Lion’s Head Doorknockers

This past weekend, my family and I traveled to visit the Washington State Capitol Building. It’s always fun for me to identify the different architectural features on such buildings, and particularly to think of Western/European counterparts which may have inspired such features. But as we approached the bronze doors of the capitol (c. 1923-28, see detail on left), I paused. Bronze doors are a common feature in Western architecture, but what about the lion’s head doorknockers? What’s their history? I could think of earlier lion’s head knockers, such as the Ottonian ones on the Hildesheim Cathedral, but I wasn’t sure if there might be an earlier example.

After doing a little research, I found a really charming article from 1918 that discusses the history of doorknockers. I was surprised to learn that the doorknocker has existed since ancient Greece.1 At this time slaves were often assigned to answer doors, and they were chained to the door in order to prevent them from running away. The predecessor of doorknockers were short iron bars that attached to these chains, which were used as “rappers.”

It appears that the lion’s head design also existed for doorknockers in ancient Greece. In 1942 Sterling Dow mentioned some “heavy handsome lion’s-head door knockers…which escaped the sack by Philip in 348 BC.”2

So, what’s the significance of lion’s head doorknockers?  Did they symbolize anything, or were they just decorative? I haven’t come across any speculation on the subject, but I think that there must have been some symbolism involved. Lions held symbolism in lots of ancient cultures, and often embodied power and strength. I have a theory that lion’s head doorknockers were intended to serve the same symbolic function as the lion statues which decorated the gates of the Hittites (Hattusha Lion Gate, c. 1400 BCE, see above right) and the Mycenaeans (Lion Gate at Mycenae, c. 1250 BCE). In each case, these intimidating lions serve as guardian beasts for the city, as well as symbolize strength and power.  I think the same thing can be said for lion’s head doorknockers, which rest on the doors (i.e. gates) as guardians of a building.

On a side note, though, it’s interesting that not everyone today associates lion’s head doorknockers with such ancient symbolism.  This fascinating study by Zachary McCune mentions a woman who selected a lion’s head doorknocker for her home, but only because the same knocker was found on the door of the UK Prime Minister’s house.  In this woman’s case, it appears that she wanted her knocker (and her home) to have some connection and/or status with this association to the Prime Minister.

Do lion’s head doorknockers have any particular meaning or symbolism for you? Can you think of an ornate doorknocker (of a lion’s head or otherwise) that you particularly like?


1 “The Evolution of the Door-Knocker,” The Art World 3, no. 5 (1918): v, vii-viii.


2 Sterling Dow, “Review: Excavations at Olynthus,” The American Historical Review 47, no. 4 (July 1942): 824.

  • H Niyazi says:

    How remarkable! I also did not know the origins went back to Ancient Greece!

    I had always imagined it was related to Christian hardship in Ancient Rome. Maybe the symbolism was appropriated by them, which explains why you see such things around churches as well, not to mention the association of the Lion with St Mark.

    Super stuff as always Monica!

    H

  • Clay and Fiber Artist says:

    A completely different message seems to be presented with the limp-hand style door knocker which might have originated in Spain.

    I've always thought they were interesting and strangely personal. Like the extended hand of a greeting.

  • heidenkind says:

    So do you think the lion serves an apotropaic function, or is a symbol of royalty?

  • M says:

    H Niyazi, I think there must be a connection with these doorknockers and Early Christians in Rome. Early Christians appropriated so many classical symbols and motifs, it seems likely that this symbol was appropriated as well. I'm glad you brought up that connection!

    Clay and Fiber Artist, thanks for your comment! (I don't believe you have commented here before – welcome!) The "limp-hand" doorknockers are interesting; I wish I knew more about their history. If they did originate in Spain, I wonder why the Spaniards chose that design. Maybe they liked the handshake or greeting idea, like you mentioned. They definitely are curious things…

    heidenkind, I think that in the historical sense of the doorknocker, the lions were selected more-so to represent guardians than symbols of royalty. But I also think that these two meanings (and functions) are probably interrelated, especially since doorknockers appear on the homes of political leaders (e.g. the UK Prime Minister that I mentioned).

    After all, the royal family served as guardians/stewards over the people within the kingdom. In this sense, I think it seems fitting that lions have been used as a symbol for royalty.

  • e says:

    Neat!

    I can always count on you to provide the most interesting facts about things!

    The doorknockers make me think of the elaborate door *knobs* you always see on older LDS temples. They always have elaborate carvings on them like the sun, moon, stars, or beehives. I know the D.C. temple door knobs have something on them, but now I can't remember what. I'll have to check it out next time I go.

  • sonoroy says:

    I thought I recognized this door, but it turns out that yours is not one of the ones I've seen in Florence Italy. The lion is one of the symbols of the republic. Donatello did a lion sculpture that now stands in the piazza della signoria. I was sure I had a photo of door knocker too, but after going through my stuff I see that it is not a door knocker, but a different kind of door hardware. It's a security peephole on one of the jewelry shop door shutters on the Ponte Vecchio. Have a look: http://img146.imageshack.us/img146/6977/face3x.jpg

  • M says:

    I love that jewelry shop door, sonoroy! Thanks for sharing.

    My guess is that Donatello's "Marzocco" was as a symbol for the republic because of the lion's symbolic associations with guardianship/stewardship. Saul Levine mentions that the lion is a "traditional political symbol of communal republican defense," but I can't seem to find more information along these lines. (See Saul Levine, "The Location of Michelangelo's David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504" Art Bulletin 56, no. w (March 1974:42.) If anyone else knows more about lions and their symbolic political associations, I'd be interested to know.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.