Weekend Long Reads

Walton Ford: Lion of God

By Udo Kittelmann

On the occasion of Walton Ford: Lion of God, the artist’s ongoing exhibition at Ateneo Veneto in Venice, The Kasmin Review presents an essay by exhibition curator Udo Kittelmann. Spanning two rooms in the city’s historical institution, Lion of God features a series of monumental watercolor paintings that explore the historical, biological, and environmental resonance of the subjects of the library’s collection, particularly the figure of the lion in Tintoretto’s Apparizione della Vergine a San Girolamo (The Apparition of the Virgin to St. Jerome) (c. 1580). The exhibition remains on view through September 22, 2024.


Walton Ford’s Lion of God creates a semiotic space within the Ateneo Veneto, a highly symbolic Venetian palazzo exclusively dedicated to fostering social solidarity. Ateneo’s invaluable collection of art treasures and library of books span all significant periods of Occidental history and have garnered a significant reputation over two centuries. Here, signs and meanings can be freely interpreted, as if in a dream—floating, overlapping, entering into dynamic relationships, and opening up new perspectives. 

Ford’s works invite one to ponder the significance of nature: its power, beauty, and decline. Drawing on a Renaissance narrative from Jacopo Tintoretto’s iconography of St. Jerome (c.1580), which was painted for an altar in the second-floor meeting room of the Scuola di San Fantin (now Ateneo Veneto), this exhibition highlights humanity’s attempt to interpret and, perhaps, find its place within the natural world. 

In the quest for analogies between the past and the present, Ford’s paintings superimpose intricate natural history depictions with current perceptions and critical commentaries, as well as adding quotes from literary sources from past centuries, rendered in the style of the Old Masters. In his artworks, which can be seen as satires on political oppression and environmental exploitation, he casts doubt on the “ever new” and the “ever better.” At the same time, Ford consistently questions a diverse range of expectations and established rules in contemporary aesthetics, creating a narrative about the arrogance of human nature—yesterday, today, and tomorrow…

Walton Ford, Leo Dei (detail), 2023. © Walton Ford


From the very moment I first encountered Walton Ford’s paintings, which might have been more than fifteen years ago, it was evident that they bear a profound connection to our current era. These artworks stand as significant and meaningful contributions to contemporary art, even if, at initial glance, they appear rooted in a different time. To envision them within a historical context would, however, be a facile alignment with the ever-shifting landscape of presumed new inventions and discourse novelties in the realm of contemporary art and culture. What remains unquestionable about Ford’s creations is their status as history paintings of the present, capable of disrupting the machinery of the art world. 

“I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world.” It is one of the less conscious truths that the world we inhabit doesn’t exist for us directly, but in a transformed, symbolic form: plants, animals, and our fellow human beings must all be translated into words, images, and characters before we can orient ourselves to and among them. The virtually infinite number of signs, with their direct and metaphorical meanings, appearing themselves as signs, can be bewildering and overwhelming; on closer consideration, we find ourselves living in a forest of signs, where it is more likely that we will get lost than find our way, as in a fairytale. This dense and impenetrable grove, encountered by our ancestors when they first began to speak, has since expanded generation after generation, becoming a second nature known as culture. At first glance, culture may seem less menacing than the original challenges posed by wild animals, thunder and lightning, famine, epidemics, and natural disasters, which appear almost toothless when read about in books and newspapers, or observed in paintings in museums. Only when otherwise life-threatening nature is encapsulated in words and images can we liberate ourselves from its constraints. We can then contemplate it with pleasure, turning it over in our minds, transferring it into the realm of purposeless play of imagination, and appreciating its beauty through art. However, beyond the safe walls constructed with words and symbols, disaster looms, and primal fears are stirred when we find ourselves at a loss for words, losing sight of images and symbols. Even the signs themselves, used by Stone Age shamans to tame the hostile environment, such as imitating the saber-toothed tiger, do not manage to permanently banish the threat. Instead, they have become a festering wound in the body of humankind, resisting healing since time immemorial: “The cry of terror called forth by the unfamiliar becomes its name. It fixes the transcendence of the unknown in relation to the known, permanently linking horror to holiness.”

