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. . . Because in His Judgment I Was Found Innocent

Daniel answered, 'Long live the king! My God sent his angel to shut the lions' mouths so that they have done me no injury, because in his judgment I was found innocent; and moreover, O king, I had done you no injury.

Dan. 6.21‑22 (New English Bible)

[image ALT: The tympanum of a stone doorway, in which a bishop is standing between two lions. The one on the left is sitting on its haunches, the one on the right is lying down with its muzzle between its paws. This sculpture is from the main door of the church of S. Emiliano in Trevi (Umbria).]

St. Emiliano undisturbed by lions (and a bit closer).
From the main door of his former cathedral church.

The ancient world was no less fluid than our own. Milianus — as his name reads in the earliest Roman-period record of him we have, the acts of his passion — was an Armenian pressed into service to be the first bishop of Trebiae. The Passio S. Miliani reads in part (my translation):

Et iussit imperator omnes feras ad illum dimitti, et circumdederunt sanctum Milianum; leones autem faciem eius lingebant, et leopardi pedes eius; similiter et omnes bestie seipse occidebant certantes que prior ad manus eius excideret. Et non recedembantº ex ipsis feris, nisi prius manus imposuisset eis, benedicens; sic recedebant ab eo bestie.

And the emperor ordered that all the beasts be set upon him, and they surrounded saint Milianus; indeed, the lions licked his face, and the leopards his feet; in this manner, all the beasts were killing each other as they vied to get to his hands first. Nor did they walk away [from the beasts themselves] unless he had first laid his hands on them, blessing them; only then did the beasts walk away from him.

To the extent that the Passio is reliable — the Latin has started to deliquesce into a modern Romance language, dating the document to the fifth or sixth century, some 200 years after the event — we may imagine this episode taking place in a small amphitheatre: the bishop was being forced to fight wild animals as a bestiarius, which was a common fate for a condemned criminal. And if the story is true, it may even be plausible: refuse to fight, treat animals gently and make no sudden moves, they will often react tamely; there is at least one reference in an ancient non-Christian author to just such a case (Cassius Dio, 79.4.5).

Furthermore, Trebiae was not the Colosseum. To borrow the language of baseball, we're looking at minor league lions. Any beasts exhibited in small towns in the more rural parts of Italy may well have been fairly tame, since no owner of a small travelling gladiatorial troop would want to kill off his own property, whether gladiators, bestiarii, or lions.

Curiously, this triangular carving, although it fits nicely over the main door of Trevi's cathedral church, was not designed for it. Tommaso Valenti, in his essay on Trevi's main square — "La Piazza", in his Curiosità storiche trevane, 1924, carefully researched from primary source documents — has this to say (my translation):

There are interesting and curious reminiscences to be found in our Archive about a very old popular entertainment held until not very many years ago, right in the Piazza in fact: the Maggio [Maypole] or Cuccagna.

In 1458, however, the custom of planting the Madio, as it was then called, was discontinued for a time; and in the place where the maypole used to be, in the center of the Piazza, it was decided to make a "triangle", or a sort of street shrine, with the likeness of St. Emiliano between two lions and the devices of the City and of the Church. And indeed, on May 28, 1458, the Town Council commissioned Massimo Citrini (Petrini?) of Venice to execute this carving. The triangle remained in this place, in the center of the Piazza, until 1462, when it was removed and placed over the main door of Sant' Emiliano, where it may still be seen today. If you take the trouble to go look at it, you will find that it does in fact correspond faithfully to the description of the work that we find in the old documents.

Iconographical note: the sculptor has done a good job in rendering the lion licking his face and the leopard his feet. What, the two animals you see are both lions? Not in the language of heraldry, where leopard and lion are in fact technical terms. A leopard is a lion stretched out horizontally and looking at you. . . .

Our sculptor didn't even mean to be esoteric. He was being very literal and showing us the commonest meaning of leopard in his time.

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Page updated: 26 Mar 16