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Bronze Monsters and the Cultures of Wonder

Bronze Monsters and the Cultures of Wonder
Griffin Cauldrons in the Preclassical Mediterranean

An enlightening study of griffin cauldrons in the preclassical Mediterranean, uncovering the origins of illusionism in Greek art and exploring the social significance of a changing visual culture.

November 2021
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312 pages | 7 x 10 | 46 b&w photos, 11 b&w illus., 1 b&w map |

The eighth and seventh centuries BCE were a time of flourishing exchange between the Mediterranean and the Near East. One of the period’s key imports to the Hellenic and Italic worlds was the image of the griffin, a mythical monster that usually possesses the body of a lion and the head of an eagle. In particular, bronze cauldrons bore griffin protomes—figurative attachments showing the neck and head of the beast. Crafted in fine detail, the protomes were made to appear full of vigor, transfixing viewers.

Bronze Monsters and the Cultures of Wonder takes griffin cauldrons as case studies in the shifting material and visual universes of preclassical antiquity, arguing that they were perceived as lifelike monsters that introduced the illusion of verisimilitude to Mediterranean representational arts. The objects were placed in the tombs of the wealthy (Italy, Cyprus) and in sanctuaries (Greece), creating fantastical environments akin to later cabinets of curiosities. Yet griffin cauldrons were accessible only to elites, ensuring that the new experience of visuality they fostered was itself a symbol of status. Focusing on the sensory encounter of this new visuality, Nassos Papalexandrou shows how spaces made wondrous fostered novel subjectivities and social distinctions.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Griffin Cauldrons in Contexts of Life and Death
    • Chapter 1. Eastern Mediterranean, Ionia, and the Aegean
    • Chapter 2. Mainland Greece
    • Chapter 3. Italy and France
  • Part II. Sources for the Lives of Griffin Cauldrons
    • Chapter 4. Kolaios’s Monster Cauldron at the Heraion of Samos (Herodotus 4.152)
    • Chapter 5. Monsters in Images: Pictorial Representations of Griffin Cauldrons
  • Part III. Responses to the Uncanny
    • Chapter 6. Vision of Wonders
  • Conclusion. Disenchantment
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

Nassos Papalexandrou is an associate professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of The Visual Poetics of Power: Warriors, Youths, and Tripods in Early Greece.


“Papalexandrou presents a riveting body of material, griffin cauldrons, which have never received sustained discussion as a Mediterranean-wide phenomenon of the seventh century BCE. His treatment is comprehensive, with archaeological contexts discussed in detail. In addition, he astutely looks at the depiction of cauldrons in other media and contextualizes them in terms of literary references to artwork. This is a bold and creative book, rich in its interpretations and readings. ”
Nathan T. Arrington, author of Ashes, Images, and Memories: The Presence of the War Dead in Fifth-Century Athens

“Papalexandrou has assembled a magisterial study of bronze griffin cauldrons from the early Iron Age. Approaching the cauldrons as wondrous marvels, he recreates the ancient sensory experience of encountering these magnificent bronze creations. While the griffin cauldrons have been well studied with respect to typology and dating, this book offers a sweeping set of interpretations that enriches our understanding of this period. ”
Marian Feldman, author of Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant