The Story Behind the Lion of Lucerne

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If you’ve traveled to Lucerne, you may have visited the Lion Monument etched into the side of a former sandstone quarry. This carving is a tribute to the 700 Swiss soldiers who lost their lives in the French Revolution.

The History of the Monument

For over five centuries, Switzerland has adhered to the principal of neutrality (though this policy was not formally recognized by the League of Nations until 1920). This did not mean, however, that the Swiss were absent from wartime conflicts. After defeating the invading Austrian Habsburgs in the 13th century, the Swiss developed a reputation as skilled fighters. Foreign governments took note, and soon these disciplined Swiss soldiers—many of whom came from impoverished cantons—became mercenaries. This meant that they offered their services in armed conflict not based on nationality, but money.

More than 900 Swiss Guards fought to defend the Tuileries (the palace of King Louis XVI) in the French Revolution. Of these, around 600 were killed in battle or massacred after surrender. Another 160 died in prison after capture.

In 1818, Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen proposed plans for a monument to these fallen soldiers. Swiss citizens opposed the idea, having been liberated from French rule only years before. They believed that the monument represented loyalty to France rather than the Swiss values of freedom and autonomy.

The lion was created regardless two years later by the German stonemason Lucas Ahorn. The carving is colossal, measuring 33 feet in length and 20 feet in height. The lion, dying from a spear wound in its side, lies beneath a Latin inscription that translates to “To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss.”

In his 1880 travelogue A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain describes the monument as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world.”

To experience the memorial for yourself, take Lowenstrasse or Alpenstrasse to Löwenplatz. Continue uphill, following Denkmalstrasse for another block to the monument.

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