Protective Images from Glencairn's Medieval Sculpture Collection

Glencairn Museum News | Number 5, 2017


The belief that certain images had the power to safeguard people and places from danger finds expression in the earliest works of art. Such imagery often took the form of terrifying guardian monsters—for example, grotesque gorgons’ heads displayed on ancient Greek temples, or bold winged bulls flanking the doorways of Assyrian palaces. In addition to intimidating human foes, these images served to ward off evil spirits. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had supplanted paganism in western Europe, but many traditions deriving from pagan belief endured in folk (popular) culture. The evil spirits feared by pagans generally took the singular form of the devil in Christian belief, but people continued to rely on images of ferocious creatures, hoping their defensive energies would offer protection from harm.

Glencairn Museum’s collection of medieval sculptures includes several images of fierce beasts that originally decorated the Romanesque buildings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A number of these lively carvings once framed doorways and windows, while others adorned furnishings inside churches or punctuated the walkways of cloisters. In many cases, it is not exactly clear where these architectural fragments came from or what their original displays were like. As a result, it is often difficult to identify either the sculptures’ initial intended purposes or their definitive messages to viewers. Nonetheless, Glencairn’s collection contains a number of Romanesque carvings with apotropaic potential—that is, the ability to ward off evil.

Ferocious, Hybrid, and Monstrous Beasts

During the Middle Ages, real and imaginary animals of all kinds were popular subjects of art and literature, just as they are today. Then as now, animals served as symbols of ideas and qualities, and their presence in stories and pictures often served a moral or other educational purpose. Certain animals that were famously dangerous in real life could easily become apotropaic emblems. Legends of hybrid creatures—combining the body parts of different known species—were also very popular. Many medieval texts indicate people’s belief in such creatures’ existence out in the wilds of the world. Often perceived as monsters, these creatures could threaten and frighten in image form.


Figure 1: French capital with harpy or siren. (09.SP.14)


Several such hybrid beings lurk among Glencairn’s sculptures. A French capital carved in the third quarter of the twelfth century (Figure 1) depicts, among other missing figures, a harpy or siren. Harpies and sirens are closely related legendary beasts described by ancient and medieval authors as part human, part bird, and/or part fish. This particular specimen has the body of a bird, the head of a human, a long, scaly or feathered tail, and one human leg. The creature wears a round cap on its head and a boot on its foot, emphasizing its existence somewhere in between human and animal form. It invites the viewer to identify the different components of its body, an engrossing exercise. It perches in repose, with wings folded, but its placidity would not trick those medieval viewers aware of the threat sirens and harpies posed to humans. Sirens were believed to lure unsuspecting sailors to shipwreck, while harpies ate men alive. Their ferocity recommended them as mythical alternatives to guard dogs, and even their images were believed to deflect evil spirits.


Figure 2: Italian capital with lion. (09.SP.243)


Images of real animals, such as lions, could also help to ward off evil. Lions were popular in medieval art, where they are found in all shapes and sizes. While they could serve a purely ornamental purpose, they could also be understood as symbols, the significances of which varied dramatically: Christ, royalty, justice, or even the devil were just some symbolic possibilities for lions. Among these possibilities, images of lions with wide-open maws—baring their teeth or seeming to roar—particularly suggest a guardian function. For example, the lion on a slender Italian capital (Figure 2) dating from the late eleventh or early twelfth century seems to lunge outward from its stone core, turning slightly to confront the viewer with its mouth open wide and its tongue protruding between its pointy incisors.

In the hands of creative sculptors, lions could transform into magical beasts, endowed with wings or other animals’ appendages. At Glencairn, a pair of capitals from the Roussillon region of France, dating to the second quarter of the twelfth century, reveal a penchant for winged lions (Figures 3 and 4). In these carvings, the animals become even more powerful through the ability to take flight. One of these capitals (Figure 3) further embellishes the form by arranging the creatures vertically, standing side-by-side on hind legs, so that each pair of twisting bodies shares a single head placed at each upper corner of the block. The “two bodies, one head” format, popular in Romanesque capital carving, creates a startling new species while revealing the sculptor’s virtuosity in uniting the different sides of the capital. The creatures’ uncomfortable poses, however, suggest torment and struggle. Their wide mouths, pointed out in all directions, threaten one and all. 


Figure 3: French capital with winged lions (“two bodies, one head”). (09.SP.170)


Figure 4: French capital with winged lions. (09.SP.168)


Art historians note the frequent depiction in Romanesque art of snarling beasts with open or grimacing mouths, from architectural sculptures to manuscript illustrations. It is important to understand such images in terms of the fear medieval people felt when confronted with actual wild animals—something that happened more frequently in their lives than in modern experience. Though some Romanesque images of beasts may even seem cute by today’s standards, they undoubtedly troubled medieval viewers. Turning those beastly faces toward unseen forces of evil by displaying them prominently may have been seen as an effective mode of protection.

