Animal Instincts – The Lions of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #2)

During my week long stay in Lviv I was stalked by lions. Lions were on every corner in the old town, they could be found at High Castle, protruding from the facades of business and glowering at the entrances to residential buildings. Some of these lions were sleeping while others looked fierce and determined, supersized stone statuary demanding attention. These lions are lasting remnants that recall the very earliest days of Lviv. Scarcely any structural remains of 13th century Lviv still exist, but symbolically lions are everywhere, a symbol of the city that goes back over 750 years.

Lion sculptures on facade of Lviv residential building

Residential instincts – lions can be found on many facades in Lviv

Leo and the Lions – The Name Of A City & Its Eternal Symbol
It has been at least 5,000 years since lions roamed the land that is today Ukraine. Fossils found near the Black Sea regions of the nation have been identified as belonging to lions with manes. These wild, magnificent and deadly creatures likely roamed all across Ukraine, including Galicia in the western part of the country, during the final (and also current) geological epoch, the Holocene (12,000 years ago to the present). Human settlement and population growth eventually brought the era of wild lions in Ukraine to an end. Nonetheless, lions are an ever present part of Lviv. They can be found laying and lounging, guarding or greeting at buildings and parks across the city. These lions are not alive in a biological sense. Instead they act as the living embodiment of the city’s majestic history. These static sculptures may not be able to roar, but their presence can still be felt today as a lasting symbol of the city’s most ancient history.

Lviv has been associated with lions since its founding in 1256. This is because the city was named after Lev Danylovych, or as he was otherwise known, Leo I of Galicia. Leo I was the King of Galicia-Volhynia (King of Rus’) and Grand Prince of Kiev during the latter part of the 13th century. Leo in the Latin language means lion. Latin was a much preferred language of royalty, while lions were often used as an enduring symbol of royalty. They symbolized courage, dignity and grandeur. These were traits Leo I would certainly want to be known for. They are also symbolic of attributes a city might want to reflect both its past and present. A person or a city symbolically aligned with lions evokes a certain powerful image. Leo I lived up to his name in many ways. He was certainly brave when it came to martial affairs. He was on the warpath for much of his reign. He attacked westward in attempts to take control of parts of Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. During a 14 year period beginning in 1375, he led no less than six military campaigns against his kingdom’s foes. By the end of his reign he had expanded the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia to its greatest territorial extent.

Lion on a gate in Lviv

Lions in Lviv guard many a gate

What’s In a Name? – Legacies Of Ambition, Legacies of Failure
The power and territory he acquired would seem to cast his name and the city that bore his name in a radiant glow. Leo I had moved his capital to Lviv in 1274. The capital city continued to grow and bask in glory, after his death, but Leo’s legacy soon faded. It was never that solid to begin with. His costly military campaigns brought as much failure as success. The territorial gains achieved were relatively small compared to Leo’s ambitions. A half century after Leo’s death, the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, including Lviv, was subsumed under Polish rule.  The truly lasting legacy of Leo I came to center around the meaning of his name and what it came to symbolize for his namesake city. Lions and Lviv became inseparable, a powerful image of a city’s grandeur and status.

Every empire and every conqueror of Lviv incorporated the lion into disparate city seals and coats of arms. For instance, during the late 16th century the papal coat of arms was added to Lviv’s. The lion on these was no longer passive, but now rampant. During the Soviet era – an empire that was virulently anti-aristocratic and anti-royal – the coat of arms was redesigned to add the hammer and sickle. The traditional trio of towers above a city gate was colored red, while a lion rampant stood in the entrance. This could be seen another way. The lion, like the people of Galicia and their traditions were caught against their will by the red menace of Soviet Communism, but they were trying to fight their way out.

Lviv lion on a manhole cover

Lviv’s lions lurk everywhere – even on manhole covers

Symbolic Recognition – The Lion Lives On
When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine declared independence, the coat of arms and city seals reverted back to their original form from the late Middle Ages. The towered gate was still there, but now covered in yellow, as was the lion. All of this was done on a blue background, colors symbolic of the Ukrainian flag. This reversion to the earliest design hearkened back to the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, one of the very few times in the city’s history that east Slavic peoples were in control of the city and surrounding region. The lion had managed to survive all the iterations of empires that had now vanished. The same was true of Lviv’s Ukrainian citizenry. The lion, that quintessential symbol of Lviv, has now become an inseparable representation of the city as well as its people.

