The Griffin in Architecture and Design

An Ancient Symbol Sends a Powerful Message

Symbols are everywhere in architecture. You might think of iconography in churches, temples, and other religious buildings, but any structure—sacred or secular—can incorporate details or elements that carry multiple meanings. Consider, for example, the lion-fierce, birdlike griffin.

01
of 08

What Is a Griffin?

Griffin On the Roof of The Museum Of Science And Industry
Griffin on the Roof of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Photo by J.B. Spector/Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

A griffin is a mythical creature. Griffin, or gryphon, comes from the Greek word for curved or hooked nose, grypos, like an eagle's beak. Bulfinch’s Mythology describes the griffin as having "the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and back covered with feathers." The combination of eagle and lion makes the griffin a powerful symbol of vigilance and strength. The use of the griffin in architecture, like the griffons atop Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, is decorative and symbolic.

 

02
of 08

Where Do Griffins Come From?

Earrings shaped like golden griffins, Scythian Art circa 5th century BC
Scythian Art Earrings, c. 5th century BC. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

The myth of the griffin was probably developed in ancient Persia (Iran and parts of central Asia). According to some legends, griffins built their nests from gold they found in the mountains. Scythian nomads carried these stories to the Mediterranean, where they told the ancient Greeks that giant winged beasts safeguarded the natural gold in the northern Persian hills.

Shown here are ancient artifacts probably used as earrings. They are golden creatures posing like a lion but winged and beaked like a strong bird.

Folklorists and researcher scholars such as Adrienne Mayor suggest a basis for such classical myths as the griffin. Those nomads in Scythia may have stumbled upon dinosaur bones amid the gold-infested hills. Mayor claims that the myth of the griffin may derive from the Protoceratops, a four-legged dinosaur much larger than a bird but with a beak-like jaw.

Learn More:

  • The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2000
    Buy on Amazon
  • The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2011
    Buy on Amazon
  • The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science by Marc Aronson, National Geographic Children's Books, 2014
    Buy on Amazaon
03
of 08

Griffin Mosaics

Ancient Roman griffin mosaic, c. 5th Century, from the Great Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul, Turkey
Ancient Roman griffin mosaic, c. 5th Century, from the Great Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by GraphicaArtis/Archive Photos Collection/Getty Images

The griffin was a common design for mosaics in the Byzantine era, when the capital of the Roman Empire was located in present-day Turkey. Persian influences, including the mythical griffin, are well-known throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. The impact of Persia on design migrated to the Western Roman Empire, present-day Italy, France, Spain, England. The 13th century mosaic floor of Church of Saint John the Baptist in Emilia-Romagna, Italy (view image) is similar to the use of the Byzantine griffin shown here, from the 5th century.

Surviving the centuries, griffins became familiar figures during the middle ages, joining other types of grotesque sculptures on walls, floors, and rooftops of Gothic cathedrals and castles.

Source of 13th century mosaic floor photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images / Hulton Fine Art / Getty Images

04
of 08

Is a Griffin a Gargoyle?

Gargoyles on roof of Notre Dame, Paris, France
Gargoyles on roof of Notre Dame, Paris, France. Photo by John Harper/Photolibrary Collection/Getty Images

Some (but not all) of these medieval griffins are gargoyles. A gargoyle is a functional sculpture or carving that serves a practical purpose on the building's exterior—to move roof water away from its base, like a downspout of a gutter.  A griffin may serve as a drainage gutter or its role can be purely symbolic. Either way, a griffin will always have the bird-like qualities of an eagle and the body of a lion.

05
of 08

Is a Griffin a Dragon?

Close-up of dragon statue in the City of London
Dragon statues surround and protect the City of London. Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images News / Getty Images (cropped)

The fierce beasts around the City of London look a lot like griffins. With beaked noses and lion feet, they guard the Royal Courts of Justice and the financial district of the city. However, London's symbolic creatures have webbed wings and no feathers. Although often called griffins, they are actually dragons. Griffins are not dragons.

A griffin doesn't breathe fire like a dragon and may not appear as threatening. Nevertheless, the iconic griffin has been characterized as having the intelligence, loyalty, honesty, and strength necessary to guard what is valued—literally, to protect their nest eggs of gold. Symbolically, griffins are used today for the same reason—to "protect" our markers of wealth.

06
of 08

Griffins Protecting Wealth

Golden griffins stand guard over the bank at the 1879 Mitchell Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Golden griffins stand guard over the bank at the 1879 Mitchell Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images (cropped)

Legends are filled with all sorts of beasts and grotesqueries, but the myth of the griffin is especially powerful because of the gold it protects. When the griffin defends its valuable nest, it safeguards an enduring symbol of prosperity and status.

Architects have historically used the mythical griffin as decorative symbols of protection. For example, Scottish-born banker Alexander Mitchell embraced the golden griffins in front of his 1879 Wisconsin bank shown here. More recently, MGM Resorts International built the 1999 Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada with huge griffin sculptures at its entryway. No doubt, gryphon iconography is what helps the money spent in Vegas stay in Vegas.

Learn More:

07
of 08

Griffins Safeguarding U.S. Commerce

Large, rescued Griffin from Cass Gilbert’s 1907 skyscraper at 90 West Street
Rescued Griffin from Cass Gilbert’s 1907 skyscraper at 90 West Street. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

These exterior architectural details, such as the griffin statues, are often huge objects. Of course they are. Not only do they have to be seen from the street, but they also must be prominent enough to deter the menacing thieves they protect against.

When 90 West Street in New York City was severely damaged after the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001, historical preservationists made sure to restore the Gothic Revival details of the 1907 architecture. The building design famously included griffin figures put high on the roof line by architect Cass Gilbert to symbolically protect the shipping and railroad industry offices housed in the skyscraper.

For days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 90 West Street withstood the fires and force of the collapsed Twin Towers. Local people began to call it the miracle building. Today Gilbert's griffins safeguard 400 apartment units in the reconstructed building.

08
of 08

Griffins, Griffins Everywhere

Vauxhall Motors logo is a Griffin
Vauxhall Motors logo is a Griffin. Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

You're not likely to find griffins perched on contemporary skyscrapers, but the legendary beast still lurks around us. For example:

  • Regimental crests such as the coat of arms for the US Military Finance Corp.
  • Product logos, such as the symbol for Vauxhall automobiles
  • Lawn ornaments and garden decorations
  • Amulets, talismans, and jewelry
  • Playful re-creations of Gothic architecture, such as the Harry Potter Theme Park in Orlando, Florida
  • The Gryphon character illustrated by John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Source: Photo of John Tenniel's Gryphon by Culture Club / Hulton Archive / Getty Images