I usually hesitate to read books about art. Art historians always seem to directly start with the interpretation of the paintings or sculptures. Somehow, they often appear to ignore that beautiful things can also be made to be precisely that: beautiful things. Art is meant primarily to be enjoyed, not studied.
Take the fight of the bull and the lion that is shown so very often in Achaemenid art. I once read that it represented the eternal cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil; I also read that they represent two constellations, Taurus and Leo; and I also read that these two theories are not mutually exclusive. But the truth is that we don’t know what it symbolizes.
Actually, we do not even know what it represents. I once believed that the struggle was equal, until I showed one of these reliefs to a man who worked at a zoo. He told me that the lion had already lost the fight, because this animal kills its prey by attacking its victim’s head. Obviously, that’s not what we see: the lion has leaped and has landed on the wrong place – the bull will escape.
I recently told this to someone who had lived in Tanzania. She said that she had once witnessed this very type of fight, and added that the lion always leaps to the lower part of an animal’s back. He will remain hanging over there, until his prey is tired. It is only then that the lion kills its victim. This may be shown on the coin of Mazaeus to the left.
So, next time I have to explain this relief, I will do what I always do: explain why we don’t know.
Meanwhile, I learned one thing else. The astronomical explanation is almost certainly incorrect. The next example of an animal representing a celestial sign is the horoscope at Nemrud Daği, which is four centuries younger. Under the Roman Empire, this type of picture rapidly spread, which is why we’re accustomed to it, but it simply had not yet been invented when Persepolis was built.