Eaten by a lion – at a Norwich church door
Around 700 years ago a magnificent brass door knocker, showing a man’s head in a lion’s mouth, was made for a Norwich church
A brass door knocker of a lion devouring a man once welcomed 14th century visitors to St Gregory’s church, Norwich. Now it is one of the most striking objects in the collection at Norwich Castle, and will be one of the many highlights of the new medieval gallery.
The brass door knocker is made up of a lion’s head with a human head in its jaws. It has lost the ring which once hung from the lion’s mouth, making it difficult to tell whether it might have been a door pull. It was originally fixed to the outside of the south door at St Gregory’s on Pottergate, now looked after by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust and used as an antiques centre. Features such as the wreath of stylized vine leaves on the circular base suggest it was made in the 14th century. As is so often the case, we do not know the identity of the artisan responsible: all we possess is the object itself. What we can say for certain is that the maker was skilled, as crafting and casting of metal was a very difficult and complex task. (Even so talented an artist as the sixteenth-century Benvenuto Cellini was almost brought to illness and humiliation by the difficult process of making a bronze statue for the Medici Duke of Florence.)
The lion knocker is a rare example of a medieval object that was consciously designed in imitation of an older artistic form. It was modelled directly on 11th and 12th century, or Romanesque, doorknockers and door pulls. It might have been directly influenced by a doorknocker from 1200 once fixed to the door at another church dedicated to St Gregory in Adel, near Leeds. A similar Yorkshire door pull appears to have been taken, via Rome, to Kraków in Poland.
Such objects were prized furnishings for prestige buildings. Our object is a reminder of the rich external furnishings that must have decorated many of our medieval parish churches.
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It is also clear that a great deal of metalwork has been destroyed, not simply in the Reformation or in the Cromwellian period, but over the centuries. Even today church metalwork is a valuable, and vulnerable, commodity, with the door pull at Adel stolen as recently as 2002.
It is possible, therefore, that our unknown artist was inspired by a similar—now lost—Romanesque doorknocker here in Norfolk.
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Like his or her Romanesque forebears, the artist evidently took pleasure in the details. The lion’s face has wide-open almond-shaped eyes, small and deeply-incised nostrils, and puffed cheeks complete with delicate round indents simulating whiskers. His mane radiates elegantly connecting the head to the circular base, and the one surviving ear is pricked.
The animal’s open jaws clutch the head of a man with parted long hair, a bushy moustache and a forked beard. The man’s face gives the impression that he is frowning, indicating that he is alive and may not be entirely content with his fate!
The lion had many roles in Christian iconography - as a symbol of Christ and his resurrection, a companion of saints, a guardian of sacred spaces and as a monumental prop for porches and altars. There are two ways of interpreting the scene on the Norwich knocker – as a warning or a promise. The warning is if we interpret the knocker as a man being swallowed by the lion, perhaps as a punishment for sins. A more positive message is that the lion is spitting out the man. In medieval depictions of the Last Judgement wild beasts are shown vomiting up humans, who are resurrected to be judged for their actions in life, so the moustached man in the lion’s mouth could be at the moment of rebirth.
Like all parish churches, the church of St Gregory was a holy space, and could provide sanctuary for fugitives fleeing from the king’s justice. Sanctuary was very likely claimed by clutching the doorknocker or using it to get into the church. So the lion as a symbol of justice reveals the special status of the church as a protected space, while reminding anyone entering of the dangers of eternal condemnation.
Norwich Castle has reopened - for full details of Norfolk Musuems Service events for half term and beyond visit www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/norwich-castle