Several Venetian patere show a couple of griffins in a curious attitude: standing back to back against a stilyzed tree which forms the middle vertical axis of the composition, they turn their head to exchange a French kiss.
Let's observe that this scene, identical or in a very similar version, is recurrent in all the other aspects of the Romanic visual world: church portals, mosaic floors, decoration of objects, book illustrations.
What does this iconography mean?
Let's take as a point of departure the general working hypothesis of this blog, i.e. that the Venetian patere have an astronomical content, and can be read as if they were some sort of archaic, vernacular, yet reliable maps of the sky, expression of a multicultural population of sailors and long-distance travellers.
Let's accept also, provisionally, that in the Venetian patere the griffin stands for the constellation Pegasus.
This may sound odd at first, since we are accustomed to identify the celestial Pegasus with the winged horse of the Greek myth, and not with a griffin, an equally fantastic (but rather different) creature, which has the body, tail, and back legs of a lion, and the head and wings of an eagle.
Yet, the Venetian patere seem to use the figure of a griffin to designate the celestial Pegasus.
Let's set this question aside for the moment and proceed, observing that Pegasus the astronomical winged horse does not travel alone in the sky. Near him walks a companion, a second flying quadruped, called by the Romans Equuleus, the Little Horse; or also Equus Prior, the Preceding Horse, because he rises some minutes before Pegasus.1
1. Richard.H. Allen, Star Names. Their Lore and Meaning (1899), New York, Dover Publications, 1963. Online ed. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Topics/astronomy/_Texts/secondary/ALLSTA/Pegasus*.html (Retr. 10/25/2017).
In the visual world of the Western maps and globes, sometimes the two celestial horses are depicted as different: Pegasus winged, lighter in color, and more majestic in demeanor; Equuleus a plain horse, not winged, and darker.
Other times, however, the sky maps tend to represent the couple as more similar and harmonic, like the two horses in a chariot; as does Coronelli in his beautiful 1693 Celestial globe.
Here it is, in the splendid version preserved at the Museo Storico Navale of Venice: the Northern half of the globe, followed by a detail of the portion showing Pegasus and Equuleus (photo capsized for a clearer vision).
Let's observe that Coronelli's globe represents the two horses, Pegasus and Equuleus, capsized, because thus the two constellations appear when observed in Northern latitudes. Travelling southwards, however, the perspective gradually changes; to the observer located in the Southern hemisphere, the group appears as a normally standing couple of horses, walloping from East to West.2
The Arab and Persian astronomers, accordingly, often depict Pegasus and Equuleus upright, while the Western cartographers tend to show them upside down.
2. David Ellyard & Will Tirion, The Southern Sky Guide, Cambridge University Press, 2008, Chart 20.
Let us now consider the detail representing Pegasus and Equuleus in Frederic de Wit's planisphere (c. 1680): between the two winged horses appears the Equinoctial Circle, aka the Celestial Equator, the metaphorical "tree" which draws along, in its growth from East to West, the Sun and all the stars burgeoning along its invisible branches.
I believe that this is the line which has been represented in our patera, in the form of a stilyzed tree, between the two griffins; the point of view is from above the backs of the two horses, on the vertical of the line itself. The bottom is East, the top West.
Going back to De Wit's planisphere, let's now imagine the progress of the two celestial horses as a temporal action.
The muzzle of the Lesser Horse, Equuleus, appears first; then the second muzzle, that of Pegasus or Equus Alter, follows, and touches it (here is the kiss! ). That point of contact would be the star Enif, from the Arabic designation, meaning 'the Nose'). Epsilon Pegasi (ε Pegasi, abbreviated Epsilon Peg, ε Peg), also named Enif, is actually the brightest star in the constellation Pegasus.
Then, scrolling down, we find point by point the rest of Pegasus' anatomy: the wing (Algenib, derived from Al Janah, 'the Wing', or possibly from Al Janb, 'the Side'); then Markab ('the Saddle'). The next location coincides with a star common to two constellations, the head of Andromeda, also called (and we can see why), Alpheraz, 'The Navel of the Horse'.
The next and last point, at the basis of the patera, is not so easy to identify, considering that the two sky horses are only represented with half a body, their hind parts dissolving in a cloud.
However, we can observe at the root of the tree, in coincidence with the tails of the two griffins, the piling of a sort of cord. Looking at the celestial chart for some relevant spot in ideal correspondence with it, we could think to the star Al Risha, the ending knot of the "Corda Piscium", the rope connecting the two celestial Fishes. This knot was very relevant for the astronomy of several ancient civilizations. Allowing for the precession, which has shifted its position some, we can see that this star was once coincident with the Spring Equinox. The Arabs called it Al Risha, "The Cord of the Well", suggesting a dynamic idea, as if this point were a sort of pulley, connecting the movement of the two Fishes in the sky.3
Let's observe also that in some Western cartography Al Risha is rendered as a knot, not a pulley, thus losing some of the dynamic suggestion present in the Arab name.
This doesn't happen in the Venetian patera: here we can see something actually resembling the pulley of an ancient well, a striking exemple of contiguity with the Near-Eastern denomination.
3. Kim H. Veltman, Linee, nodi e draghi: l’astronomia come chiave per una mitologia interculturale, in La mente, il corpo e i loro enigmi/Saggi di filosofia, a cura di G. Coccoli, A. Ludovico, C. Marrone, F. Stella, Roma, Stamen, 2007, pp.145-170
For their location and movement, at the same time, the rope of the Fishes works as a suggestion of two (lion) tails for the winged horse Pegasus and his companion. In the patera, the two suggested tails of the griffins swell for a moment into a hank of filaments, before wounding around the pole. This evokes the lion tails of the griffins, but also the Arab name for the cord of the Fishes: Al Hait al Kattaniyy, the Flaxen Thread.
At the upper end of the patera, the top of the tree could be identified tentatively, for its location, with another celestial "pulley": the loop in the tail of the constellation Delphinus, which lies in the sky just in front of the muzzle of the two horses.
This has lost some of its meaning, but was once very important, a nodal point for the ancient astronomy of various peoples. At one point, this mysterious pulley in the heavens was described as the "Persuasor" inducing the wedding between Amphitrite and Poseidon, the god of the sea. Let's not forget that we are here in an area of the sky full of great weather and seasonal changes.
Anyway, even leaving the identification of the top and bottom stars of the symbolic tree open for the moment, we can see in conclusion that our interesting patera seems to evoke a segment of the sky, from Aquarius to Aries, related to the transition from winter to spring.
But what happens in this other scene, where the griffin seems to plunge and attack from the air a poor running horse?
This also is a very common subject in the Venetian patere.
Has the love story between the two celestial horses ended in bitterness?
Well... get ready for the most incredible stunning magic story :-). In the next post.