The Lions at Split Cathedral
13th century (?)
Cathedral of St. Domnius, Split, Croatia
The cathedral was originally the mausoleum of the Emperor Diocletian (244-312), repurposed in the 7th century and essentially unchanged since then. The doors, sculpted with scenes from the life of Christ, are from the 13th century, so I am tentatively dating the lions as contemporary with them.
The lion on the left (first picture above) clearly corresponds to medieval commentary that interprets lions in the Psalms to the crowd that called for Jesus' crucifixion. For example, on Psalm 21(22):14, "they have opened their mouths against me, as a lion ravening and roaring," Augustine says "they" are "those who roared, 'Crucify him.'" And for 56(57):5, "he hath delivered my soul from the midst of the young lions," the Glossa Ordinaria has "that is, from the Jews and the soldiers who crucified him, for they could not kill the soul." Accordingly, the sculptor has placed the roaring lion directly below a high relief of Pilate pointing to Jesus and asking the crowd what it wants (Glossa Ordinaria, III, col. 841).
The lion on the right has a dead or dying lamb in its clutches. This responds to other commentaries that see in the lion the Roman authorities who persecuted the martyrs. Thus, for Psalm 9:30(10:9), "He lieth in wait in secret like a lion in his den…that he may catch the poor man" the Glossa quotes St. Basil: "In him is both physical power and deceitfulness, the one is used in the violent tortures of the martyrs, the other in the fraudulence of heretics and false brothers" (ibid., col. 502).
It is possible that the martyr in question is St. Domnius, the patron saint of the cathedral and the city. In one account he was Diocletian's trusted advisor until the Emperor learned that he was secretly a Christian and condemned him to death. The relief above the lion would then be a judgment scene parallel to the judgment of Jesus on the other side, the seated figure being Diocletian and the standing one Domnius.
View the photo of the left lion in full resolution.
View the photo of the right lion in full resolution.
Read more about the lion symbol.
Read more about images of Jesus' trial before Pilate.
Read more about images of St. Domnius.
Photographed at the cathedral by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.