About This Artwork

Greek; probably Samos

Pair of Protomes Depicting the Forepart of a Griffin, 625/575 BC

Bronze with bone or ivory inlay
1: 20.3 x 7.6 x 7.6 cm (8 x 3 x 3 in.); 2: 21.6 x 8.3 x 7 cm (8 1/2 x 3 1/4 x 2 3/4 in.)

Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund, 1994.38.1-2

The great holy sites of ancient Greece, such as the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia and the Heraion of Samos, functioned as repositories for gifts brought by believers seeking divine favor. The most impressive of these offerings were large bronze cauldrons, which were set on a conical stand or tripod base and embellished with cast-bronze attachments like these two griffins. These beasts, facing outward, would have been fastened to the vessel by means of the rivets still present on their collars. This hollowcast pair is remarkable for the superb quality of their craftsmanship, their condition, and their partially preserved inlaid eyes.

A mythical creature revered for its protective powers, the griffin combined a feline body, an avian head, and tall, horse-like ears. It has been argued that the beaked Protoceratops dinosaurs that once roamed Central Asia were the iconographic inspiration for these ferocious beasts. Travelers may have seen the fantastic fossilized remains of the dinosaurs and then created stories to account for them. Meanwhile, local inhabitants may have spread tales about their ferocity as a way to discourage marauders from looting their wealth. These two griffins are highly agitated; their mouths are agape and their tongues curl up as they screech bloodcurdling warnings to ward off intruders.

— Entry, Essential Guide, 2013, p. 65.

The iconographic inspiration for the ferocious griffin (a feline creature with a beak), which the Greeks revered for its powers of protection, was probably the fossilized remains of four-legged, bird-beaked dinosaurs that once roamed Central Asia. Traders and others may have come across them in their travels around the Gobi Desert. Having no knowledge of the paleontological past, they created a story to account for the strange creatures. These two griffins were once riveted to the shoulder of a ceremonial vessel that sat atop a three-legged stand. It was placed in a religious sanctuary by a prosperous Greek as a demonstration of his piety and a display of his wealth.

—Permanent Collection label

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

The Art Institute of Chicago, Silk Road and Beyond: Travel, Trade, and Transformation, September 30, 2006–October 2007.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Ancient Art Galleries, Gallery 155, April 20, 1994 - February 6, 2012.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Of Gods and Glamour: The Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art, Gallery 151, November 11, 2012 - present.

Publication History

The Art Institute of Chicago, The Essential Guide, (Art Institute of Chicago, 2013), p. 65.

Karen B. Alexander, "From Plaster to Stone: Ancient Art at the Art Institute of Chicago," in Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Karen Manchester, (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2012), p. 33, 39.

Karen Manchester, Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 48-49 (cat. 4), 110.

Karen Manchester, "Griffin Protomes," in The Silk Road and Beyond: Travel, Trade and Transformation, Museum Studies 33, 1 (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2007), pp. 80-1, (ill.).

Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egypt, Greece, Italy, Teacher Manuel (Art Institute of Chicago, 2002), pp. 58-59 (ill.).

"CLEOPATRA; THE ANCIENT WORLD," Computer program, 1997, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Art Institute of Chicago Annual Report, 1993-4, p. 15.

David Gordon Mitten, "Two Griffin Protomes," Acquisitions (Fogg Art Museum) (1964): pp.11-15, 19, fig. 1.

Parke-Bernet Sotheby, New York, Chinese Art: Jades and other semi-precious mineral carvings, early dynastic pottery and percelain, single-color and decorated porcelains, Chinese & Archaic Greek Bronzes and other scupltures, Chinese lamps, a collection of Japanese costume dolls, Japanese and Chinese paintings: From the Estate of the Late Mrs. Frtiz Kreisler, Date of sale: October 03, 1963. New York: Parke-Bernet Galleries, 1963.

Ulf Jantzen, Griechische Greifenkessel (Mann, 1955), pp. 107-19, nos. 80-87, pls. 31-32.

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