Greek Bronze Griffin Protome
Period: end of the 7th to beginning of the 6th century B.C.
Dimensions: H: 12.1 cm
Ex- German private collection, Berlin, circa 1950s; Sotheby’s, New York, June 5, 1999, n. 115; Ex-Belgian private collection.
This head displays the canonical attributes of the East Greek, Orientalizing griffin protome: its neck is graceful and sinuous, its ears tall and erect, its angular beak agape, tongue protruding, as if in mid-scream. A top-knot crowns its head. Its wide eyes, now hollow, were once inlaid with glass or stone. Its neck and top of its head are covered with tiny U shaped scales, which were added after the original cast was made through a cold engraving process using a semi-circular stamp.
This head would have been part of a group of identical protomes that would have been fixed (by their bronze rivets) to the shoulder of a large, circular, bronze cauldron (protomes were decorative elements, most often in the form of animal’s heads, though human protomes are also known); our example is smaller than most of its type.
The griffin is a mythological beast – lion’s body, snake’s neck and tongue, eagle’s head and hare’s ears – with apotropaic properties. First introduced to the Greeks during the Orientalizing period, the griffin enjoyed prolonged popularity, even into Medieval times.
The origins of these griffin protomes are still debated: although the griffin iconography surely originates in the Near East, the griffin protome is almost exclusively found in Greece, with no examples extant from the Near East.
The cauldrons which carried griffin protomes were commissioned by wealthy, high-ranking individuals, probably as an offering to the gods or as a diplomatic gift between dignitaries. That these cauldrons served as offerings to the gods is attested to in Herodotus, who tells the story of the Samian Kolaios, who dedicates to Hera a bronze vessel in the shape of an Argive crater; griffin and heads projected all round it upon his successful return to Samos from Tartessos with a rich cargo (Herodotus, Book 4, 152). In the Iliad, cauldrons were offered as prizes in funeral games (Hom. Il.XXIII, 257ff.) and exchanged by prices.
Jantzen, in his seminal study of griffin protomes, Griechische Greifenkessel, categorized these bronzes into groups based on chronology and technique: our example belongs to the latest group, the seventh, from which only cast examples exist. This classification is clear based on the simple yet elegant form of the protome, with beautiful, well-modeled and harmonious elements, its only incised decoration is its scales.
Jantzen’s seventh group is composed of medium-sized pieces found on Samos, one of the most active and renowned centers of production of such artifacts. Samian protomes have been found throughout mainland Greek (especially at Olympia) as well as the colonies and Etruria.
This protome is almost complete and in an excellent state of preservation: except for its right ear and topknot which are lost, it is undamaged.
The piece has been carefully cleaned; there is a beautiful, uniform green patina covering the surface. Heavy yet hollow, the piece was cast in one piece using the lost wax process (the eyes and topknot may have been cast separately and joined after the fact). Three of the rivets which once secured the protome to its base are preserved on its circular base.
Comstock, M., and Vermeule, C., Greek, Etruscan and Roman Bronzes in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Greenwich, 1971, n. 407-408.
Goldman, B., The Development of the Lion-Griffin, in American Journal of Archaeology, Nr. 64, 1960, pp 319-328.
Jantzen, U., Griechische Greifenkessel, Berlin, 1955.
Mitten, D. G., and al., Master Bronzes from Classical World, Mainz/Rhine, 1967, n. 65-67 (especially n. 66).
Rolley, C., Les bronzes grecs, Fribourg, 1983, pp. 72-75.