Ariadne Galleries

Pair of Plaques depicting Griffins
Period: Fifth century BC
Culture: Scythian
Material: Gold
Dimensions: 4 cm L
 
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These two plaques depict a pair of affronted griffins towering above the centrally-placed krater. The composition is symmetrical to the central axis, and the balance is underlined by the identical appearance and positioning of the griffins. The size of these plaques is curiously at odds with the manner of representation, which is monumental and hieratic. These stylistic properties, as well as the gold medium, combine to produce a rather striking effect.


The Plaques in Detail


The plaques are rectangular in shape and each of their four corners is pierced. Through these perforations, they were undoubtedly attached to a larger piece, or possibly a textile. Each is made of a single sheet of gold worked in repoussé technique. This technique entails gently hammering the thin sheet of gold over a die so as to adhere to its form. A desired design in positive is carved into a die, which is usually made of wood. Hence, the wood carving needs to be of high quality and the skills of the goldsmith equally superior in order to produce an image that appears alive and naturalistic even in a low relief. The back of the attachment is hollow and the image can be seen in negative. The background is left unadorned, leaving the main image as the sole focus. The frame, which consists of the ‘egg and dart’ motif from the classical Greek repertory of ornaments, further focuses the eye on the central composition. The image reveals an attempt at realistic depiction, which corresponds stylistically with the trends emerging from Greece in the fifth century BC. The griffins are well defined and distinctly naturalistic in style. Their leonine bodies appear strong and supple, and their bird heads feature large ferocious-looking beaks. The abstraction in the service of pattern and symmetry can be seen in the manner that the wings are executed, as well as in stylized looped tails. The sense of perfect symmetry is given focus in the shape of a krater, a vessel used for storing gold and liquids. It is this treasure that the griffins are guarding, and their powerful image is intended to underscore their role as formidable guardians.


The griffin was a legendary creature with the head, beak and wings of an eagle, the body of a lion and occasionally the tail of a serpent or scorpion. Its origin lies somewhere in the Middle East where it is found in the paintings and sculptures of the ancient Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians. The griffin is mostly linked with the Amazon and later with the Scythians and Sarmatians, all of whom inhabited Crimea and other regions of eastern Europe. The griffin has profound poetic and religious significance. In classic mythology, griffins were guardians of Scythian gold treasures and in Greece were the guardians of godly treasures.


Historical Significance


The Scythians were a highly mobile people who inhabited the sparse lands north of the Caucasus Mountains. A westerly set of the many nomadic tribes who inhabited the Eurasian steppe, from Mongolia to the Carpathian mountains, their presence in the ancient world was felt from an early stage. They were known to the settled peoples of Persia and the Greek world by the seventh century BC, when they swept down from the Caucasus to control Persia. In Persia, the Scythians acquired knowledge of zoomorphic forms as an artistic motif, and as they continued to refine these motifs, they created their own distinct and dazzling artistic style. The loops and swirls of Scythian art display some of the forms that would appear in the arts of ancient Thrace, and the groups of combating animals and twinned beasts could only derive from Persia. The Scythians were great innovators, taking the familiar artistic styles of the more settled peoples to their south and west, and transforming them into something distinctive and singular. These people, whose wealth resided in the horses they rode and the objects with which they adorned their beasts, created some of the most remarkable metalwork in the ancient world. 

By the time of Herodotus, in the early fifth century BC, the Scythians had established a homeland in the broad rim of territory north of the Black Sea. To the east, the so-called ‘Royal Scythians’ maintained their nomadic ways, but to the west, the tribes settled into the rich breadbasket of the Ukraine and Crimea, where they came into continued contact with the Greeks now venturing into the Pontus Euxeinos, the ‘hospitable sea’.  In the ancient Scythian lands, Greek wares have been found north even of Kiev, indicating a well-established trade network throughout the borders of the Black Sea.


The vividity of Scythian imagery served to create links to an animistic worldview.  While its function is decorative, Scythian Animal Style art nonetheless clearly refers to crucial aspects of nomadic life, such as predatory animals and prey as well.  Some scholars suggest that the Animal Style plays a vital role in expressing the religious beliefs of the Steppe nomads as well. A fourth-century BC plaque with a single griffin, discovered in Kralevo tumulus, Turgovishte district in Bulgaria, now in the History Museum, Turgoviste, shares similarities with our plaques. The single griffin is surrounded by a border of the ‘egg and dart’ motif executed in granulated wire. There is a complementary plaque with the mirror image of this griffin, and if the two were placed side by side, they would form a composition of affronted griffins, not unlike the images on our plaques. However, these plaques do not indicate the important purpose and symbolism of the griffin, since the krater with treasure is not depicted.


 

Provenance

Private Collection, Europe, 1980s.

Published: Pierre Bergé & Associés, 29 May 2013, no. 176.