Goddess on a Lion

This fragment comes from a frieze in the main room of a house in Panjikent. Panjikent was situated at the eastern end of Sogdiana. The town had two temples, with large courtyards and sanctuaries. It also had two or three story houses built of adobe bricks and rammed earth. In 722 almost half the town of Pankijent was burned down during the siege by Arabs. The only reason the fragment survives, along with other wooden decorations of the ceiling, is because they got buried beneath the collapsed walls and the soil protected them. These fragments were once painted and red paint survives on some pieces.

The fragment shows a woman, possibly a goddess, riding a lion. The lion and goddess are set within an arch that imitates the pearl roundel motif. The pearl roundel is also seen in other fragments of this frieze. The goddess is shown from a three-quarter view, her shoulders and body face forward while her legs are bent at the knees and turned towards the right. Her hair is pulled towards the back of her head forming a crescent shaped braid on the top of her head. She is wearing a long tight fitting dress, a scarf, a diadem, earrings and arm bracelets.

The goddess Nanaia was usually shown as riding a lion. However, she was also usually depicted as having four arms. Whether this frieze depicts Nanaia is unknown but she does have similar characteristics. In one instance Nanaia was even depicted as being a lion herself. She was originally a Mesopotamian goddess and was brought to Bactria in the Achaemenian period. She eventually became the head of Kushan, Sogdiana and was turned into the “Great Goddess” of Eastern Iran.[1]

The goddess also shares iconography with the Hindu goddess Durga. Like Durga, Nanaia is usually depicted with multiple arms. While in this frieze the goddess does not have multiple arms, she is seated on a lion much like the goddess Durga. In Hinduism the lion represents power, will and determination, and Durga riding the lion manifests all these qualities.

(Aleena Malik)

[1] Shenkar. Intangible Spirits and Graven images, 127.

This intricately carved piece is one of the extant high reliefs discovered in one of the private dwellings in Panjikent, and was part of the decorative program adorning a central lighting opening in the ceiling of its main room, as reconstructed by Marshak (Expedition Silk Road, 2014, 90-91). It represents a woman seated on a lion, a sure sign that we are dealing with a goddess. An arch adorned with pearls surrounds her, with the continuation in the shape of small lozenges. Her position is unusual and elegant, with the slender body and face, the hips and the slim long legs turned to the right, and the head turned three-quarters to the left, with the pulled-back hair locks. Her knees are bent at the knees and her feet don't touch the land, making her more of a rider that just of a sitter. She performs a large gesture with her left arm, which may indicate that she was holding an object which didn't survive, maybe a bowl (Belenitsky, 1973, 36). Her face was carefully carved, with big almond eyes, plump lips and a soft chin line (ibid). Her adornment is also indicative of her divine status, with a three-pearl diadem on her brow, a big earring, a bracelet adorning her right forearm, a tight dress with folds at the hips, and a long scarf. She makes direct eye-contact with the lion, as if they are in dialogue. The figure of the lion is well preserved. He has a big head with open jaws, looking backwards at the goddess, a well-established mane, furry front legs with a raised right leg and a fluffy tail-brush looking upward. He is adorned with a six-petal rosette on his left forearm, the symbol having its roots in the ancient Near East and then well attested in late and post-Sasanid works (Kantor, 1947) and in Sogdian textiles. The head of the animal is represented in profile, while the body is turned in three-quarter view, which is similar to other lion representations in Sogdian art, for example a 7th century silver bowl. The presence of a lion sends us back to the very popular goddess Nana who is nearly always portrayed sitting on a lion. In Sogdian paintings Nana is always depicted with four arms, which is one of her most constant attributes (Belenitsky, Marshak, 1971, 13). Yet other images of her found in the region of Central Asia, not painted but rather sculpted or embossed on coins or silverware, and they often depict her as two-handed; the same two-handed depiction is found on a bowl, which may have had a ritual significance (Ghose, 2005). It is not impossible, therefore, that in creating a wooden carved frieze the artist may have been inspired by those sculpted three-dimensional depictions rather than by flat paintings. Panjikent, famous for its paintings, would have been even more famous had it preserved its carved wood heritage more fully, since it is the earliest example of wood carving in Central Asia, and many of the surviving specimens are artistically perfect (Belenitsly, Piotrovsky, 1956, 79). Unfortunately, not many do survive. As strange as it may sound, we owe all the extant fragments of the Sogdian wood carvings to fire. Wood doesn't keep well in the loessial Central Asian soil, and its only chance of survival was when the burned details were immediately buried under collapsed walls and roofs, blocking access to oxygen. This is the reason why the carved woods that have survived are extremely fragmental and fragile, and require scrupulous conservation (Belenitsky, 1973, 34; Expedition Silk Road, 2014, 198). - Maria Slautina


Bijl, Arnoud, and Birgit Boelens, 2014. Expedition Silk Road: journey to the West: treasures from the Hermitage. (AM)

Guitty Azarpay, 1981. Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. University of California Press. (AM)

Shenkar, Michael, 2014. Intangible spirits and graven images: the iconography of deities in the pre-Islamic Iranian world. (AM)

Expedition Silk Road: Journey to the West. Treasures from the Hermitage, Exhibition catalogue, Hermitage Amsterdam, 2014. (MS)

Belenitsky, A. M. Monumental Art of Penjikent. Painting and Scupture (Monumentalnoe Iskusstvo Penjikenta. Jivopis, Skulptura), Moscow, 1973. (MS)

Kantor, Helene J. “The Shoulder Ornament of Near Eastern Lions”, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 6, No. 4 (October), 1947, pp. 250-274. (MS)

Belenitsky A. M., Marshak B. I. “L'art de Piandjikent à la lumière des dernières fouilles (1958-1968)”, in Arts Asiatiques, Tome 23, 1971, pp. 3-39. (MS)

Ghose, Madhuvanti. “A Rare Image of the Goddess Nana from Afghanistan”, in Afghanistan, Ancien Carrefour entre l’Est et l’Ouest, Actes du Colloque International, Brepols, 2005, pp. 259-270. (MS)

Belenitsky, A. M., Piotrovsky, B. B. Sculpture and Painting of the Ancient Panjikent (Skuptura I Jivopis Drevnego Pianjikenta), Moscow, 1959. (MS)



First quarter of the 8th century


Panjikent, Sogdiana, Site VII-11


Carved wood


28×41 cm




State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Inv. SA–16233

Additional Research Metadata


High relief fragment from a frieze in the main room of a house. Set inside an arch is a woman – possibly a goddess – riding a lion. She is shown from an unusual angle, with her head turned in threequarters view, her shoulders and body almost frontal, the legs bent at the knees and turned to right. Her face with its large almond-shaped eyes is framed by hair pulled towards the back of the head. The goddess wears a long tight-fitting dress and a scarf, with a diadem, earrings and arm bracelets.


From the Panjikent Archaeological Expedition of 1962


Belenitsky 1973, pp.35–36, pls 44–45

Bijl, Arnoud, and Birgit Boelens. Expedition Silk Road: journey to the West: treasures from the Hermitage, 2014


“Goddess on a Lion,” Telling the Sogdian Story , accessed October 17, 2019, http://sogdians.nyufasedtech.com/items/show/373.