The futile attempts to reconcile the contradiction between mastering nature and succumbing entirely to its dominance are etched into the annals of human civilization like the mark of Cain. A brief examination of cultural, technological, and scientific history is sufficient to recognize this development. The painful acknowledgment that the primal fear of being devoured and extinguished by overpowering nature cannot be overcome, even through mimetic use of symbols, is, loosely based on Freud, the fundamental principle of our cultural development—though it may lie dormant or repressed in humanity’s collective unconscious. Unearthing its traces in tradition, making the conflict dynamics conscious, and potentially resolving them, is tantamount to psychoanalysis attempting to do the same thing for individuals. It is hardly an overstatement to claim that Ford undertakes such an endeavor with the works featured in Lion of God.

Installation view, Walton Ford: Lion of God, Ateneo Veneto, Venice, 2024. Photography by Ginevera Formentini.

Drawing inspiration from the life story of St. Jerome in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, the foremost medieval collection of saintly legends where a lion plays a central role, Ford reveals the traces of the traumatic conflict between humans and nature in various cultural-historical forms, resembling an analyst with Freudian roots. By challenging traditional Christian and Western iconography, intertwining it with elements from non-European cultural traditions, and subversively relativizing presumed anthropocentrism, he provokes our ingrained patterns of perception and interpretation. Ford urges us to question our relationship not only to our own species and the cultural artifacts we have produced but also to nature and, in particular, animals. 

At the core of his work lies the lion, borrowed from the traditional iconography of St. Jerome. A lifetime of scholarly pursuit would barely suffice to enumerate the myriad meanings with which the lion has been laden throughout cultural history. The lion is formidable, massive, and robust. Armed with mighty claws and powerful fangs that seize and tear apart prey during the hunt, it can pose a danger to humans. “When it roars in the desert, the animal army trembles,” a German folk song has it, and its roar is not coincidentally reminiscent of thunder rumbling before a storm. Yet, there is a profoundly majestic quality to its roar. Just as trumpets and fanfares heralded the triumphal procession of a victorious Roman emperor in ancient times, it precedes the entry of the king of beasts. The lion’s mane resembles a crown, radiating power and dignity. In the lion, the perennially litigious conflict between humanity and nature takes on a tangible form. 

The increasingly sophisticated attempts by Promethean man to overcome the fear of deadly nature by banishing it from his immediate surroundings through technology have not left the lion untouched. While lions once roamed vast regions of the Old World—across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and even as far as India, as attested by ancient writers—today, they are only found in the wild in protected areas south of the Sahara and the Gire Forest in India. In just a few centuries, humans have either eradicated lions in large parts of the world or confined them behind bars in zoos, thereby eliminating them as a potential threat. However, this is not the sole method by which we have (supposedly) kept ourselves safe. We have also fashioned our own lion, appearing toothless at first glance. By appropriating the lion in the medium of language and reducing it to a sign, a symbol, we have enclosed it—similar to how it was once kept in kennels at medieval royal courts to flaunt wealth. We have replaced the tangible lion outside the linguistic enclosure with a symbolic one, burdening it with the weight of our culture like a scapegoat. The symbolic lion may represent Jesus Christ and his resurrection, as it was believed that lion cubs were born dead and only brought to life by the fiery breath of the male lion. It may signify the struggle between good and evil or, as a heraldic animal, symbolize the power of a ruler. Various discourses, traditions, narratives, and ideologies converge and condense in the lion as a symbol. Hence, it is no surprise that even the ostensibly tamed lion in the realm of language can occasionally manifest a threatening explosive force. 

