The Mourning Lion

While in Vienna earlier this summer, we were in the famous Augustinian Church where the Hapsburgs (one of the principal sovereign dynasties of Europe from the 15th to the 20th century) were hatched, latched and dispatched (baptized, married and buried). While there, I was struck by a memorial to Maria Christina (daughter of Empress Maria Theresia and sister to Marie Antoinette). It was sculpted by Italian artist Antonio Canova in 1805 and remains one of his most famous works. (Sorry for all the parenthesis!)


To the left, sculpted from the gleaming white marble, men and women are entering a dark hole, which symbolizes death. The large female in the center carries an urn representing Maria Christina’s ashes, but she is actually buried elsewhere. The various genders and ages of this procession of downcast mourners are said to show that no one escapes this final chapter of life. Maria Christina’s likeness is at the top of the pyramid, framed by a snake biting its own tail, symbolizing eternity. Above the entry to the black hole of death is an inscription in Latin, which means “To the best wife. Albert.”

But what struck me was the mourning lion on the right, his mighty chin resting on his paws and an angel leaning against his back—both overcome with grief.

mourning lion

Oftentimes in scripture, Christ is represented as the Lion (for example, Revelation 5:5). And I believe Jesus, like this lion, weeps at death. Death was never God’s intention for us, but it entered into our story and none escape it. I find it humbling to see a mighty and majestic Lion take notice of, and participate in, such wrenching sorrow.

Last night I was watching the news and there was a segment about coffee drinkers. Apparently, a comprehensive study of coffee drinkers over a 10-year span determined that drinking coffee is beneficial. The newscaster actually said that those who drank coffee were 15% less likely to die.

Wait, what? I laughed. Really? I thought all of us had a 100% chance of dying.

We can’t escape death. The marble lion weeps over death. The Lion, Jesus, weeps over death. Jesus sobbed at the tomb of Lazarus, even though he knew he would restore him to life again. But still, Lazarus would not live forever. And when we ourselves weep over our losses, the Lion of Judah weeps with us. 

Being Human connection: Thank God that, through the Lion’s redeeming grace, death does not have the last word.