Pfyffer – Thorvaldsen – Twain

Origins of the Lion Monument

The dying lion, carved in sandstone, attracts crowds of tourists and is an excellent background for photographs. But who knows its true story?

About 1.5 million tourists visit the dying lion in Lucerne every year. This makes the relief, chiselled directly into the natural sandstone wall, one of the most famous monuments in the world. But hardly a single visitor knows anything about the fate of the approximately 900 slaughtered Swiss Guards that the dying lion commemorates.

  • Bertel Thorvaldsen, Original model for the Lionmonument. Historical Museum Lucerne
  • Illustration of the project idea of ​​Carl Pfyffer, circa 1821, Aquatinta, Zentral und Hoschschulbibliothek Luzern
  • Lionmonument with pond

The initiator of the monument was Lucerne patrician Carl Pfyffer von Altishofen, an officer in the Swiss Guard regiment of the French King Louis XVI in Paris. On that fateful 10 August 1792, when the Royal Palace of the Tuileries was stormed he was on home leave. He felt obliged to erect a monument to his comrades who had died on that day or subsequently been executed on 3 September. It took almost thirty years for his idea to become reality. During the Helvetic Republic and the Federalist Mediation Constitution, and hence under the influence of Napoleon, a monument to the defence of the French monarchy and thus of the ‘old order’ was not politically timely. It was not until Napoleon was defeated, the Swiss cities were granted independence and in 1815 the Bourbon royal family had ascended the French throne again that Carl Pfyffer was able to begin collecting plans and money. He put together over 20,000 Swiss francs, with donations from both home and abroad, not least from members of foreign royal houses such as the Tsar of Russia, the King of Prussia and the French royal family.

‘The Lion of Lucerne is the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.’ Mark Twain

The commission for the monument went to none other than the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), who enjoyed Europe-wide fame at the time. The Solothurn sculptor Urs Pankraz Eggenschwiler was to carve his design of the dying lion directly into the wall of the former sandstone quarry on the edge of Lucerne. After his death in an accident on the site, Lukas Ahorn from Konstanz completed the lion. On 10 August 1821, 29 years after the storming of the Tuileries the monument was officially inaugurated. A party for the aristocracy from the whole of Europe, but not for the liberal and progressive circles who demanded equal rights for all citizens. They saw the lion as a reactionary demonstration and a glorification of the old order. Radical liberals attempted to disrupt the unveiling ceremony, but were beaten up by attendants.