A City Created By Flames Of Fire (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #1)

Fire has brought more cities to an end, than to a beginning. The opposite is true for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Fire brought the Lviv into historical existence. Yet multiple times fire threatened to extinguish the city forever, only for Lviv to rise from the ashes, created anew.

No one can say with certainty when the area that would become Lviv had enough population to be called a settlement or village. Archaeologists have found traces of human habitation in the boggy valley of the Poltva River going all the way back to the 5th century AD. Excavations have yielded a vague outline of early settlement in the area, but they only offer fragments of evidence rather than a clear picture. It would not be until the late Middle Ages, in the middle of the 13th century, that the city known today as Lviv was formally created. As the story goes, King Danylo Romanovych (Daniel of Galicia) founded the city and then bequeathed it as a gift to his son Lev (Lev I of Galicia), from which the name Lviv comes, meaning belonging to Lev. While this story is often repeated as the beginning of Lviv it was not what confirms the historical existence of the city. Instead, the actual historical beginning of Lviv starts in 1256 with a fire seen in the distance. This is ironic considering that on numerous occasions fires brought the city to ruin.

A flame of pure fire

A flame of pure fire – creator, destroyer, illuminator & Transformer of Historic Lviv

Coming Into History – The Emergence of Lviv
Lviv surfaces into history not through deeds but words, specifically written words. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle mentions that a major fire was seen “from Lviv” in 1256. This must have been quite a fire to be seen from afar. Witnesses of this conflagration may well have been standing on the High Castle or Lysa Gora areas, a couple of prominent hills which rise on a ridge that can be found to the east-northeast of today’s Rynok Square. Wherever the blaze was spied from, it would be the first of innumerable occasions in which residents of Lviv would witness major fires. Unfortunately, these fires were found in the city itself, with often disastrous consequences. Almost all the structures in Medieval Lviv were constructed out of wood. The threat of an all-consuming fire was a constant danger. Several safeguards were put into place to mitigate the possibility of a raging inferno.

Watchmen walked the city streets throughout the night to make sure that the citizenry did not leave a single light on in their homes. Obeying these watchmen was a matter of both structural and self-preservation. If someone was found guilty of causing a fire that resulted in deaths, they could end up having their arm severed. Even worse, some accidental arsonists were tossed into the flames and burned alive, in a bit of retaliatory justice. Such cruelty seems excessive, but in light of the calamitous destruction that could result from a fire the city needed the strongest deterrent possible. Stopping people from causing fires was one thing, but nature also threatened fiery destruction. In 1510, three bolts of lightning struck the city in succession. This led to many houses burning down in residential areas.

Lviv in the 17th century

Lviv in the 17th century – a product of reconstruction

All Consuming Fires – Destructions & Reconstructions
The famously destructive fire of 1527 illustrates how a conflagration could lead to both utter ruin and paradoxically the re-creation of Lviv. Following an inordinately, dry spring season the city was a virtual tinderbox. A hot, windy day in early June set the stage for what would become the worst fire in Lviv’s history. The blaze began in of all places, a small brewery situated in the heart of the walled city on Virmenska Street (Armenian Street). Soon the flames spread out in every direction. Nearly every wooden structure in the city burned to the ground. Only two buildings were left intact, the City Hall and a house in an outlying suburb. Church bells and artillery pieces were melted by the extreme heat. Even stone buildings were destroyed. Lviv was left a smoldering ruin. Interestingly, this turned out to be a watershed moment in the architectural history of the city. Gothic Lviv was forever gone.

New buildings were raised in the Renaissance style and made mostly of stone. In 1540 wooden construction was banned. And yet the fires still continued. In 1556 another conflagration burned parts of the city. A mere fifteen years later, the entire Jewish district of the city was totally destroyed by a fire. It was not until the mid-19th century after the city was firmly under Austrian rule that a professional firefighting squad was created. Modernization brought the development of city fire departments. Eventually fires became rarer, just as building materials had become less flammable and more permanent. If not for such changes Lviv would be devoid of the stunning architecture which garnered the old city center protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conversely, if not for fire the Lviv of today would not exist.

Putting Out Flames - The Fire Department in Lviv

Putting Out Flames – The Fire Department in Lviv

A Fire In The Distance
The city’s unique Renaissance and Baroque, architectural styles rose from the ashes of many different Lvivs that existed and were subsequently extinguished. Fire reshaped Lviv in ways that would have been impossible to imagine when the city was first conceived. Fire also brought Lviv into the historical conscious. A fire in the distance brought the city that was rising from the valley of the Poltva into the pages of history. Lviv and its history started, but never ended with fire. Instead it was to be consumed, transformed and illuminated by fire.