University Museum of Bergen

Soapstone lions shed new light on building history

In connection with work on the façade, new discoveries were made relating to the lion heads that adorn the entire façade.

It appears that the lion heads below each window of the middle part of the building are made from fine soapstone.

In old photographs, it is clearly visible that the lion heads on the middle wall of the building are darker than the lion heads on the side wings. The fact that the darker ones appear to be carved from soapstone, came as a pleasant and unexpected surprise. The soapstone will now be subjected to further examinations. The majority of the lion heads are made from soapstone, but at least two of the heads are made from serpentine, which is a harder ”relative” of soapstone. The lion heads decorating the side wings, on the other hand, are casts.

Gentle method

Luckily, it seems that the method used to remove the paint, with a chemical paint remover and high pressure cleaning with hot water, has proved both gentle and effective. Based on a preliminary assessment it appears that, according to geologist Øystein Jansen at Bergen Museum, that one can continue using this method for the remainder of the lion heads. There is good reason to believe that the soapstone lions were not originally covered in paint; this was presumably done after the side wings had been completed.

Part of the building’s history

These lion heads are an important part of the history of the museum buildings. It will be necessary to remove the painting from the remainder of the lion heads in the front part of the museum building to ascertain whether they also are made from soapstone. If that be the case, thirty-nine soapstone heads were carved for the oldest part of the building – including one soapstone head which is stored in the basement of the Natural History Collections.
Each soapstone lion head is unique and the design of both manes, rows of teeth and expression vary slightly. This is also part of the stonecutting history. Several stonecutters must have been at work here, and they have all left their individual marks on their lions. The soapstone probably stem from local quarries in Samnanger (Ådland/Kvernes), according to Øystein Jansen.