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The myth of the pig in the Lion of Lucerne

    Lucerne Lion

    A popular comment in social media posts or travel blogs about the Löwendenkmal (Lion monument or Lion of Lucerne) which commemorates the massacre of the Swiss Guard during the French Revolution is that the alcove that the lion sits in is deliberately shaped like a pig for one of various reasons.

    Is this true? No.

    TLDR: This is just a case of the brain seeing a pattern where there isn’t really anything (Pareidolia to be fancy about it) and a simple but funny urban myth coming out of it.

    A more interesting (and actually real) controversy related to the monument was (and still is in some ways) what it means for the representation of Switzerland.


    The “hidden pig”

    If you look at the monument with a pig in mind then you can see what this is getting at. The angle and lighting is quite important here so it tends to stand out in some photos more than others.

    This has led to various stories:

    • Most commonly that the artist Thorvaldsen who designed the memorial was not paid, or did not think he would be paid, and so secretly included a pig in the design as revenge whilst leaving the lion itself alone out of respect for the slain men.
    • Less often that the pig is meant as an insult to the French who killed the Swiss mercenaries.
    • Very occasionally that it is some positive idea about pigs having honour.
    Side by side of the memorial with the ‘pig’ highlighted.

    The evidence

    There was a problem of the Swiss organisers not having the agreed upon money to start with, and there were disagreements about how long it was taking to produce the initial models, but the artist was paid on time and in full. Go to the Thorvaldsens museum achieve if you really want to read all about it, it is very detailed with a number of drawings and the prototypes (but no mention of pigs).

    Plus Thorvaldsen only designed the lion model from his workshop in Rome, not the shape of the alcove, and the actual work of carving the rock in Luzern was done by a Swiss and then German sculptor. There was controversy about the memorial and there is a suggestion of a hidden message by Thorvaldsen, but that is much more sophisticated than anything pig related.

    So where does this pig story come from? Googling it the first result and only result that could (very) generously be called an article is this one from amusingplanet.com, the subsequent search results sharing the details of the pig are from the equally academic random-times.com and fact-nerd-dude.medium.com, otherwise every other result is either from Instagram or travel blog posts. Not one historical or otherwise slightly respectable source can be found that supports the pig story.

    The only story on this topic from someone with any credibility is a 2018 interview in the local newspaper the Luzerner Zeitung with Peter Fischer (then director of the art museum in Luzern) the that starts with this exchange:

    Ist etwas dran am Gerücht, dass die Wildschwein-Silhouette des herausgehauenen Steins am Löwendenkmal eine Racheaktion des schlecht bezahlten ausführenden Bildhauers war?

    Wenn man den Fremdenführern zuhört, ist das oft die einzige Information, die sie an Touristen weitergeben. Für mich ist das eine abstruse Theorie ohne ge­sicherte Quelle. Interessant ist sie dennoch, weil sie aufzeigt, dass Gerüchte oft interessanter sind als ihr Gegenstand.

    “Eine geniale Manipulation”, Luzerner Zeitung (2018).

    That roughly translates to:

    “is there any truth the rumour about the artists making the outline a pig over problems with his payment?”

    “It is a popular tour guide story but there is no historical evidence so no it is a ludicrous idea. It is interesting however the myth is often more interesting than reality”

    And that is as far as any solid evidence of the matter goes. It seems safe to say that the pig is just a myth coming from a case of pareidolia.

    Ultimately if it was true you would also think that the city would have quickly changed the appearance long long ago.


    Tracing the myth

    It isn’t even clear when people first started talking about the pig story. The oldest internet result I have found is from 2002 otherwise everything is from the mid 2010s or later. Though I assume it dates back much earlier.

    The AmusingPlanet article cites Wikipedia, 2 local tourist websites (1 dead, see below), and a very extensive article on the history of the lion monument from the Thorvaldsens museum achieve. Neither of the working articles talk about a pig.

    Which makes it a little surprising when amusingplanet confidently states: “When Thorvaldsen learned he wasn’t going to be paid in full, the indignant artist decided to get even and added some last minute changes to his sculpture. … Thorvaldsens didn’t alter the sculpture itself, out of respect of the fallen soldiers. Instead, he changed the shape of the alcove where the lion lay to resemble the outline of a pig.” None of which is mentioned anywhere in the working links.

    For the link from the official Lucerne website that is long dead, checking back to the closest time on Waybackmachine there is no pig talk. There is however a link to a “The Lion Monument.pdf” which seems to be referenced elsewhere and was apparently where they directly quoted from. Another of the top hits on google is this page at humansandpigs.blogspot.com which again covers the revenge pig story with the same wording as quoted above and says “This text was copied from the Official Tourism Website of Lucerne. For more information: http://www.luzern.com/en/sightseeing-tours/sightseeing/lion-monument”, which must be referring to the mystery PDF.

    It seems that it was the Luzern tourism website itself which hosted the myth at one point and gave it oxygen and credibility up until the last year or two. At any rate the current page looks like this and there is no official mention of the story anywhere to be found now. If the pig was once up on the official website then it seems to have been killed off by fact-checkers.


    Conclusion

    So it is a funny story but with no actual truth to it. However, it is easy to see why such a quick and simple story with instant visual “proof” would be so popular and stay alive (it certainly isn’t going to die anytime soon).

    One story which does seem to be true is that the artist had not seen a live lion when they designed the sculpture, the Thorvalden museum has an actual citation for him not seeing one until a few years later in 1822.


    On the topic of pigs in Switzerland

    Lucerne is actually one of the strongholds of pigs farming in the country. However, the real pigs in Switzerland are ironically very hard to see. Surprisingly there are almost as many pigs as cows, but most of them spend their lives indoors.

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