Animal figures as ornament are older than architecture. From the cave paintings of early human history to now, animals both real and imaginary, play a part in the architecture of almost every culture on earth. Is it no wonder that our Victorian builders used them, often to great effect? The lion is probably the most popular animal portrayed in human history, and the lions we see today owe much to the artistic traditions of the European Middle Ages. Any culture that encountered the lion revered it for its strength, ferocity and nobility. A heraldic symbol of royalty, bravery, and family strength, the lion still rules in our brownstone neighborhoods. He is everywhere, on private houses, apartment buildings, banks, commercial and civic buildings. He gazes down at us from lintels, cornices and parapets, and roars, often holding wreaths in his jaws. One of the most noble and finely sculptured of these lions lives on McDonough St, in Bed Stuy, as the keystone of a building of fine flats. Among my other favorites are the stylized and copasetic lions that guard the Art Deco Kings County Savings Bank, on Eastern Parkway, in Crown Heights North. They are as different as can be, yet both artistically and stylistically powerful.
A popular depiction of the lion is with wings. Not technically a griffin, (or gryphon), because that mythical beast had the head of an eagle and body of a lion, these winged beasts show up mostly in reliefs on limestone Renaissance Revival buildings. Often incorporated into floral motifs derived from Italian Renaissance ornament, these figures actually have their origin in Roman fresco work, as seen in the ruins of Rome and Pompeii. My favorite full scaled winged lion sculptures can be found in a group of Queen Anne brownstones on 3rd St, in Park Slope, where pregnant looking winged lions guard the entryways of these homes. They are well carved, imaginative and impressive, and, paired with the other animal and portrait carvings incorporated into the brackets, are truly masterpieces of stonework created for residential buildings. The Flickr photos show an impressive pride of stone lion work, including an adorable kitten relief, also found in the Slope. Next week: Dragons, birds and bears!