Unravelling the Tragic Story Behind the Impressive Lion Monument of Lucerne

Unravelling the Tragic Story Behind the Impressive Lion Monument of Lucerne

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The Lion of Lucerne (known also as the Lion Monument) is a memorial located in Lucerne, Switzerland. This monument is a rock relief carved into the cliff face of a former sandstone quarry, and features a dying lion. Sculpted during the early part of the 19th century, the purpose of the Lion of Lucerne was to commemorate the Swiss Guards who lost their lives in 1792 during the French Revolution.  

Lion Sculptors

The Lion of Lucerne was designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen, a famous Danish sculptor who lived between the 18th and 19th centuries. The man who was responsible for the actual carving of the monument, however, was a stonemason from Constance (in southern Germany) by the name of Lucas Ahorn.

The memorial was designed by Thorvaldsen in 1819 whilst he was staying in Rome, and work began in the following year by Ahorn. The monument, which measures 10 meters (32.8 ft.) in length and 6 meters (19.7 ft.) in height, was completed in 1821.

Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen by Carl Joseph Begas, ca. 1820.

Portrait of Bertel Thorvaldsen by Carl Joseph Begas, ca. 1820. ( Public Domain )

Remembering the August Insurrection

The Lion of Lucerne would not have existed had it not been for a man by the name of Carl Pfyffer von Altishofen. It was von Altishofen who commissioned this memorial. In addition, it is by knowing von Altishofen’s story that one may understand the symbolism and significance of the Lion of Lucerne. Von Altishofen is recorded to have served as an officer in the Swiss Guards. When the ‘August Insurrection’ broke out in Paris on the August 10, 1792, von Altishofen is recorded to have been home on leave in Lucerne.

Part of the French Revolution.

Part of the French Revolution. ( Public Domain )

Von Altishofen’s fellow Swiss Guards in Paris were not as fortunate as he was, and many of them lost their lives during the conflict in the French capital. As mercenaries, the Swiss Guards were renowned for honoring their agreements and their loyalty towards their employers.

One of these was the French royal family, who had been hiring these mercenaries since the 17th century. When the August Insurrection broke out, there was a regiment of about 1000 Swiss Guards serving the King of France, Louis XVI and his family.

About 300 of Louis’ Swiss Guards were sent on a mission outside of Paris several days earlier, whilst the rest of them were with the king and his family at the Tuileries Palace. During the uprising, the Swiss Guards defended their employers against the angry Parisian mob. The majority of them died during combat or in prison from injuries. The number of casualties sustained by the Swiss Guards, as well as the number of survivors, was carved onto the monument in Lucerne. The former being 760, whilst the latter numbered 350.

Louis XVI inspecting troops.

Louis XVI inspecting troops. ( Public Domain )

Details of the Monument

In addition to these figures, a list of some of the fallen officers’ names can be found on the monument. Another inscription that was engraved on the memorial is ‘HELVETIORUM FIDEI AC VIRTUTI’, which translates as ‘To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss’.

Inscription written on the monument.

Inscription written on the monument. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )

The highlight of the monument, however, is undoubtedly the statue of the lion itself. At first glance, the most noticeable feature of the lion is that it is dying. Upon closer inspection, one may notice the head of a spear sticking out from the side of the lion - the cause of its suffering and its eventual death. In addition, the lion is portrayed partially covering a shield bearing the fleur-de-lis. This is an obvious symbol of the French monarchy, as well as a representation of the cause that the Swiss Guards fought and gave up their lives for.

A close-up of the Lion of Lucerne.

A close-up of the Lion of Lucerne. ( CC BY 2.0 )

When the Lion of Lucerne was completed in 1821, it was within someone’s private property. In 1882, however, the city of Lucerne bought that piece of property, and allowed free access to the site. Since then, the memorial became one of the city’s major attractions.

One of the most well-known descriptions of the Lion of Lucerne comes from Mark Twain’s 1880 travelogue, A Tramp Abroad , in which the American author wrote that the memorial was “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”

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