Listening for the roar of The Mari-Cha Lion

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

Readers living in or visiting Hong Kong have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity until 19 February to view a world-renowned, majestic mid-11th to mid-12th South Italian bronze sculpture called The Mari-Cha Lion.

I mention this sublime work as there is a connection to the travel retail industry. The Mari-Cha Lion is the exquisite centerpiece of a remarkable exhibition called Roaring Guardians that is being shown at Asia Society Hong Kong Center.

The Mari-Cha Lion forms part of The Mari-Cha Collection, owned by Mr and Mrs Robert Miller, the former of course being the co-Founder of DFS Group (then Duty-Free Shoppers), of which he remains a significant and highly active minority shareholder. Mr and Mrs Miller have been stalwart supporters of Asia Society Hong Kong Center since its inception in 1990.

This particular exhibition (full name, ‘Roaring Guardians: The Mari-Cha Lion with Asian Traditional and Contemporary Art’) explores the religious, imperial and vernacular significance of the lion symbol. Lions, Asia Society points out, have been a symbol of courage, majesty and protection across centuries and regions.

The Mari-Cha Lion is the highlight but the exhibition also features outstanding contemporary artworks by seven Asian artists and a selection of Asian objects from Mr and Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, local museums and other private collections.

Hopefully, like me, you’ll get the chance to view this extraordinary collection. The Mari-Cha Lion alone is worth the visit. Experts believe that it was cast in the South Italian region of Apulia during the period of Norman rule. It is suggested that the engraved decoration, including kufic inscriptions, was the work of itinerant Spanish craftsmen.

One of the innate attractions, and great mysteries, of The Mari-Cha Lion is the presence inside of a vase-shaped bronze vessel, positioned at the rear of the casting with its mouth facing slightly downwards. Scientific examination suggests it was cast as an integral part of the lion.

But what was its purpose? Consensus opinion is that it may be all that remains of a mechanism that made the casting roar as if it was a living beast. Such sculptures are now known as ‘acoustic automata’.

Did the Mari-Cha Lion actually roar? We will never know. But stand in this beautiful place, look deep into the powerful, probing eyes of this majestic, ancient beast and I swear that you can almost hear the sound.

Footnote: Besides the magnificent artwork housed within the Chantal Miller Gallery, Asia Society Hong Kong Center (see below) is worth a visit for the beauty of its grounds (and the art pieces within them), a look at the Miller Theater, and the Center’s famous four cannons, discovered during excavation work in 2008.

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