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Old Screeds

Medieval Sagittaries [21 Nov 14] Three more examples from the Middle Ages

I found a sagittary at the Louvre, searching the famed art museum's site for "centaur" hits. Take a look at this lovely fellow:

Check out the source page here: Medallions from a Coffer. These buckle-like strap-hinges were part of a small decorative box, dated 1175-85. The medallions were decorated in a lion theme. Three show people riding lions. And one shows a true liontaur. The text describes the figure as "centaur shooting an arrow," but if you look at the paws and tail, and compare those to the other lions in the set, there is no doubt that this is a liontaur, or sagittary, not a centaur.

I came across this short excerpt from a Harper Magazine column by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi that refers to a statue of a "sagittary" that comes to life with destructive effect:

"The emperor Leo the Wise prophesied the doom of Constantinople. (The dreams of man may come from God, accorded the science of the Muslims, but they may come also from the Devil, or from man himself.) Leo created a toad, or a marble tortoise, who roamed the streets at night and consumed all the city’s refuse. He built a bathhouse for the poor that was destroyed by its guardian sagittary statue when the bathkeepers began to charge admission."

Now, the word "sagittary" derives from the Latin word for archer, and as such, it might refer to a centaur, a liontaur, or even just to a human with bow and arrow. There's no way to know if the reference here is to a liontaur.

But it is interesting because the urmahlullu of Ancient Assyria were lion-centaur guardian spirits that protected palace "ablutions rooms" -- that is, bathing rooms. Now here is another sagittary guarding a bathhouse, thousands of years later: a survival from a distant time, or a coincidence? And let me stretch credulity even further to note that Leo, then as now, is a name associated with lions.

I have tracked down the reference in the story above, however. It is from pages 74-75 of Cyril Mango's "The Legend of Leo the Wise,” in the book Byzantium and Its Image. Mango is a retired professor at Oxford, and I've written, with no response so far.

Next up, here is a weaver's interpretation of the sagittary of the Trojan War, incorporated into a wall tapestry. The original, The Battle with the Sagittary and the Conference at Achilles' Tent, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It was woven around 1470-90 in Holland, too early to have been influenced by Shakespeare's Dreadful Sagittary, but maybe coming from Guido of Colonne or Benoît de Sainte-Maure.

Take a look at the whole tapestry:

Kind of confusing, huh? Where's the actual sagittary? Here, let me zoom in and pop the beastie out for you to see:

Note that you cannot see tail or feet. Are those feet paws or hooves? The fellow's beard is very mane-like. In the absence of any other clues, I like to think it is a liontaur.

Home | This page last modified: 23 Nov 14