The ancient and medieval symbology of the griffin

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Among the large number of terrestrial bestiary symbols enriching the religious buildings and the medieval palaces, it is possible to identify the griffin. Nonetheless, the representation of this mythological creature had had a great spread since the Classical age. 

 

griffin
The image of a griffin in a floor mosaic at the Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista in Ravenna.

 

Iconography of the griffin and first historical attestations 

The symbology and iconography of the griffin [1], a four-legged animal with a lion’s body and an eagle’s head, belongs to ancient times. There are various attestations dating back to 4000 years before Christ, and the figure of the griffin spread all over the Mediterrranean Sea [2]. In the Minoan civilization, it was widely used as a decorative pattern: many specimens are known; for instance among the archaeological remains in Knossos, Crete. Probably it originally symbolized a guardian and a psychopomp of the souls who had to help them going towards the afterlife. 

 

The symbology of the griffin in ancient Greece 

Later, Greeks assimilated the griffin symbology, which became a syncretic divinity linked to the solar cult. According to this perspective, it personified Apollo driving the chariot that pulled the sun. It is famous the description made by Ctesias of Cnidus in the Persian History: “These are four-legged birds big as wolves, their legs and claws resemble those of a lion; the feathers of their chest are red, while those of the rest of the body are black”. Ctesias and Herodotus’ writings (The Histories, Book 4) have contributed to spread the iconographic representation of the griffin since the 5th century BC. There is a fantastic sculpture of the griffin in the famous Griffin of Ascoli Satriano, a Magno-Greek work of the 4th century.

 

The flight of Alexander 

The iconographic theme The flight of Alexander have spread since the 9th century, although it seems a Greek work. It is a legendary episode telling how two griffins allowed Alexander to fly. It tells that the Macedonian leader reached this incredible flight skewing big pieces of meat on two spears. Then, the griffins started to fly, trying to bite into the food. 

 

The flight of Alexander, Duomo di Fidenza

 

Simbology of the griffin from the early-Christian period to the Middle Age 

The iconography of the griffin was used as a Christian symbol during the Middle Age. It is associated to Christ, savior of souls. In detail, the griffin symbolizes the double nature of Christ: the terrestrial dimension, represented by the lion, and the heavenly one, indicated by the eagle [3].

 

A griffin at the Basilica di San Fedele in Como

 

Nonetheless, the Christian exegesis has often an interpretative ambivalence. For that reason, sometimes the griffin is represented as a feral being with negative connotations. This is the devil’s figuration, personified by a large bestiary of real and imaginative animals, like the dragon or the snake. 

 

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

(Translation by Daniela Campus) 

 

 

Notes

[1] A. M. Bisi (1965). Il Grifone. Storia di un motivo iconografico nell’Antico Oriente Mediterraneo. Roma, Istituto di Studi del Vicino Oriente Università.

[2] Ciccarese, M.P. (a cura di) (2007). Animali simbolici. Alle origini del bestiario cristiano, Vol. 2. Bologna: Bologna Edizioni Dehoniane.

[3] Charbonneau-Lassay, L. (1994). Il Bestiario di Cristo. La misteriosa emblematica di Gesù Cristo, Vol. 2. Roma: Arkeios.

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