Especially amidst the ongoing global debates on potential cultural conflicts in the era of globalization, as well as humanity’s often ruthless treatment of nature and the alarming extinction of species, Ford’s works are remarkably topical, pressing their proverbial finger on the wound. The choice of subject matter and motifs is particularly intriguing, leading us back to the foundations of our Western European self-perception, to the origins of modern technology, science, and philosophy embodied in the monotheistic religions of the book. The intricate connection between the (seemingly impossible) mastery of nature in the face of primal human fears, seeking resolution through religion, is encapsulated in the two typical attributes with which St. Jerome is conventionally portrayed: a book and a lion. These visual elements thread through the exhibited works, becoming focal points for Ford’s search for clues through free association. The use of Jerome’s Vita of the Saints as a basis adds an extra layer of interest. Considering that Jerome meticulously translated the holy scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin in the fourth century AD, laying the groundwork for the entire understanding of the Bible and Christianity through his Biblia Sacra Vulgata, and simultaneously being credited with establishing the lion as the enduring symbol of the evangelist Mark, his significance takes on added symbolic weight in the context of the exhibition venue in Venice. 

In The Golden Legend, Jacobus de Voragine recounts the story of a lion that entered the monastery where St. Jerome lived with fellow monks, inciting panic among the brothers. “Once St. Jerome was sitting with the brothers in the evening, listening to the Holy Scriptures, when a lion came limping into the monastery. The other brothers fled when they saw him, but St. Jerome went to meet him as a guest. The lion pointed out his sore foot, so Jerome called the brothers and ordered them to wash the foot and search diligently for the wound. They did so and found that he had been pricked by a thorn. They tended it assiduously, and the lion became so tame and secretive that it lived with them like a pet.” It seems like a brief glimpse of the utopia of peaceful coexistence between humans and animals, and Jerome recognizes “that the Lord had sent the lion not only to heal his foot but for the benefit of the monastery.” The lion is then taken into the monastery and becomes the guardian of the donkey used by the monks to transport firewood. However, the story takes a turn when caravan traders steal the donkey while the lion is sleeping, leading the monks to falsely accuse the lion of eating the donkey. As punishment, the lion is tasked with carrying wood on its back, which it does without complaint. In the end, the lion and donkey are reunited, and the lion is exculpated. It makes sense to read this short story allegorically, as was customary in the Middle Ages, from the perspective of the Passion of Christ and to question its eschatological significance. However, like Ford, it is also possible to consciously reject the logic of religious and cultural history and view the events from a different, perhaps at first glance, esoteric perspective. Among the exhibited paintings, these three artworks PhantomLeo Dei, and An Apparition singularly detach the saint’s legend from its traditional context, play with the traditional attributions of meaning, and bring to light aspects that were previously hidden under the rubble of Western cultural history and its idiosyncratic logic. This is particularly evident in challenging the inherent bias towards human protagonists over animals, a tendency often embraced when wholeheartedly following Jacobus de Voragine. Ford disrupts the anthropocentric focus usually placed on human protagonists by centralizing the lion. 

In Phantom, there is no human figure, not even St. Jerome; instead, we are confronted with a life-size lion at the foot of a mountain, rushing past the viewer. The tense muscles are clearly visible under the fur; the majestic animal looks so fierce that one doesn’t quite know whether to flee or freeze in horror, especially as the lion’s mouth is dripping with blood. Upon first glance, we are immediately confronted with the threat emanating from raw, untamed nature. But why is the lion carrying a book in its mouth? Could it have taken a human life, seizing the book in the process? Strikingly, the book itself appears to bleed, as if a trail of blood courses through its pages, hinting that the stories it contains have been stripped of their innocence. This prompts the consideration that the menace to humanity extends beyond nature, embodied by the lion, to our own creations and culture. Yet, the question lingers: who is the real threat, and who is under threat? Perhaps, as Ford proposes, the weight of symbols and allegories imposed on the lion throughout history poses as significant a threat to it as its formidable paws and fangs do to us. In Ford’s words, “After I made the painting, I started to analyze the imagery, and it occurred that one of the great enemies of wild lions is their place in human culture. It is the way we have portrayed them throughout history—as noble kings of the animals, as symbols, as heroes. These tales, and our obtrusive obsession with lions, can only cause them suffering.”

Walton Ford, Phantom (detail), 2023. © Walton Ford

What Walter Benjamin asserted regarding cultural history in its entirety appears to be manifesting here under a distinct guise: “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism. And just as it is itself not free from barbarism, neither is it free from the process of transmission, in which it falls from one set of hands into another.”

