Dalmatian Ciborium Fragment

Zadar, first half of 11th century
Zadar Archeological Museum, Zadar, Croatia

The same corner of another ciborium on display at the museum has a lion attacking its much smaller prey, so one might guess that the smaller creatures here are the "young lions" that assail the psalmist in Psalms 16:12, 56:5, and 103:21, and that they are cavorting with their dam, who has a long, tufted tail just as lions in medieval images do. The one on the right seems to be tugging at a piece of meat in her mouth and has the same kind of fur and collar rings as hers.

However, the large creature and the smaller one on the left both have erect, pointy ears, whereas lions' ears in medieval images are usually round and/or held back against the skull so as to be scarcely visible. So it is within the range of possibility that the small animals here are dogs or wolves (which also have long, tufted tails in medieval images), either cavorting with their dam or joining together, pack-like, to attack the larger animal. The latter possibility would correspond to Psalm 21:17, "For many dogs have encompassed me: the council of the malignant hath besieged me." In any case, the creatures clearly represent the perils of the world outside the safety assured by the ciborium, where Christ arrives in the flesh at every liturgy.

This way of characterizing the world outside sacred space is like the device of placing lions at the entrance to a church: see my page on the lion symbol.

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Photographed at the museum by Claire Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.