Belgium: The Lion of Waterloo, Sentinel of the Past
The Lion of Waterloo is more than just a commemorative monument of the 1815 battle. It's a work heavy with memory that continues to watch over history. Through its impressive dimensions, it represents victory and peace, while embodying the historical and cultural complexities of the region it overlooks. A close-up on a controversial symbol that materializes collective memory.
© O. Robert
The Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo was a major military engagement that took place on June 18, 1815, near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, which was then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. This battle is famous for being the final act of the Napoleonic Wars and leading to the ultimate defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The French forces, led by Napoleon, confronted the armies of the Seventh Coalition, mainly composed of the British under the command of the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussians under Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo ended his Hundred Days return to power after his escape from Elba and resulted in his final exile to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
The battle was notable for its scale, intensity, and historical consequences, marking the end of the Napoleonic era in Europe and the beginning of a prolonged period of relative peace on the continent, known as the Concert of Europe.
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Order and Construction of the Lion (1820 - 1826)
The construction of the Lion of Waterloo was ordered by the King of the Netherlands, William I, who then ruled the region. The purpose was to commemorate the Allied victory against Napoleon and to honor the Prince of Orange, who was wounded during the battle.
The sculpture of the Lion of Waterloo was made by the sculptor Jean-Louis Van Geel (1787–1852), a Belgian artist known for his works on animals. As for the production of the sculpture itself, the casting of the lion was carried out in the foundries of John Cockerill in Seraing, Belgium. It was in this industrial town, located in the province of Liège, that the statue was shaped before being transported and installed on the site of the Battle of Waterloo.
The Lion is an imposing cast iron sculpture, measuring nearly 4.45 meters in height and weighing approximately 28 tons. The animal is depicted resting on a sphere and facing south, towards France. This choice symbolizes the vigilance and victory of the Allies, watching over the potential enemy.
The Lion stands on a stone pedestal at the top of the Lion's Mound. This mound is made of earth taken from the battlefield itself and was raised by laborers mainly from the region. You can reach the top by a staircase of 226 steps, symbolizing the effort and ascent to victory.
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While the lion is traditionally a symbol of courage and strength, its orientation towards France has sometimes been interpreted as a sign of provocation. Moreover, the monument honors the injury of a Dutch prince on soil that is now Belgian, which has sparked identity and historical controversies.
The Lion in the Cultural and Tourist Landscape
Although the monument was built at the behest of a Dutch monarch, it is now fully integrated into Belgian cultural identity. Belgium, formed in 1830, inherited this site which has become a place of national and international memory.
The Lion of Waterloo attracts visitors from around the world, fascinated by Napoleonic history. The site has a museum, regularly organizes exhibitions as well as guided tours to deeply explore the events of the Battle of Waterloo.
The silhouette of the Lion of Waterloo has become an iconic element in art and popular culture, appearing in various literary, pictorial, and cinematic works, thus helping to perpetuate the memory of the battle.