Spaces in Need of Protection

During the Middle Ages, protective images were deemed useful for decorating architecture because certain parts of buildings were understood to be more vulnerable to the infiltration of evil than others. In particular, wall openings—doors and windows—were potential sites of danger. Their thresholds enabled a transition between inside and outside space. As a result, they had the potential to allow the passage of threatening forces from the unstable, external world into the relative safety of shelter, whether a home or church. Thus doors were frequently marked by holy signs, such as crosses, to deter the entrance of evil. A number of churches in northern Spain, for example, are marked with emblems that include the monogram of Christ (combining the Greek letters chi and rho—X P—to indicate Christ). The monogram was a potent symbol with many implications, and the ability to monitor the threshold was just one of them (Figure 5). In addition, beastly imagery could also function to protect doorways and windows. A carved archway in Glencairn’s Great Hall (Figure 6) is festooned with creatures such as a siren-harpy and a lion. While little is known about this particular arch, there are many other examples of Romanesque doorway and window carvings that were similarly equipped with the protective powers of dangerous beasts.


Figure 5: Twelfth-century tympanum with the monogram of Christ incorporating the alpha and omega, placed over the doorway of the church of Santa Cruz/San Martín in Riglos (Aragon), Spain. (Photo by Julia Perratore.)


Figure 6: Carved archway in Glencairn’s Great Hall with siren-harpy and lion. (09.SP.84)


The monastic cloister could also be a place for apotropaic imagery, considering the typical cloister merged interior and exterior space through its covered walkways. Additionally, cloisters were often places of burial, and such imagery had the potential to protect the deceased. At Glencairn, a capital believed to be from the cloister of the French monastery of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières (Figure 7) could have fulfilled such a purpose. This sculpture in marble, which originally perched atop a short column shaft, just above the heads of the monks, displays a quartet of sinister beast heads teetering on long, sinewy legs. The creatures stare out from all four corners, surveying the surrounding space at all angles. Their drilled pupils, ridged snouts, and wrinkled brows intensify their gazes. Between these monsters, unidentified men raise clubs or torches threateningly. The men and monsters may well have had a symbolic meaning to their viewers, though their hostility also suggests a defensive role for the cloister.   


Figure 7: French capital with monsters and men with clubs or torches. (09.SP.165)


Inside the church, there were other spaces that were especially important to protect from harm. The baptismal font was a particularly crucial area in need of protection. To be baptized is to be initiated into the Christian community—to cross a spiritual threshold. The process of leaving original sin behind was fraught with peril. As a result, medieval baptismal fonts were frequently endowed with an extra layer of spiritual protection in the form of apotropaic imagery. Romanesque fonts in particular tend to display images of frightening monsters and violent confrontations between beasts (or humans and beasts) because physical struggle was seen as an appropriate metaphor for the vanquishing of evil through baptism.

In light of this, the decorative carvings on a fragment of a Romanesque baptismal font in Glencairn’s collection may have helped to ward off evil during the ceremony of baptism. This fragment (Figure 8) once formed the corner of a square slab containing the basin of the font. Its distinctive squared form was popular in England and Flanders during the middle of the twelfth century, as was the dark stone. The fragment displays stylized, low relief carvings organized within circular frames. The right-hand side features two griffins, fantastic creatures that are part lion and part eagle. On the left-hand side is a less easily identified winged creature with a furry face. Originally one of a pair, it may also be part lion, part bird (similar to the Roussillon capitals above). While it is difficult to identify the second creature, the belief in the real existence of the griffin was attested in popular lore as well as in books such as bestiaries, and people took to heart its ferocious nature just as they did with sirens and harpies. Isidore of Seville, author of a kind of medieval encyclopedia, reported that griffins were so dangerous they would instantly tear people apart. Such knowledge would have granted the image of the griffin—and, it seems reasonable, the winged lion as well—the power to safeguard a baby about to be baptized at the font.  


Figure 8: Baptismal font with griffins and winged lions. (09.SP.1)


Protective Images: Near and Far, Past and Present

The griffins on another eleventh or twelfth century Italian capital in Glencairn’s collection (Figure 9) inspire one last reflection on protective imagery. It has been observed by art historian Tessa Garton that the imagery on this slim, wedge-shaped capital (the shape is typical of the southern Italian region of Apulia) reveals inspiration from Islamic art. In particular, the symmetrical, back-to-back arrangement of these proud beasts resembles the decorative motifs of textiles imported from the Islamic or Byzantine world. During the Middle Ages, because southern Italy had political ties to both places as well as links to them through Mediterranean trade routes, this artistic connection is not surprising. The capital underscores the wide geographic popularity of the griffin, from the eastern Mediterranean to northern and western Europe. The griffin was seen as a potential guardian figure in all of these places. Whether the Glencairn capital offered some sort of protective service to the space it originally decorated, or whether it was ornamental or had different intended significance, it nonetheless reveals the shared popularity of the griffin across cultures on the one hand and hints at the shared apotropaic value of this creature among different faiths on the other.   


Figure 9: Italian capital with griffins. (09.SP.21)


The desire to protect oneself or others from harm, evident in medieval culture, is embedded in American culture still. Routine actions like knocking on wood, or familiar objects like a lucky rabbit’s foot, reveal that concern for well-being is part of human nature, and that safeguarding against harm of all kinds will continue to play a part in everyday life.

Julia Perratore, PhD
Lecturer at Montclair State University

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.