Persian Lion Head

Historic Selection of the Week:

Lion Head

Isfahan, Persia

Lion Head
c. 1870
Repoussé silver with patina
8.25 x 5.5 x 9 inches

This extraordinary and unique object appears to have no direct parallels. It seems to be modeled upon previous ancient artifacts, including Achaemenid rhyta (Persian drinking vessels), Neo-Assyrian lion sculptures, and  architectural ornamental sculpture, in stone and glazed brick, from Persepolis, Susa and Babylon. Its large size and fine workmanship signify its value as a paradigm of archaizing precious metalwork. This style, demonstrating an interest in archaic models, potentially places this piece in either the oeuvre of Assyrian Revival artworks of the 1870s and after, or from the period during the Qajar Dynasty of Persia, also around 1870s, and after. Both periods included archaizing styles which arose as a result of a renewed interest in the artworks of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid Empires, of the near East.

The general style of the work is based upon Ancient Near Eastern approaches to depicting sacred animals such as lions, bulls, and stags – which appear copiously in metalwork, stone relief, and architectural ornament, and on a smaller scale in cylinder and stamp seals, over three millennia, before Alexander the Great conquered the region. This particular style of the head harks back to the Neo-Babylonian period in Mesopotamia and even more closely to the Achaemenid Empire in Persia, which conquered Babylon in 539 BCE under Cyrus the Great, and adopted many of Babylon’s artistic styles and approaches to depiction of humans and animals.

The actual silverwork, which seems to be based on the rhyta vessels hammered and chased, for the most part, by skilled ancient artisans in gold and silver, reflects a very high quality of workmanship. There are some significant departures from this ancient style that indicate its more recent creation. These differences include the overall shape, size, and details of ornamentation, and shape of features such as the nose. The size of this silver object belies its use as a vessel, however, and suggests that although possibly purely an ornamental object, meant to be admired on a shelf, it might have been used as an architectural ornament or in some other manner, perhaps fitting over a pole or column.  The interior of the piece does not, however, show many signs of wear or abrasion.This silver lion head is formal as well as more static and decorative than the ancient examples – it is a pleasing specimen of the feline, which conveys both the beauty of the beast, its value as a rhythmically patterned, almost abstractly ornamental object, and its essential animal nature – as handed down to us for centuries.


– Diana K. McDonald, PhD