Friday, September 10th, 2010
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.