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Bill Thayer

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Mark, or the Prophet Daniel?

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A remarkable piece of sculpture, certainly.

The prophet Daniel, whether "in the lions' den" — in a pit where a lesser man would be devoured — or in a blazing fire with Meschach, Shadrach and Abednego, was early on a favorite of medieval sculptors: a particularly striking, human figure in the Old Testament, but also one whose story is replete with the most vivid imagery, something artists can sink their teeth in.

It is therefore a normal first reaction, on seeing lions in a Christian context, to think Daniel; and it should be. They are the main iconographical element associated with him, and the converse relation­ship holds almost as well: his chief competitor is Mark the Apostle and Evangelist (whose symbolic lion, by the way, is taken from a vision in the Book of. . . Daniel) but Mark is very often shown writing, or with a book or writing implements, which this figure is not.

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		Nothing is always true, however. This beautiful lion for example, not much later than ours, is clearly not Daniel (nor Mark): the inscription says so. Other lions serve merely as decorative elements, prowling — much like their modern cousins in le douanier Rousseau — thru the luxuriant vegetation of medieval scrollwork, as elsewhere in fact on this very Sarcophagus of Stilicho, or on this church door in Foligno.

So why do I want to see Daniel in the powerful spiritual sculpture above with the awkwardly modeled arms?

Well, I've looked at the eyes of both lion and human, and I've looked at the way the lion is shown springing away from us up the arch; and I'm strongly reminded of. . . Babylon.

Large eyes are common enough in sacred sculpture, but the particular type we see here, almond-shaped with a very prominent black pupil, looks very much to me like those of the Sumerian gods. (No pictures, folks: I haven't been there; I hope I can find a good link instead.)

The lion's stance is even more convincing to me: for all the world straight out of a Babylonian or Assyrian hunt scene.

The problem with this idea? Well, almost all the Sumerian statuary we know was brought to light — physically unburied — in the last hundred years; and Assyrian lion hunt scenes, like those in the British Museum, could not be found in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Novelist that I am, let me propose to you a scenario though: up to you to judge how plausible it is.

Much of the art in this church of S. Ambrogio is either Byzantine or influenced by the Eastern Empire, very likely thru Venice. Just four years after this monument was built, Venice would in fact, to her shame, plunder Constantinople and make herself mistress of much of its artistic heritage.

Is it not plausible that artists from the Eastern Empire, who may have seen some of the impressive works of Mesopotamian antiquity, could have left their mark here? That Daniel is represented, because he was, like them, an exile in a strange land; thus a sort of patron saint to them?

Now I warned you when we started, that I was probably wrong. I have neither the photos nor the precise memory of this pulpit to prove it, but this is why.

On the homepage for this tomb, you should have been tipped off: I did mention that we are on the gospel side of the church. A four-cornered pulpit from which the Gospel is preached — could the four corners be anyone other than Matthew, Luke, John. . . and Mark?

As in Venice's Lion of St. Mark, if you wish.

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Page updated: 12 May 98