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Lion Gate

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Title: Lion Gate  
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Subject: Mycenaean Revival architecture, Cyclopean masonry, Aegean civilizations, Lion hunting, Architecture of Greece
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Lion Gate

Lion Gate
Native name
Location Mycenae
Area Argolid, Greece
Formed 13th century BC
Built for Main entrance of the citadel
Architectural style(s) Conglomerate Ashlar

The Lion Gate was the main entrance of the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae, southern Greece. It was erected during the 13th century BC in the northwest side of the acropolis and is named after the relief sculpture of two lionesses in a heraldic pose that stands above the entrance.[1] The Lion Gate is the sole surviving monumental piece of Mycenaean sculpture,[2] as well as the largest sculpture in the prehistoric Aegean.[3]


Stereoscopic image of the gate from 1897.

The greater part of the cyclopean wall in Mycenae, including the Lion Gate itself, was built during the second extension of the citadel which occurred in the Late Helladic period IIIB (13th century BC).[4] At that time, the extended fortifications also included Grave Circle A, the burial place of the 16th-century BC royal families inside the city wall. This grave circle was found east of the Lion Gate, where a peribolos wall was also built.[5] After the expansion, Mycenae could be entered by two gates, a main entrance and a postern,[6][7] while the most extensive feature was undoubtedly the remodeling of the main entrance to the citadel, known as the Lion Gate, in the northwestern side built circa 1250 BC.[8]

The Lion Gate was approached by a partly natural, partly engineered ramp on a northwest-southeast axis. The eastern side of the approach is flanked by the steep smooth slope of the earlier enceinte. This was embellished with a new facade of conglomerate. On the western side a rectangular bastion was erected, 14.80 m (49 ft) long and 7.23 m (24 ft) wide, built in pseudo-ashlar style of enormous blocks of conglomerate. The term "Cyclopean" was therefore applied to imply that the ancient structures had been built by the legendary race of giants whose culture was presumed to have preceded that of the Classical Greeks, as described in their myths. Between the wall and the bastion, the approach narrows to a small open courtyard measuring 15 m × 7.23 m (49 ft × 24 ft), possibly serving to limit the numbers of attackers on the gate. The bastion on the right side of the gate facilitated defensive actions against the attackers' right hand side, which would normally be vulnerable as they would carry their shields on their left arms. At the end of the approach stands the Lion Gate.[7]


The confronting lionesses posing on both sides of a pillar above the lintel.

The Lion Gate is a massive and imposing construction, standing 3.10 m (10 ft) wide and 2.95 m (10 ft) high at the threshold. It narrows as it rises, measuring 2.78 m (9 ft) below the lintel. The opening was closed by a double door mortised to a vertical beam that acted as a pivot around which the door revolved.[6]

The gate itself consists of two great monoliths capped with a huge lintel that measures 4.5×2.0×0.8 m (15×7×3 ft). Above the lintel, the masonry courses form a corbelled arch, leaving an opening that lightens the weight carried by the lintel. This relieving triangle is a great limestone slab on which two confronted lionesses carved in high relief stand on either sides of a central pillar. The heads of the animals were fashioned separately and are missing.[3] The pillar, specifically, is a Minoan-type column that is placed on top of an altar-like platform that the lionesses rest their front legs on.[8]

Reconstruction of the Lion Gate.

The imposing gate of the citadel with the representation of the lionesses was an emblem of the Mycenaean kings and a symbol of their power to both subjects and foreigners.[8] It also has been argued that the lionesses are a symbol of the goddess Hera.[9] The Lion Gate may be compared to the gates of the Hittite Bronze Age citadel of Hattusa, in Asia Minor.[8] Since the heads of the animals were of a different material from their bodies and originally were fashioned to look toward those approaching below,[10] a number of scholars have suggested that they were composite beasts, probably sphinxes, in the typical Middle Eastern tradition.[3] On the top of the pillar is a row of four discs, apparently representing rafters supporting a further piece of sculpture that has since been lost.[11]

The design of the gate had precedents in other surviving artworks of the time; a similar design was depicted on 15th-century Minoan seals and a gem found at Mycenae. Many other pieces of Mycenaean artwork share the same basic pattern of two opposed animals separated by a vertical divider, such as two lambs facing a column and two sphinxes facing a sacred tree representing a deity.[11]

Beyond the gate and inside the citadel was a covered court with a small chamber, which probably functioned as a guard post. On the right, adjacent to the wall, was a building that has been identified as a granary because of the pithoi found there containing carbonized wheat.[8]


External video
Lion Gate, Mycenae, c. 1300-1250 B.C.E., Smarthistory

The Lion Gate stood in full view of visitors to Mycenae for centuries. It was mentioned by the ancient geographer Pausanias in the 2nd century AD. In 1840, the Greek Archaeological Society undertook the initial clearing of the site from debris and soil that had accumulated to bury it, and in 1876 Heinrich Schliemann, guided by Pausanias's accounts, excavated the area south of the Lion Gate.[12]

See also


  1. ^ Gates 2003, pp. 136–137.
  2. ^ Hampe & Simon 1981, p. 49: "The lions, who looked out over the land, served to protect the gate and the city. They also show that the city, and the king who ruled it, stood under the protection of the goddess Hera. The Lion relief is the sole monumental piece of Mycenaean sculpture which has come down to us."
  3. ^ a b c Kleiner 2009, pp. 91–92.
  4. ^ Mylonas 1957, pp. 33–34.
  5. ^ Mylonas 1957, p. 114.
  6. ^ a b Mylonas 1957, p. 24.
  7. ^ a b Iakovidis 1983, p. 30.
  8. ^ a b c d e
  9. ^ O'Brien 1993, p. 125: "Finally, there is Mycenae where the famous Lion Gate may have been inspired by a Heraian symbol and where the iconography provides evidence consistent with the view that "Hera" had cultic hegemony there."
  10. ^ Younger 1978, p. 15.
  11. ^ a b Castleden 2005, pp. 126–127.
  12. ^ Mylonas 1957, p. 8.


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