the airmen.
- Human-headed winged lion (lamassu) at The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City houses a human-headed winged lion, or lamassu, from the Neo-Assyrian period (ca. 883-859 BCE). Originating from Mesopotamia, the lamassu is a protective deity often depicted with a bull or lion’s body, eagle’s wings, and a human’s head.
- Temple of the Winged Lions of Petra, Jordan: This ancient temple was likely dedicated to the supreme goddess of the Nabatean people. Unfortunately, little else is known about the purpose of this temple. It’s name however is derived from the winged lions that decorated 12 inner columns.
Variations of the winged lion
Throughout history there have been multiple variations of the winged lion symbol, although each is viewed as a distinct symbol with its own meanings and interpretations:
- Griffin: The griffin is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. As the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to possess the powers of both.
- Lamassu: The Lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted with a bull or lion’s body, eagle’s wings, and human’s head. In some writings, it is portrayed to represent a female deity. A less frequently used name is shedu, which refers to the male counterpart of a lamassu. The Lamassu was thought to symbolize the zodiac, stars or constellations.
- Sphinx: The Sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human, the body of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. In Greek tradition, it has the head of a human, the hips of a lion, and sometimes the wings of a bird. It was famous for subjecting victims to cruel tricks and riddles, eating them if they failed to solve them.
- Vapula: According to modern withcraft and demonology, Vapula is the 16th spirit in the Solomonic texts, and is described as a demon with the body of a lion and wings of a griffin. His powers can make men knowledgeable in all handcrafts and possessions, philosophy and other sciences. He also commands 36 legions of spirits.
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