Carved into a sandstone face above the town of Lucerne in 1820, the famous ‘Lion of Lucerne’ is a memorial to the Swiss soldiers who died attempting to save Marie Antoinette in 1792.
The Swiss have a long tradition of supplying mercenaries to foreign governments. Because the Swiss have been politically neutral for centuries and have long enjoyed a reputation for honoring their agreements, a pope or emperor could be confident that his Swiss Guards wouldn’t turn on him when the political winds shifted direction.
The Swiss Guards’ honor was put to the test in 1792, when, after trying to escape the French Revolution, King Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and their children were hauled back to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. A mob of working-class Parisians stormed the palace in search of aristocratic blood. More than 700 Swiss officers and soldiers died while defending the palace, without knowing that their royal employers had left.
In the early 1800s, the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen was hired to sculpt a monument to the fallen Swiss Guards. The sculpture was carved in a sandstone cliff above the city center, near Lucerne’s Glacier Garden, and it has attracted countless visitors since its dedication in 1821.
… the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.
~ Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff – for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. How head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.
Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion–and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is.
More at luzern.org