Among the animals that guarded Greek tombs, including bulls, hounds, and leopards, the lion remained the favorite over some three centuries, beginning around 600 B.C.
It is easy to understand the lion’s popularity as a funerary marker. As king of the animal realm, the lion served as an effective and appropriate grave guardian, capable of warding off evil. A symbol of virtue, the lion also memorialized the valor of the deceased. For this reason, it often functioned as the central ornament for mass communal graves erected in honor of the war dead.
The Art Museum’s lion exemplifies this tradition. Like others of its genre, it originally stood, either alone or as one of a pair, at the corner of an elevated family burial podium. Its monumental size and the quality of the carving suggest that it adorned the grave of a prominent individual, perhaps a military officer. The work is clearly the product of an Athenian sculptor; the lion’s crouching pose and expressive, muscular form are typical of Athenian art of the fourth century B.C.
It is unlikely that the artist who sculpted the Art Museum's funerary lion used an actual lion as a model. He probably used a dog as an anatomical reference instead.