The “Gillet” Greek Bronze Griffin Protome
Greek · Orientalizing Period, 7th Century B.C.
H: 21 cm
On Loan (L.2019.21)
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, which, in turn, would have been supported by a bronze tripod (see the largely preserved La Garenne tripod).
Hollow cast in bronze, 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 face are covered with tiny scales, which were added after the original cast was made through a cold engraving process.
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.
Archaeologists still know relatively little about the Orientalizing Period, but most believe that through the development of trade in goods and raw materials, particularly tin, Greek artisans came into contact with Near Eastern iconography, techniques, and materials and assimilated them into their own culture. One of the ongoing questions in the archaeology of the Orientalizing period is how and where griffin protomes originated. 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. There has been much ink spilled on this question of origins, with some scholars contesting that the griffins are Greek, others, that the earliest examples are from the Near East, and still others, that these bronzes are the creations of eastern craftsmen working in Greece.
The cauldrons 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; griffi n heads projected all round it” upon his successful return to Samos from Tartessos with a rich cargo (Herodotus, Book 4, 152).
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 fifth group, from which only cast examples exist, which dates from the 7th century. Examples of this type have been found at Samos, Rhodes, and other east Greek sites. Three protomes from the same cauldron in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, provide close parallels to our protome. Another close example is a protome in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (59.11.18), which is similar to our griffin not only in type but also in the small hole that both have in the back of their necks (which, perhaps, resulted from the casting process.)
Complete and in an excellent state of preservation. Except for one very small chip in the upper beak and one on the right side of the lower beak, as well as a small hole in the back of the neck (which may be a result of the original casting process), it is undamaged.
Art market, prior to 1950s;
Ex- Charles Gillet (1879-1972) Collection, Lausanne, Switzerland, assembled in the 1950s.
COMSTOCK M. – VERMEULE C.,Greek, Etruscan and Roman Bronzes in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Greenwich, 1971.
JANTZEN U., Griechische Greifenkessel, Berlin, 1955.
GOLDMAN B., The Development of the Lion-Griffi n in American Journal of Archaeology, 64, 1960, pp 319-328.
KOPKE G., What role for Phoenicians?, in KOPKE G. et al, Greece Between East and West: 10th – 8th centuries B.C., New York, 1992, p. 106.
ROLLEY C., Greek Bronzes, Fribourg, 1986.
VON BOTHMER D. Newly Acquired Bronzes-Greek, Etruscan, and Roman in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, N.S., 19, 1961, pp. 133-135.
For the La Garenne Tripod, see:
Olympia, IV, No. 810, Pl. XLVIII.