If one averts their gaze from the lion, they will also notice thorn bushes growing at the periphery of the scene. These thorn bushes trace back to the starting point—Christian Western iconography. Christ’s crown of thorns, worn on the cross, symbolizes the Passion and the yearning for redemption amid the agonizing and contradictory relationship between humanity and nature, between animals and humans. However, this symbolism is but a component, albeit a prominent one, within a delicate constellation of meanings that offers a fleeting glimpse into our cultural memory. But only for a brief moment, as the ground is veiled in fog, prompting contemplation of alternative cultural interpretative frameworks. In Japanese art, spirits are often depicted as hovering above the ground, raising questions about the surreal nature of the lion. Is it a chimera, perhaps a creation of our imagination? In the realm of symbolic language, the lion is detached from its real-world counterpart. Yet, there exists another dimension to its ghostly aspect: akin to the “specter of communism” that once served as a reminder of the nineteenth-century bourgeois world’s conditionality and historicity, the lion compels us to confront our own conditionality and historicity. Ford’s lion serves as a poignant reminder for humanity, signaling the end of the Anthropocene and emphasizing our inextricable dependence on nature. It prompts reflection on the necessity for a transformed relationship with the flora and fauna of our planet. 

Walter Benjamin wrote: “It is a metaphysical truth that all nature would begin to lament if it were endowed with language. […] This proposition has a double meaning. It means, first: she would lament language itself. Speechlessness: that is the great sorrow of nature. […] This proposition means, secondly: she would lament. Lament, however, is the most undifferentiated, impotent expression of language; it contains scarcely more than the sensuous breath; and even where there is only a rustling of plants, in it there is always a lament.” In contemplating the lion captured in the image, what might it say if it spoke our human language? The lion appears melancholic, perhaps fatigued and world-weary. Could it be expressing grievances about the multitude of signs and symbols imposed by humans, or lamenting the extinction of its fellow species and the loss of its habitat? We do not speak its language and will never be able to know. However, a sense of humility and a glimmer of hopeful anticipation emanate from its expression. Is it plausible that the aspiration for redemption from confinement—both tangible and symbolic— is breaking through? For the artwork is steeped in Christ symbolism: at each of the four corners surrounding the lion portrait, square images depict human hands extracting thorns from a lion’s paw, forming a cross with the lion at its center. One cannot help but think of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on Golgotha. Nevertheless, the focus is on a lion, potentially symbolizing Christ as Leo Judae in homage to classical Christian iconography, yet not strictly confined to this interpretation. The Sermon on the Mount and the double commandment of love come to mind, leading us to consider, in Ford’s words, that “It takes a kind of unconditional love to tolerate sharing an environment with an animal that could eat you. In general, wealthier Western countries ask the poorer countries of the Global South to take on the burden of living side by side with human-eating animals.”

The complex tapestry of symbolic references and ambivalences woven by Ford remains unbroken in the painting An Apparition. We see a lion dragging a large basket laden with heavy books up a mountain, seemingly guided by a chain. Strikingly, the lion does not direct its gaze toward the person attempting to pull it upward; instead, its eyes turn skyward with profound emotion. This scene immediately evokes the image of monks in The Golden Legend, burdening an innocent lion with the role of a donkey due to the belief that it had torn one apart. At this juncture, the weight of Christian iconography is palpable, with the lion portrayed as a symbol for the Savior. Yet, it becomes evident that it is our own culture and tradition that inflict torment and subjugation upon him. Some of the books within the basket are ablaze, emitting thin threads of smoke. Do books not still ignite disputes today? Are unpopular writings not still indexed and even burned, with authors threatened with death? Have entire wars not been waged in the past in the name of books and their “correct” interpretation? The impression lingers that the lion is made a scapegoat for human hubris. Similar to the medieval legends of saints, the lion endures these burdens and impositions. Perhaps it tolerates them because it foresees an end to its suffering; the deeply emotional expression on its face hints at an epiphany, even a unio mystica. Perhaps it catches a fleeting glimpse of salvation from the vale of tears shared by animals and humans in this world. Maybe it perceives a mystical redeemer figure promising courage and solace—whatever form this redeemer may take, as our human imagination proves insufficient for such comprehension. 

