The Lion of Belfort

High above the city of Belfort, in front of a steep cliff and just below the citadel, is a large sculpture, the Lion of Belfort.

This Lion is 21.5 meters long and 10.7 meters high, making it quite large but no longer one of the largest sculptures in the world, as it perhaps was when it was inaugurated in 1880.

The sculptor, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), had travelled to Egypt as a young man and was highly impressed by the massive ancient sculptures he saw there, so it’s no accident that the Lion’s posture resembles that of the Sphinx.

Path leading up to the Lion

The original intention was to install the Lion on the other side of the hill, facing Germany, as a symbol of defiance. But Bartholdi insisted on having a more prominent location, not just “an isolated place, invisible when you are not going there specifically for this object.” He wanted the sculpture to be easily visible from the city, and become the city’s symbol.

First sight of the Lion from the path

So Bartholdi installed his massive Lion on the steep western side of the hill, overlooking the city. This really is a more impressive setting, since the other side of the hill slopes down much more gradually.

View of the Lion from the path just below

Note that the Lion has blocked an enemy arrow with his right front paw.

The slogan at the base of the sculpture reads Aux défenseurs de Belfort 1870-71 (To the defenders of Belfort 1870-71). These defenders, under the command of Colonel Aristide Denfert-Rochereau, held off a German siege of Belfort for 103 days. They were never defeated, but had to stop fighting after the war was lost in the rest of France.

Colonel Denfert-Rochereau (pronunciation here) and his men were a great source of pride in France, in an otherwise disastrous war year, but the top brass of the French army resented his success and distrusted him for his republican (i.e. progressive) opinions. He was never promoted to General, and was soon forced out of the army entirely.

Bartholdi exhibit in the citadel

In the citadel above the Lion there is a museum which includes, among other things, an exhibit on the sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (pronunciation here), who had also served as a French officer in the Franco-Prussian war.

Bartholdi was a prolific sculptor who is most famous for another very large statue, “Liberty Enlightening the World” aka the Statue of Liberty.

He completed the Statue of Liberty in Paris in 1884. It was subsequently shipped to New York, where it was reassembled and installed in New York harbor in 1886, six years after the inauguration of the Lion of Belfort.

Bartholdi and the Statue of Liberty, by Louis Noël

This life-size statue of Bartholdi, posing with a scaled-down version of the Statue of Liberty, was made by his colleague Louis Noël (1839-1925).

Bartholdi’s first proposal for the Lion

This miniature monument, on display in the museum, was Bartholdi’s first proposal of what the Lion of Belfort might look like. But the city council though it looked too aggressive and might provoke retaliation from the victorious Prussians (Germans), so they asked the sculptor to change the Lion’s pose, to make him look calm but strong and ready to spring, if necessary, but only in self-defense.

Pierre-Léonce Furt, La fête du Lion de Belfort à Paris

While Bartholdi was finishing up his massive stone lion in Belfort, a smaller reproduction of the same work was being made in Paris using an entirely different material, embossed copper. The stone lion in Belfort and the copper lion in Paris were both inaugurated in the same year, 1880.

The one in Paris is only a third the size of the original, but it is still large enough to dominate the Place Denfert-Rocherau in the 14th arrondissement.

The painter Pierre-Léonce Furt (1870-1919) was only ten years old when the lions were inaugurated, but later (in 1905) he painted this scene from the Paris celebration. The painting (above) is now on display in the citadel in Belfort.

Le génie dans les griffes de la misère

The museum in the citadel also has a number of other sculptures by Bartholdi, including this earlier one called Le génie dans les griffes de la misère. This title is usually translated ‘Genius in the clutches of misery’ — but la misère can also mean poverty, which I think would a better translation here. The ‘genius’ in this sculpture has wings and is trying to fly off (to do all sorts of brilliant things, presumably) but is being held back by poverty.

L’adieu au pays natal

This sculpture by Bartholdi shows a young mother with her two children, sadly taking leave of their native land and going into exile. This was to symbolize the ten thousand or so people from Alsace-Lorraine who chose to retain their French citizenship and move to France, after their provinces were taken over by Germany at the end of the Franco-Prussian war.

Double bust of Erckmann and Chatrian by Bartholdi

A double bust is an unusual form of sculpture, in fact I can’t recall ever having seen any besides this one. At first I thought the two men were meant to be Bartholdi and Denfert-Rochereau, but on closer examination they turned out to be the popular nineteenth-century French authors Émile Erckmann (1822–1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826–1890), who wrote most of their novels and plays together under the name “Erckmann-Chatrian”.

Both were friends of Bartholdi’s, and he made this double bust of them in Colmar in 1869, when Colmar still belonged to France. In the sculpture they are meant to be wearing togas, for whatever reason, but to me they both seem to have broken their arms. One seems to have his left arm in a sling, and the other his right arm. Altogether a rather silly-looking sculpture, in my opinion.

Program booklet for L’amico Fritz in Frankfurt

Although I have never read any of the writings of Erckmann-Chatrian, I at least know a bit about their novel L’ami Fritz (set in an Alsatian village), because it was later made into the opera L’amico Fritz by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945).

This opera is rarely staged, but I once saw it in a concert performance in Frankfurt (in 2012) with Joseph Calleja, Grazia Doronzio, Željko Lučić, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Francisco Brito, Vuyani Mlinde and Katharina Magiera.



Location and aerial view of the Lion of Belfort on

My photos in this post are from 2016. I wrote the text in 2020.

See more posts on Belfort, France.
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22 thoughts on “The Lion of Belfort”

  1. I’ve not been to Belfort, but its lion statue looks very regal and distinct! It reminds me of a similar statue/carving in Lucerne, Switzerland, although the lion is embedded into a relief, not separate from it. Looks like Belfort is a gem to behold, and I’ll need to return to France to check it out!

  2. I think the double bust is an interesting idea. Perhaps their arms are broken from hitting each other when they disagreed over the way something should be said 🙂 Double authorship is not easy if both are opinionated about how it should go.

    French is full of words which look like they would mean something in English but really mean something else in French. In my opinion misère should definitely be translated as poverty.

  3. I enjoyed this very much! Bartholdi was a very talented sculptor. I am in awe of the skill and inspiration it must take to create something of such beauty and magnitude. There are so many artists that we know for one thing but have a long and varied talent beyond that one piece. I do agree with you about the double bust. It does look like they both have a broken arm. Thank you very much! 😊

  4. Very impressive lion! I like that he was made calmer – ready to pounce, as you say, but not too aggressive. I would be glad to have him watching over a city I lived in 🙂 And I learned something today – I have changed trains at Denfert-Rochereau a number of times but I never knew how it got its name!

      1. For some reason Don I can no longer ‘like’ your replies to my comments, or any comments made on your blogs, although I can ‘like’ the entries themselves. That’s happening on some other people’s blogs too, but not all of them. Very odd!

  5. Interesting! We visited the Bartholdi museum in Colmar last year so I knew about the lion in theory. It’s good to learn more about it now.

      1. I know the feeling! We should have been in Northern Spain, in Copenhagen, and in Athens this year. All I managed was a solitary business trip to Copenhagen in January…

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