Qantara Qantara

The griffon of Pisa

  • Title/name : The griffon of Pisa
  • Production place : Spain
  • Discovery place : Sicily. Until 1828, it was placed on the roof of the central nave (apsidal area) of the Pisa Cathedral
  • Date / period : Eleventh  – twelfth century
  • Materials and techniques : Molten bronze with engraved decoration; some parts are riveted
  • Dimensions : H. 107 cm; L. 87 cm; w. 43 cm
  • Conservation town : Pisa
  • Conservation place : Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
  • Inscription :

    1. بركة كاملة ونعمة شاملة

    2. غبطة كاملة وسلامة دائمة وعافية

    3. كاملة وسعادة واعدة (؟) لصاحبه

  • Translation :

    1. “Perfect benediction, complete wellbeing

    2.  perfect joy, eternal peace and perfect

    3.  health, and happiness and good fortune ( ?) for the owner”

The griffon, half bird, half feline, is one of the most famous Islamic bronze objects. Its upper part is covered with a dense engraved decoration which blends diverse elements distributed independently from the volume of the animal, all the while following a decorative syntax which is typically Islamic. The breast is covered with a scaly plumage over an epigraphic frieze in Cufic characters, which continues into a border around the caparison of round slices covering the back of the griffon; on the neck and the wings, the plumage is characterised by curls, while the part where the feet are attached is emphasised by cartouches in the shape of ecus decorated with animals[1] on a background of arabesques.

The sculpture has three openings: one at the back, maybe corresponding to where the tail once was, one where the beak is and a third on the belly, inside which is a globular “cup” made of bronze, open towards the belly and soldered on the back with a fine piece of the same metal. Such a system, in evidence also on a bronze lion which can be attributed to Spain in the eleventh – twelfth centuries[2], is difficult to interpret but seems to opposed the idea that the griffon was the mouth of a fountain.

If the static and monumental dimensions of the objects associate it to Persian animal sculpture of the same period[3], from the decorative, stylistic and epigraphic point of view[4], it is close to a group of Spanish objects dating from the tenth – twelfth centuries: the “Lion of Monzòn”[5], the aquamanile in the shape of a lion from the London Keir Collection, the quadruped of the Florence Bargello [6]  which also display a dorsal decoration imitating a fabric with round slices, surrounded by an epigraphic frieze in Cufic characters[7] —  but also the stag found at Madinat al-Zahra[8] and the one from Madrid[9]. More generally, similar stylistic and decorative traits are to be found on two aquamaniles in the shape of birds, preserved in Cagliari[10] and in the Louvre[11], attributed to Spain in the eleventh – twelfth centuries.

The griffon of Pisa, considered in the eighteenth century[12] to be a mediocre antique piece, then in the nineteenth century to be a mediaeval sculpture maybe linked to the cathedral Works[13], was only attributed to Islamic art[14] after the publication of the inscription in Arabic by the Abbot Lanci[15]. From the second half of the ninth century, it was suggested that the griffon was brought back to Pisa as war loot from the military operations led in eleventh – twelfth centuries by the city against the Muslims of Sicily, Tunisia and Spain. Thus, in contrast to the attribution to Fatimid Egypt (eleventh century) put forward by G. Migeon on stylistic bases, U. Monneret de Villard related it to Spain at the end of the eleventh – beginning twelfth century, by linking the hypothesis of war loot taken at the conquest of Ameria (1089) or the Baleares (1114)[16] and the clear similarities, in terms of shape and decoration, with pieces of indubitably Spanish manufacture[17]. He was followed by U. Scerrato, who narrowed the date down to the eleventh century, while Melikian-Chirvani,  coming back to its first attribution to the Khorasan (Iran) in the first half of the eleventh century, put forward the hypothesis of a work created by Iranian craftsmen in eleventh century Spain.

M. Jenkins, on her part, related the piece to the consecutive loot from attacks launched by Pisa and Genoa against Mahdiya and Zawila in Tunisie (eleventh century), by re-suggesting an attribution to Fatimid Egypt and Tunisia. This thesis was recently criticised by A. Contadini who presented a well argued idea that the production was from eleventh – twelfth century Spain, in agreement with the proposals of recent publications, even if their chronology places it at the end of the tenth – beginning of the eleventh century[18].


[1] The animals represented are a lion crawling on the back cartouches, and a fowl on the front cartouches.

[2] New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, lent by the Mari-Cha Collection Ltd., L.2000.84. The object has proportions, characteristics, decoration and the Cufic style of the inscription in common with the griffon of Pisa, to such an extent that we can put forward a hypothesis that the two pieces come from the same workshop and are part of a unique complex.

[3] From which, according to some, the griffon derives: cf. U. Scerrato 1985, ill. 525.

[4] In particular, the Cufic style of the griffon is very close to that of a bronze lamp preserved in Madrid and dating from the end of the eleventh - beginning of the twelfth century (cf. Gomez Moreno, M., 1951, p. 326, fig. 389; Fernandez Puertas, A., “Candiles epigrafiado de finale del siglo XI o comienzos del XII”, in Miscelanea de estudios Arabes y Hebraicos, XXIV, 1975, pp. 107-114).

