©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Lions’ Heads, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 24 May 2019.
After rams, lions are the most numerous of all pre-Roman animal heads in amber. The Getty collection reflects the relative popularity of these two animal subjects: there are four lions’ and fifteen rams’ heads. A feature found on almost all the amber animal heads is the collarlike finial section in imitation of a metal mount, which shows that the amber examples imitate pendants made entirely of gold (or another precious metal) or of another material such as ivory set in a metal mount.
The list of amber lions’ heads now includes the four examples in the Getty Museum, 76.AO.80 (cat. no. 33), 76.AO.81 (cat. no. 34),77.AO.81.9 (cat. no. 35), and 77.AO.81.10 (cat. no. 36), and a pair now serving as the finials of two gold bracelets of Hellenistic date in the Louvre, findspot unknown; a pair from an amber-rich find at Novi Pazar, St. Peter’s Church (Etruscan? late sixth century), and a single lion’s head from a tomb at Atenica of the same date; a single (?) lion’s head from Canosa (?) in London (British Museum 78); and the dozen or more tiny lions’ heads on three Etruscan necklaces, one from a controlled excavation and two others on the New York art market said to be from Etruria. On each necklace, the lions’ heads are joined by an equal number of rams’ heads and plain beads.
Parallels for the amber heads include complete amber lions, as Donald Strong noted about a lion’s head in the British Museum, and lion foreparts pendants, one excavated with context from the girl’s Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio, near Melfi, and another from Armento, now in London.
There is a difference between these Late Archaic lions and the earlier, sixth-century examples in the Getty and elsewhere (i.e., cat. nos. 5–6 and two in Paris). The later Etruscan and other Italian-made lions of the Late Archaic are characteristically a mélange: the style is a complex blend not borrowed from any one source. The earliest amber lions’ heads in the Getty, and a related few amber examples, demonstrate visibly their Oriental antecedents—their Assyrian, Hittite, and East Greek connections. In the case of cat. nos. 33–34 (76.AO.80 and 76.AO.81), the Assyrian elements are salient through comparison to the beasts of Ashurbanipal. The East Greek elements are brought out by comparison to marble lions such as those from Miletos and Ephesus, to an East Greek terracotta vessel in the shape of a lion protome, and to various carved gems and tiny ivories. Of the latter, salient comparisons are the lions (and lions’ heads) engraved on a number of Ionian Greek gemstones, notably a plasma scarab signed by Aristoteiches, and a pair of Ionian ivory lions’ heads from Smêla, whose eyes are inset with amber. The longevity of the Ionian lion types in adornment might be exemplified by the finials of a pair of late-fourth-century silver bracelets with gold lions’ heads from Pantikopaion, now in St. Petersburg.
Comparable Etruscan contemporary lions’ heads in other media (which have known provenances) come from southern Etruria, mainly Vulci, but also from Cerveteri, Orvieto, and Tarquinia. These include the tiny gold finials of a blue glass bracelet from Vulci, gold pendants in Berlin and Paris, and the larger lions’ heads of hammered bronze, especially an example from Orvieto, now in Boston. The above-noted examples have in common a similar anatomical form, a similar modeling of the eye area, tipped-up noses, deeply carved mouths, and comparable ferocious expressions. The Orvieto bronze is remarkably like 76.AO.80 in the length, depth, and form of the head, and in the schema of the dagged mane ruff.
The only extant painting of lions’ heads is found on one of the many necklaces and garlands hanging from the branches of the sacred grove painted in the first chamber of the Tarquinian Tomb of Hunting and Fishing. The painted lions’ heads correspond closely with extant contemporary gold, ivory, and amber lions’ heads. This depiction suggests an amuletic or religious function for the objects. Demonic forces are attracted and repelled; propitious forces are invited.
As noted above, a lion of amber combined a potent subject in a potent material, one where the magical aspects of amber and subject, the color of the material and the representation, were matched up. Lion and amber were from earliest times associated with the sun, as was much-prized carnelian, which is very like amber in appearance. Carnelian was traditionally employed in Egypt for pendants of lions’ heads and lions’ foreparts. Most early Greek and Etruscan gemstones of lion subjects are also carnelian. A subject—such as the lion—that enhanced the inherent danger-averting, protective, and regenerative aspects of these solar materials might have been a straightforward choice.
Amber lions’ heads likely served as permanent amulets, that is, as both ornament and magical object. For almost two thousand years before the series of amber and gold head-pendants were produced, lions, lions’-head, and lion-foreparts amulets similar to them in schema and materials had been popular in Egypt. As the symbol of the sun-god, Ra, the lion was, by extension, a symbol of the pharaoh. Worn in life, a lion-subject amulet could symbolize fierceness and bravery, endowing its owner with the same qualities; thus, in life or in death it could function as a protective, danger-averting amulet. The lion-foreparts amulet, unique to the Egyptian late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate periods, was set at the neck to protect the deceased from a second death and endowed the owner with the ability to come forth from the realm of the dead and “become an excellent spirit.” The Egyptian beliefs in the regenerative capabilities of the lion (characteristic of all desert dwellers) are assumed to underlie the symbolism of the lions’-head amulets that were current from the late Old Kingdom through the Late Period. Both lion-foreparts and lions’-head types were almost exclusively carved from carnelian.
Because of the Assyrian typological and stylistic aspects of 76.AO.80, the important role played by the lion in adornment and architecture during the Neo-Assyrian period should be recalled: as noted above, the lion was a generally magically protective type (known as urgulû).
There are demonstrable connections in Greek myth and the material culture of Greece among Apollo, the sun, and the lion. If the trees on the walls of the first chamber in the Tomb of Hunting and Fishing (introduction, fig. 38) depict Apollo’s sacred grove, as some scholars have posited, the necklace with (amber?) lions’-head pendants (and the necklace with rams’-head pendants hanging on another tree) may take on special import. If, however, the dancers of the Hunting and Fishing tomb are directly connected to Fufluns/Dionysos, the god of wine, as Sybille Haynes proposes, the tomb may illustrate Dionysian religiosity. In any case, the dance is apotropaic and purifacatory. In either interpretation, the lions’ and rams’ heads were appropriate to the painted events.
Although the Getty amber lions’ heads are generally similar in format and function to one another (as well as to amber heads in other collections and to protomes in other media), each is idiosyncratic. The Getty lions’ heads demonstrate both a close relationship to existing types and models and the distinctive hand of individual carvers. 76.AO.80, 77.AO.81.9, and 77.AO.81.10 are pendants, bored laterally in the neck area. 76.AO.81 is perforated with a large rostrocaudal through-bore and has a beveled edge. This indicates a usage different from all other amber lions’ heads. 76.AO.81 may have served as a finial, such as a finial bead on a necklace, the likely purpose of one of the amber ram pendants in the Getty collection (cat. no. 52). However, the size of the hole and the delicacy of the carving of the lion’s mouth suggest other functions; possibly it served as the added spout of a small vessel. In addition to the pendants, there are two other amber lions’ heads in the Getty collection, the finials of 77.AO.83 (cat. no. 38), a plaque with a walking boar as its subject.