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Byzantine Griffin

Evan and Anne discuss a Byzantine depiction of a griffin, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Acc. 2000.81). CC BY 4.0.

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Video transcript

I'm Evan Freeman. I'm Anne McClanan. I'm glad to be here in the Metropolitan Museum today discussing this extraordinary late Byzantine sculpture of a griffin, a mythological animal. A griffin is a composite animal, often combining the body and feet of a lion, with the head and the wings and sometimes the feet of an eagle. But we see griffins taking a variety of forms. And they're one of many composite beasts. So it's natural that they would offer a lot of flexibility in the form that would stretch the imagination of both the artist and the viewer at the time. But the griffin does remain one of the most popular animal composites. And I think it comes down to the way it combines the king of birds, the eagle, with the king of animals, the lion. So it came to gain a wide range of associations in both antiquity and the medieval world. In classical antiquity in the Ancient Near East. That's right. I believe griffins even appear on Ancient Near Eastern seals. But it's not until we get to the classical Greek period that we have myths about them, and myths that associate them both with the gods Apollo and Dionysus, and even later Nemesis. The 3rd-century BCE Alexander Romance recounts how Alexander was taken heavenward on a chariot drawn by griffins. We see that depiction from the Alexander Romance even on the side of the church of San Marco in Venice. And we see it in many manuscripts. Yet here, this sculpture in The Met is where we see a form of the griffin that's perhaps the most popular of all. Because this is the form where the griffin is encircled in a medallion. It's the way that the griffin is depicted across countless textiles and other luxury goods that circulated around the Mediterranean. It's interesting that even after the Roman Empire became Christian, with the conversion of Constantine, griffins continue to be depicted. Perhaps they weren't religiously threatening or perhaps they were given new Christian meanings. There's a theory that is an interesting one to entertain, that the griffin here, in fact, had specific connotations connecting it with protecting the dead. It's likely because of its similarity to a griffin image from a tomb, a sarcophagus, that was carved in Thessaly about the same time. This too could have come from a tomb. And we know that griffins also decorated the textiles that enwrapped some of the precious relics, the bones of saints that were held in medieval church treasuries in Western Europe. I'm noticing several other details that correspond to that meaning. For example, amongst the abstract ornament around the very edge of the panel, I see a cross anchoring each side, which differentiates it a little bit from that generic form of the griffin that was on things produced in Islamic, Sassanian, and a wide range of workshops in the Middle Ages. Those crosses are a very clear indication that this griffin panel was used in a Christian context. Absolutely. And could have come from Thessaly in Central Greece. It could have come from the Balkans. I believe it came to the Met through a purchase from a private collection, though. So our ideas of when and where it was made are based on comparisons with more firmly attributed objects that have inscriptions and contexts, that allow us to pinpoint their manufacturer. I'm struck by how different this griffin is from other famous Byzantine griffins, like the one that decorated the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors in Constantinople, now Istanbul. That griffin is depicted with a number of other animals and hunting scenes. And you have the sense that the artist is depicting an animal that he imagines could be real. And that taps into the wellspring of mythology of the griffin as a tremendously ferocious animal. So powerful and terrifying that it could lift up animals as large as a horse or an elephant, and so was feared above all others in mythological collections. And then that even carries forward into the Middle Ages, right, and the way that the Book of Beasts, the Bestiary, describes griffins. Griffins appear in a wide range of mediums and contexts in Byzantium. They appear in religious and non-religious contexts; in churches and palaces, carved in stone, as with this marble panel; in metal work; in enamels. That's right. And across all of them, they convey a sense of splendor, but they remain a little enigmatic. [MUSIC PLAYING]