The Guennol Lionness
circa late 3rd-early
2nd millennium B.C.

PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION

THE GUENNOL LIONNESS

A NEAR EASTERN MAGNESITE OR CRYSTALLINE LIMESTONE FIGURE OF A LIONESS
IRAN OR BACTRIA-MARGIANA,
CIRCA LATE 3RD-EARLY 2ND MILLENNIUM B.C.

The muscular figure superbly sculpted, depicted standing as a biped, striding with the left leg advanced, the upper torso turned to the right, the paws clasped at the chest, her head turned over her left shoulder, the features finely detailed, the wide-set eyes recessed, a raised volute on each shoulder, with four drilled holes on the lower back presumably for insertion of a tail, and two holes on the crown of the head perhaps for suspension, the lower legs possibly once completed in a different material
3 ¼ in. (8.26 cm.) high

Present lot illustrated (detail)

Present lot illustrated (detail)

The Guennol Lioness is without question the most iconic and transcendent sculpture to have survived from the ancient Near East. It made its first modern appearance, according to preserved records, with Elias S. David, who sold it to fellow dealer Joseph Brummer in 1931. It was not until 1948 that the lioness found a long-term home with the collectors Alastair Bradley Martin and his wife Edith. From them it takes her modern name: Guennol is the Welsh word for Martin, a moniker which the Martins ascribed to their outstanding cross-cultural collection. The Martins placed the lioness on loan at the Brooklyn Museum, where she would stay, excluding various brief appearances at other institutions, until the sale at auction by their heirs in 2007. The world-record price of $57.2 million is the highest ever achieved at auction for any ancient work of art, and this was the highest price for any sculpture from any time period until it was eclipsed by Giacometti’s Pointing Man at Christie’s in 2015.

A Proto-Elamite Silver Vessel in the form of a kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Representations of animals in human postures were common in Proto-Elamite art, possibly as symbols of natural forces but just as likely as protagonists in myths or fables.

A Proto-Elamite Silver Vessel in the form of a kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Representations of animals in human postures were common in Proto-Elamite art, possibly as symbols of natural forces but just as likely as protagonists in myths or fables.

The exact geographical origins of the lioness has been the subject of scholarly debate since its first appearance in the literature in 1950 (see Gallatin, op. cit.). The supposed findspot of “near Baghdad” prompted early catalogers to see this as a Mesopotamian work of art. Later scholarship suggested that it is more likely to be from the neighboring Elamite world in western Iran. The links to the Elamite world are reinforced by comparison to related leonine figures on a small group of Proto-Elamite cylinder seal impressions, which similarly stand upright with the upper torso frontal, the paws clasped on the chest (see P. Amiet, Glyptique susienne, vol. 2, pl. 109, fig. 1012). Additionally, a Proto-Elamite silver vessel in the form of a kneeling human figure with a bovine head, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is notable since related bull figures appear in tandem with leonine figures on the aforementioned cylinder seal impressions (see fig. 5 in J. Aruz, ed., op. cit.)

Detail after Amiet, Elam, fig. 61B, p.107

Detail after Amiet, Elam, fig. 61B, p.107

Detail after Amiet, Elam, fig. 61A, p.106

Detail after Amiet, Elam, fig. 61A, p.106

More recently, a larger lioness figure was acquired by the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait. This figure is similar to the Guennol Lioness except that it is a composite figure formed from sections in white limestone which join to a skirt of black chlorite; the clasped hands are additionally inlaid in the same darker material (see no. 15 in D. Freeman, ed., Splendors of the Ancient East: Antiquities from The al-Sabah Collection). The style of the kilt finds close parallels with other composite stone figures, most notably the so-called mountain man or scarface type, which are thought to be from the Bactria-Margiana Complex, located further north and east in Central Asia (see the example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 148 in M. Vidale, Treasures from the Oxus: The Art and Civilizations of Central Asia). This suggests that the traditional date of the early 3rd millennium B.C. previously assigned to the Guennol Lioness should be revised to the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium B.C. (see Vidale, op. cit., pl. 171.

Present lot illustrated (detail)

Present lot illustrated (detail)

Despite the small scale, the Guennol Lioness projects monumentality. The suspension holes at the crown of her head suggest that a cord was inserted so that the sculpture could be worn, lending its owner apotropaic protection from malevolent forces. As this was made during the pre-literate era, it is not known and possibly not knowable what the true meaning might be of this enigmatic figure.

Present lot illustrated (detail)

Present lot illustrated (detail)

A Proto-Elamite Clay Tablet in the Louvre, Paris, with cylinder seal impressions, showing a bull symmetrically restraining two seated felines, alternating with a lion dominating two rearing bulls.  The animals stand on their hindlegs as if they were bipeds, which is characteristic of the Proto-Elamite period and as seen also with the Guennol Lioness

A Proto-Elamite Clay Tablet in the Louvre, Paris, with cylinder seal impressions, showing a bull symmetrically restraining two seated felines, alternating with a lion dominating two rearing bulls.  The animals stand on their hindlegs as if they were bipeds, which is characteristic of the Proto-Elamite period and as seen also with the Guennol Lioness

Present lot illustrated (detail)

Present lot illustrated (detail)