Walton Ford, An Apparition (detail), 2024. © Walton Ford

Indeed, are not all written texts, encompassing the entirety of literature from antiquity to the digital age, both the commendable and the flawed writings, an embodiment of our conditio humana, our human condition? They represent the interplay of virtue and vice within human thought and action. They serve as the bedrock and, simultaneously, the chasm of human nature. 

Simultaneously, An Apparition serves as the connecting keystone to the Ateneo, acting as a treasure trove where the weight of symbols and metaphors, the discourses and narratives of Western cultural history, are amassed and literally within the viewer’s reach. Ford’s insight that all of human culture is both a pleasure and a burden, contingent on one’s perspective, is once again underscored by the fact that on the reverse side of An Apparition lies Tintoretto’s Apparizione della Vergine a san Girolamo, depicting St. Jerome as the Virgin Mary appears to him. This juxtaposition of new and old, tradition and its deconstruction, enters into a productive relationship of tension, forming a microcosm in which resonance and pulsation occur. It’s as if Ford extends an invitation not only to the viewer but to all witnesses of human cultural development—the paintings, books, the historic walls of the Ateneo Veneto, and even the entire former Serenissima Repubblica di San Marco—to engage in a profound conversation about the burning questions of our past, present, and future. 

“Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” Perhaps the lion already knew that, too.


Life is an involuntary journey—a fleeting experiment, a journey of the mind through matter. As the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once said, “Once we are able to see this world as an illusion and a phantasm, then we can see everything that happens to us as a dream, as something that pretended to exist while we were sleeping.” As we reach the culmination of this somnambulistic odyssey, beyond the dissolving thoughts and memories, freed from the shackles of guilt and mourning, only a phantom remains.

Walton Ford’s Studio. Photography by Charlie Rubin.

About Walton Ford

Ford’s monumental watercolor paintings and editioned prints expand upon the visual language and narrative scope of traditional natural history painting, mediating on the often violent and bizarre moments that lie at the intersection of human culture and the natural world. Drawing from an extensive research practice that references scientific illustrations, field studies, fables, and myths, he develops stories about animals as they exist in the human imagination. Although human figures rarely appear in his paintings, their presence and effect is always implied. 

Ford’s mid-career survey, Tigers of Wrath, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 2006, and traveled to the Norton Museum of Art in Florida and the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas through 2008. Ford’s first major institutional retrospective exhibition in Europe, Bestiarium, curated by Udo Kittelmann, opened at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof–Museum für Gegenwart in 2010, and traveled to the Albertina in Vienna and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, through 2011. In 2015-16, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris staged an exhibition of works by Ford, highlighting a series inspired by the Beast of Gévaudan.

About Udo Kittelmann

Museum director and curator Udo Kittelmann has served at several of the most important German museums, most notably from 2008 to 2020 as the director of the Nationalgalerie, State Museums of Berlin, comprising six museums among them the Neue Nationalgalerie, Alte Nationalgalerie and Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum for Contemporary Art, Museum Berggruen, Scharf-Gerstenberg Collection and Friedrichswerdersche Church. During his tenure, he also initiated the renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s architectural masterpiece, the Neue Nationalgalerie, by the British architect David Chipperfield, and petitioned the German government to construct the Museum of 20th Century designed by Herzog & de Meuron beside the Mies building at the Kulturforum in Berlin. In 2013 he was honored with the award of European Cultural Manager of the Year. 

Prior to the Nationalgalerie, he was director at the Kölnischer Kunstverein (1994 to 2001) and the Museum für Moderne Kunst (MMK) in Frankfurt (2002–2008). In 2001, Kittelmann was commissioner and curator of the German Pavilion at the 49th Venice Biennale and was awarded a Golden Lion for best international pavilion. In 2013 at the 55th Biennale di Venezia he curated as the first non-Russian commissioner the Russian Pavilion, where he showed the installation Danaë by Vadim Zakharov. Throughout his career, Kittelmann also staged several exhibitions among them for Fondazione Prada in Milan, Venice and Shanghai as well as Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland and  Centro Botín in Santander, Spain.

Portrait of Walton Ford. Photography by Charlie Rubin.