The concavely curved slab is one of a pair of reliefs, both of which are in Vienna’s Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities. The other depicts a ewe nursing her young. Both are known to have been at Palazzo Grimani in Venice as early as the 18th century. They were originally part of a Roman fountain in ancient Praeneste south-east of Rome, as demonstrated by a third relief found there, depicting a wild sow nursing her young. Because the two Vienna reliefs depict a wild animal (lion) and a domestic animal (sheep), respectively, there may well have been a fourth relief depicting a domestic animal (cow?) as a counterpart to the relief found at Praeneste. In a grotto at the foot of a plane-tree with wide branches, a lioness looks alertly about her as she nurses her two young. To the right of the tree is a small rustic shrine to the god Dionysus, the god of wine, vegetation and fruitfulness: an altar of piled-up stones with fruit and a mask relief adorned with garlands (mask of Silenus, panpipe, fruit), on which are seen his attributes – a burning torch and a thyrsus staff surmounted by ivy leaves. The mouth of the lion cub, whose head is turned towards the observer, forms the opening from which a stream of waterflowed into the fountain. The illusion of spatial depth is created by painterly means rather than by those of perspective. The various levels of the image are not sharply separated from one another; the transitions are fluid and the contours are blurred into the background of the relief, as may be seen in the back of the lioness – otherwise modelled in high relief –, the stone altar and the leaves of the plane-tree. Peace, fruitfulness and the joys of the simple life amidst a bucolic landscape were the main themes of poetry and the plastic arts in the Golden Age, which the emperor Augustus inaugurated with the Secular Games of the year 17 BC.
© Kurt Gschwantler, Alfred Bernhard-Walcher, Manuela Laubenberger, Georg Plattner, Karoline Zhuber-Okrog, Masterpieces in the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities. A Brief Guide to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 2011