from Persia to 12th century France and the 21st century web

Here’s a discovery from our family visit to France three weeks ago. It’s a twelfth-century carving taken from a monastery in Burgundy. Unmistakably, it’s influenced by Persian images of lion-kings, the most famous of which date from the time of Xerxes. Frenchmen (“Franks”) went to the Middle East in the 12th century to fight the Crusades, so perhaps they saw carved Persian lions. Nevertheless, it’s amazing that a stone-cutter back in Burgundy was able to capture the essence of an animal he never saw–and of Persian art. Perhaps he copied a piece of Crusader booty, something like this printed textile lion from 10th-11th century Iran.

One could find out more about this artifact. Art historians are industrious and prolific, and I’m sure there is specific work on this sculpture as well as general writing about the influence of pre-Islamic Near-Eastern art on medieval Europe. That is the kind of work, however, that tends not to find its way online. Most scholarly research doesn’t go onto the Web because scholars want peer-reviewed publications, and there are few online professional journals. Most publications from before ca. 1995 aren’t digitized. Besides, museums control the right to photograph the works they own. I know from personal experience (with the Bibliotheque Nationale in France) that they like to charge a lot for reproduction rights of obscure images. Giving pictures away doesn’t fit their business plan. Therefore, there really aren’t that many images online. For example, the label under this French medieval lion said that it was derived from Sassanid Persian models (AD 224-651). In fifteen minutes of assiduous searching, I found only one Sassanid lion on the billions of web pages that Google indexes.

On the bright side, it is amazing how people with unpromising motives and perspectives can contribute to knowledge because of the Web. I found the lion’s gate at Persepolis thanks to a site that basically advertises a psychic. And I found the printed lion textile on a high school website.

Jamie Boyle, one of the leading proponents of the digital commons, writes:

If I had come to you in 1994 and told you that in the space of ten years, a decentralized global network consisting of a lot of volunteers and hobbyists and a ideologues and a few scholars and government or commercially supported information services could equal and sometimes outperform standard reference works or reference librarians in the provision of accurate factual information, you would have laughed. Your incredulity would surely have deepened if I had added that this global network would have no external filters, and that almost anyone with an internet connection would be able to “publish” whatever they wanted, be it accounts of Area 51, the Yeti, and the true authorship of the works of William Shakespeare, or painstaking analyses of Scottish history, how to raise Saluki dogs, and the internal struggles in the American Communist Party. Worse still, many inhabitants of this very strange new place will wilfuly and joyfully spread the wildest of rumours and speculations as facts, without going through the careful source-checking or argument-weighing that scholars are supposed to engage in. Your first reaction to this flight of fancy, (and the correct first impression of the World Wide Web as of its inception) was that this would thus be a uniquely and entirely unreliable source of information. And yet … when your child last had a research question from school did you go to Google, or the Encylopedia Brittanica?

When I wanted to find a Persian lion to compare to this French one, I used Google and found some imperfect matches. I was somewhat successful because I was willing to go to sites created by psychics and high school kids as well as museums and archaeologists. (This demonstrates Boyle’s point about the value of an open network.) On the other hand, I could have done much better in my university’s library, if I’d had the time and patience. And I could have learned much more online if we had different legal and economic incentives for publishing images and research.

2 thoughts on “from Persia to 12th century France and the 21st century web

  1. Anna

    I think a prerequisite for public funding of any organization ought to be that the organization make its resources freely available on the web. We the public would thereby get a whole lot more for our money…

  2. Peter Levine

    From Julianna Lees, via email:

    We live in the Perigord and I spend most of my time writing about the sources of inspiration for marginal Romanesque sculpture with particular reference to Green Men and monsters.

    My friend and colleague, Peter Hubert, who has a large body of work on my site, lives in Rousillon but has a son in Burgundy and knows more about Romanesque sculpture than many, even though he is actually a retired army officer and not an academic. (But his approach is more analytical and academic than mine). I will send your link to him.

    You might like to know that there was an excellent exhibition of Sassanide art at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris recently. I went – and bought the catalogue – and used my new-found knowledge for this note & query :

    At the same time we visited the Jacquemart André museum to see the fabulous exhibition of treasure from Thrace, which I also mined for similitudes.

    When we visited New York what I most wanted to see was the missing sculptures of St Michel de Cuxa, St Guilhem le Desert and Langon, all of which I knew from the other side. We were not disappointed!

    In the last year or so, I have photographed in England, Copenhagen, Prague, Auvergne, Grenoble, Normandy, Saintonge, Poitou-Charentes, etc. Soon we will be going to Iceland and I must try to read those sagas too! If you have time, could you advise us of something worth seeing within a few hours of Reyjkjavik apart from the Tingval, the Blue Lagoon and Gulfloss which are on our list already? Preferably West or North of Rejk.

    And – should you be interested – my url is

    I’d be delighted if you’d look at my articles page, at the Notes & Queries and Peter Hubert’s work in particular. All contributions & links exchanges welcomed!

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