[5] Musée du Louvre, Islamic Arts department, inv. 7883.

[6] Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, inv. N. 63c.

[7] Such textile typology has precise points of comparison with Spanish textiles from the twelfth century (Grube, E., “Two Hispano-Islamic Silks”, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, XIX, n. 3, 1960, p. 85-88; Bagnera, A., Tessuti islamici nella pittura medievale toscana, p. 254) and from thirteenth century (Rogers, J. M., “Granada and New-York. The Art of Islamic Spain”, account of the exhibition in The Burlington Magazine, August 1992, p. 549-552).

[8] Cordoba, Museo Arquològico Provincial  (n. inv. 500).

[9] Madrid, Museo Arqueòlogico Nacional (n. inv. 51.856).

[10] Cagliari, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. N. 1445.

[11] Paris, musée du Louvre, Islamic Arts department, inv. N. MR 1569.

[12] Martini, G., Teathrum Basilicae Pisanae, Rome: 1705, n. 10, p. 13, ill. 4, 5, 7. Three incisions represent the item, already without tail, on the top of the central nave of the Pisa cathedral; Da Morrona, A., Pisa ilustrata nelle arti del disegno, Pisa: 1787-1793 (first edition; second edition; Livorno: 1812), vol. I, p. 190-195.

[13] Cicognara, L., Storia della scultura, Prato: 1823 (second edition), II, p. 108-109.

[14] Such as the work of Muslim craftsmen operating in southern Italy during the Norman period by Marcel, M. J. J., “Notice sur un monument arabe conservé à Pise” in Journal Asiatique, 3rd series, t. VII, 1839, p. 81-88, above all p. 85-86; such as Islamic object destined for the Christian or Jewish market and dated between the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century on the basis of epigraphic characters by Rohault de Fleury, G., Les Monuments de Pise au Moyen Age, Paris: 1866, p. 42, 122-124, tav. XLVI.

[15] First in 1829, then again in his Trattato delle simboliche rappresentanze Arabiche from 1846, p. 54-57, where the griffon appears illustrated by an engraving (ill. XXVII).

[16] In the same loot, according to Monneret de Villard (1946, 1, p. 23), the capital of the Madinat al-Zahra arrived in Pisa (Pisa, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, sala 1, n. 30) which was first installed in the transept of the Pisa cathedral, then moved into the baptistery where it occupied the centre of the baptismal funds basin and supported a statue of St John in bronze: cf. Contadini 1994, cat. 39; Les Andalousies, 2000-2001, no. 230.

[17] The comparison is made, in particular for the decoration of the back derived from a textile pattern, mainly with the stag of Madinat al-Zahra, the “lion of Monzòn” and the quadruped of the Bargello.

[18] Berlin 1989; Grenada 1992; Ward 1993, p. 67, ill. 50.


Migeon, G., Manuel d’Art musulman : arts plastiques et industriels, Paris, 1907, vol. I, p.375, fig. 182.

Monneret de Villard, U., « Le chapiteau arabe de la cathédrale de Pise », in Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 1946, p. 1-26.

Melikian-Chirvani, A. S., « Le griffon iranien de Pise : matériaux pour un corpus de l’argenterie et du bronze iraniens , III » , in Kunst des Orients, 1968, 5, p. 68-86.

Melikian-Chirvani, A. S., « Greif », in Die Kunst des Islam, Propyläen Kunstgheschichte, vol. IV, Berlin, 1973, n. 194, p. 263.

Jenkins, M., « New Evidence for the Possible Provenance and Fate of the so-called Pisa Griffin », in Islamic Archaeological Studies, 1978, 1, p. 79-85.

Scerrato, U., « Arte Islamica in Italia », in Gli Arabi in Italia: cultura, contatti e tradizioni, Milan, 1979, p. 542 et ill. 525 p. 568.

Europa und der Orient. 800-1900, (exh. cat., Berlin, 1989), Berlin, 1989, n. 4/83, p. 592-593.

Al-Andalus. The Art of Islamic Spain (exh. cat., Grenade, Alhambra, 1992), New York, 1992, J.D. Dodds, n. 1, p. 216-218.

Contadini, A., « La Spagna dal II/VII al VII/XIII secolo », in Eredità dell’Isam, Arte islamica in Italia (exh. cat., Venise, Palazzo Ducale, 1994), Venise, 1994, cat. n. 43 


Gomez Moreno, M., « El Arte Español hasta los Almohades- Arte Mozàrabe », in Ars Hispaniae, vol. III, Madrid, 1951.

Scerrato, U.,  Metalli Islamici, Milan, 1966.

Fehervari, G., Islamic Metalwork of the Eighth to the Fifteenth Century in the Keir Collection, London, 1976.

Ward, R., Islamic Metalwork, London, 1993.

Transversal sheets
Almoravids (1056-1147)
Almoravids (1056-1147)
Animal patterns / bestiary
Animal patterns / bestiary
Shapes and patterns
Shapes and patterns