The Mystery of the bronze lion heads at the Museum of the Order of St John

Posted September 7, 2016 2:02 pm by Rosie Weetch under Collections

One of the lion handles. LDOSJ 5616

Roman lion-headed ring handle. LDOSJ 5616

Three objects in the Museum of the Order of St John‘s (MOSJ) collection have intrigued the project team since the start. They are three lion head handles or knockers, discovered in the ruins of the Muristan in Jerusalem, the site of the hospital used by the Order of St John from around AD 1080.  It is this provenance that led the finders of the objects and the Museum to identify them as 12th-century door knockers. They have been considered some of the highlight pieces of the medieval collection since their acquisition in the middle of the 20th Century.

Roman lion-headed ring handle. LDOSJ 5617

Roman lion-headed ring handle. LDOSJ 5617

Given the provenance and identification of these objects the project team was excited to include them in our database of the medieval collection of MOSJ and carry out further research into them. But we hit a stumbling block: we could not find any parallels for the objects in any other medieval collection, catalogue or other published work. We studied over fifty examples of lion door knockers from medieval Europe and the Middle East with no luck in finding anything similar, either in terms of style or execution. Even examples from other periods, both older and more recent, did not seem to help us understand these objects. After weeks of fruitless research it began to appear as if these objects were unique, perhaps examples of poor copies of medieval door knockers created by a metalworker with little experience in the craft. It was not until some correspondence with our colleague Vardit Shotten-Hallel at the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) that the true origin of these object came to light.

Roman lion-headed ring handle. LDOSJ 5617

Roman lion-headed ring handle. LDOSJ 5617

Vardit searched the collection of the IAA and discovered over ten examples (for example this one), many with a remarkable similarity to those at MOSJ. Unfortunately most of the examples at the IAA had very little information about them other than their material and dimensions, except one that had a note attached to it reading “period: Roman?”. Although we had already looked at Roman examples in museums and catalogues we decided to carry out a cursory search on google images. The results were just what we were looking for, and it took no time at all to create a list of over 25 examples of this type of lion head handle. It became clear that the three objects in MOSJ were not medieval but Roman, probably dating between the 1st and 3rd Centuries AD. Most of the examples we have discovered do not come from museums, but were for sale at auction houses around the world, and is one of the reasons why we originally struggled to find these parallels. We were interested to find that there are two in the collection of the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures in Illinois, here and here.

While we are very glad to have solved the mystery of these intriguing objects, some questions remain. I will explore these objects and the questions they raise in more detail on our interpreting the Collection page soon, so watch this space!

2 Comments

Professor Dr. Thomas M. Weber-Karyotakis

These lion head attachments originate in northern Syria and were produced in a set of four pieces to be fixed on wooden sarcophagi. Many parallels found in my book Th. Weber-Syrisch-römische Sarkophagbeschläge, Mainz/Rh. 1989.

William Purkis

Many thanks for sharing this information with us.

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