At first glance, one is struck by the scale of the smoothed rock face that served as a “canvas” for the Piasa. It is huge, perhaps 50 feet high and 75 to 100 feet in width. Curiously, only the lower portions of the bluff are shown painted. Two odd figures are clearly visible, drawn in heavy crude lines. The right-hand one is a bizarre beast, which has been described since as a bird. Indeed, it is shown with wings, but, this ‘bird’ has a very un-avian and toothsome smile on its face, and five clawed toes. To the left is a horned, and disembodied head, which is devilish in appearance. Superficially, these creatures do not appear to form a lung motif. However, careful study reveals several salient features that lead us to believe that this picture in fact contains a classic lung.
First, we must return to Father Marquette’s original description of what has come to be called the Piasa. Marquette describes the ‘two monsters’ as being placed so high upon the river bluff that no savage could reach them. Yet, Lewis’ Piasa is depicted as placed close to the ground, well within reach of any vandal armed with a piece of charcoal. (Clearly these lower figures had been redrawn. The crude wings and smiling face totally contradict Marquette’s description, both in their forms and the level of artistic expertise involved. Surely, these crude caricatures are embellishments — poor attempts to highlight the fading remains of a pre-existing greater work. Yet, even pitiful as these images now appear, they still preserve some hints of what must have originally been emblazoned across the full bluff face.)
The answer to the problem of placement manifests itself as an absence. The key is the freshly exposed yellow-buff expanse of “empty” limestone above the figures in the 1854 lithograph. According to Marquette, this lofty void was once the heart of the painting.
And it was, before the arrival of gunpowder. After the Native Americans obtained European firearms, they immediately set to work on defacing the Piasa with a hail of lead. Before the gun, native peoples futilely flung their spears and arrows at the “offensive” Piasa. Once the local peoples obtained firearms from European traders, they immediately set to work defacing the Piasa in a hail of lead — with devastating results.16 This broadside of lead gradually erased the bulk of the Piasa — exposing fresh, light-colored limestone underneath. The apparent void, then, actually represents the bulk of the two beasts’ bodies. If you look carefully at the picture, you can see the vague form of something large and sinuous in the expanse of buff-yellow limestone, a sort of negative image formed by the greatest concentration of gunfire. Indeed, Lewis clearly depicted several native men pointing their rifles directly at the Piasa.)
With this in mind, even in its defaced condition, several lung elements can be identified in Lewis’ Piasa: