Minoan Art (c.3000-1100 BCE)
One of the three forms of Aegean art to emerge in the Mediterranean area, and an early forerunner of Greek art, Minoan civilization was named after the legendary King Minos, and emerged during the bronze age on the island of Crete (now administered by Greece) in the Aegean Sea, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. From about 3000-2500 BCE, the early Minoan people led a basic agricultural existence, but by about 2100 BCE they had built up a prosperous maritime trade with countries around the Mediterranean. Among other things, this involved buying tin and combining it with copper from Cyprus, to make bronze - the key metal of the time. This mercantile prosperity led to the construction of a series of palaces or 'court buildings at Knossos, Phaestus, Akrotiri, Kato Zakros and Mallia, along with other public works. (See also: Minoan Architecture.) This formed the basis for an ancient art which became noted for its sculpture, frescoes, ceramics, stone carvings (particularly seal stones), goldsmithing and metalwork. At the end of what is called the Protopalatial period (c.1700 BCE), a major earthquake destroyed the Minoan Palaces. These were then rebuilt on a grander scale during the Neopalatial period (c.1700-1425 BCE), coinciding with the zenith of Minoan civilization. About 1400 BCE, Crete was overrun by mainland Greeks and Mycenean art became the predominant culture of the Aegean.
It was the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), in 1900, who uncovered the ruins of the palace and city of Knossos. This had been for many years the very heart and centre of the Aegean world; it was known to Homer as chief of the hundred Cretan cities. Evans christened the culture he was uncovering "Minoan" in honour of King Minos, and he constructed an elaborate chronology by which all later archeologists have classified their finds, whether in Crete or Greece or the minor islands, as Early, or Middle, or Late Minoan. There was of course the usual scholarly controversy over the matter; it was contended, for instance, that the wrong king was being honoured, since Minos was at the end of the Knossian dynasties and since he probably ruled at the time of the destruction of this culture rather than during its development and flowering. This was the King Minos whose wife was alleged, in myth, to have given birth to the Minotaur, the bull-headed human monster that fed, in the Labyrinth, on the maidens and youths periodically levied as tribute from Athens, till Theseus, with the help of Minos's daughter Ariadne, dispatched the monster.
But Evans' terminology and chronology have proved so useful that all Aegean art down to the fall of Troy (1260-1240 BCE) is likely to be identified by his categories. The terms First, Second, and Third Mycenaean Periods are useful for reference too, since Cretan and mainland art do not exactly correspond.
Evans, by using scientific archaeological methods, measuring deposits from bedrock to topmost ruins (generally the remains of several cities or palaces are superimposed on each site), and by ascertaining dates of isolated Egyptian relics found at Knossos, and of Cretan objects found in Egyptian tombs, constructed a table covering cultural and artistic development from the first emergence to the final destruction of Knossos. Roughly his Early Minoan Period extended from 3000 BCE to about 2100 BCE. The Middle Minoan Period extended to 1580 BCE or thereabouts, and the Late Minoan, covering the outstanding architectural and mural works, from 1580 to about 1400 BCE, or, including the entire process of decadence, to about 1100 BCE. See also: Greek Architecture (900-27 BCE).
Ceramic art is where the evidence of the growth of Minoan culture is most complete, and the Aegean vases and bowls are doubly important historically because they were also to lead on to that vase-painting which is Greece's greatest achievement in graphic art. In shape, the pots and bowls and vases show the usual satisfying proportioning from a very early period, with incised ornamentation or elementary painting. It is rather in the variety of shapes, refinement of technique, and abundance of ornament that gradual advance is witnessed. Particularly in the Middle Minoan Period, rich polychrome designs appear, and the delicacy of the pieces is marked; the glazes take on a porcelain-like subtlety. Toward the end, in the Late Period, there is the tendency toward stylization and geometrization which may be a link with the Greek development of a millennium later. (For details, see: Greek Pottery.)
In general, however, the ornament on Cretan pottery may be said to run to a sort of florid naturalism. It is seldom sensitive and is frequently capricious. The design is almost invariably asymmetrical. The flower-sprays and animals and fish are often so directly copied from nature that it is less correct to speak of the "motifs" than to call them depictions. Particularly common are the seaweeds, shells, octopuses, and fish of the surrounding seas, as befits the work of craftsmen in a maritime civilization. The human body is not an important element.
Perhaps the high mark of Aegean ceramic achievement was reached in the eggshell ware of the Middle Minoan Period, as seen especially in examples found in the Royal Pottery Stores of the palace at Knossos. The late so-called "palace style" vases are more elaborate and showy, but delicacy and ceramic propriety have been lost.
Sculpture was, strangely enough, a minor art in Crete. (For a comparison, see: Greek Sculpture.) The comparatively small amount found is bound up with the potter's craft rather than with stone or metal working, though there are stone figures from the nearby islands. The outstanding pieces are unglazed clay works of terracotta sculpture or faience. Among them are the so-called snake-goddesses, or priestesses of the snake cult. These partly undressed but otherwise elaborately costumed female figures, with snakes entwining upper body and arms or held at arm's length, are terracotta statuettes finished in coloured glaze. A Snake-Goddess statuette at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is by exception an ivory carving, with gold bands. It is perhaps more important artistically than those actually found in the Knossos palace. In its present restored state it has sculptural unity to a degree apparently unusual at the time, as well as notable truth to the model.
But the snake-goddess type and all known examples are really more of interest for what they tell us of religious custom than for plastic values. As so often in Aegean work, the broader sculptural virtues and the sensitive rhythmic adjustments are commonly obscured by the artist's desire to dwell upon every detail of natural form and every bit of ornament on a ceremonial dress.
A famous Minoan ivory carving is The Palaikastro Kouros (1480-1425 BCE), one of the earliest known examples of chryselephantine sculpture, which was excavated 1987-90 from the Minoan Bronze Age settlement of Roussolakkos.
More satisfying for rhythmic linear grace and simplification of form - due in part perhaps to their fragmentary condition - are the two faience reliefs which were once parts of a series of relief sculpture on the walls of a shrine in the Knossian palace. The plaques, one showing a she-goat suckling a kid, with another kid closing the group, and the other a cow suckling her calf, have no doubt a religious significance. But what is exceptional is the compositional completeness of each piece. In subject-matter both reliefs are notably true to observed significant detail and movement.
Large sculpture is almost non-existent at the excavated sites of the Cretan and Mycenaean civilizations. The famous Lion Gate (c.1250 BCE) at Mycenae is an exception, but there is little to enjoy in its two cramped and battered lions. There is no trace of monumental metal statues like the golden youths with torches mentioned by Homer. Religion did not call for god-images and conspicuous idols. (For a comparison, see: Sculpture of Ancient Greece.)
In stone the reliefs on steatite vessels alone are outstanding. The most interesting are three vases found not at Knossos but at Hagia Triada on the lower coast of Crete. The workmanship is none too expert, but the action indicated in two of the works is vigorous, and the forms are bold. Considered merely as illustrational art, the compositions are spirited and arresting.
The so-called Harvester's Vase is extraordinarily alive with depicted movement, and presents enormous graphic vitality and documentary accuracy. The crowd of merrymakers sweeps along in some sort of ceremonial procession all the way round the jug. The singers, with wide-open mouths, and the harvesters, with flails over their shoulders, are caught up in a lilting, rhythmic movement. This is far too elaborate a scene for such a small bit of stonework. It cannot do other than breed confusion for the eye. But it is marvellously detailed and vivacious. Stone vases were probably painted or covered with gold leaf, thus - the purist notes - adding another factor disturbing to sculptural calm and stonelike simplicity.
The Boxer Vase suffers less from confusion of figures. But it is so long and slender, being in the form of a horn, that the relief figures, in four bands around the vessel, are only fragmentarily in sight from any one point of view. The modelling here is not far from masterly, at least in the matter of the bulls.
In metalwork, too, it is relief rather than free figure that is significant. Some bronze figurines and ceremonial axe-heads in bronze and gold, vigorous and broad, represent a craft that finds fuller expression in figured cups and jewellery. Supremacy in this art lies less in the Cretan cities than on the Mycenaean mainland, and descriptions are better left to a later section, not primarily Minoan. See, for instance: Greek Metalwork.
Small engraved seals have been found at Knossos that show more skill and taste than went into larger objects and monuments. And the craftsmanship in a game-board found in Minos's palace is amazingly clever in its inlays and decoration, in its use of precious metals, ivory, and enamel. But it is in that other part of the Aegean story, the Mycenaean, that the smaller crafts are illustrated at their best.
Cretan life and Aegean ways of design are more justly illustrated in the mural painting uncovered in the palace of Minos, though one must add the precautionary note that much of this has been restored, probably with too much enthusiasm and conjecture, by Sir Arthur Evans' staff. It needs to be said at once, too, that most of the so-called copies in museums and in books are replicas of Victorian restorations, and that frequently only a slight fragment or two formed the basis of the composition. But there is authentic evidence that the murals were bright in colour, highly stylized in manner, and generally florid in decorative accessory such as frieze or incidental pattern.
The subjects of Minoan fresco painting range from stylized animals, gardens, and plants to single ceremonial figures, bullfighting episodes, and complex court scenes. The medium is lime-plaster fresco, and the colours are separately blocked on, usually without gradation or merging, over an outline drawing. A few simple bright colours suffice. The wall-paintings at Knossos are all from the latest Minoan period, about 1500 BCE, though there have been found fragments of the mural art of the ruined palaces underneath the one of that date now partially restored. A few smaller paintings exist, chiefly on the side of a sarcophagus recovered at Hagia Triada. These are in flat mural technique and standard fresh colours. Occasionally fresco was superimposed on a mural design modelled in slight relief.
Adding the evidence of the wall-paintings to that of the statuettes, one comes to a conclusion not without interest in relating this era to that of the later Greeks. The figures in Aegean paintings, as in the statuette of the snake-goddess, are beautifully set up, straight, the men high-chested, the women with breasts full and firm. In the murals and in the minor sculpture and on seals there is a convention of the shoulders held back and the waist pinched in, heightening the impression. Goddess, bullfighter, court lady, and field worker alike are distinguished by this idiom. All seem nobly strong, athletic, and poised. This perhaps signalized a native physique of slender, lithe strength that was a characteristic of the Cretan peoples. The pinched-waist convention is seen in certain figures in Egyptian tomb murals, characterizing what are now supposed to be tribute-bearers from the Aegean cities. In any case, in addition to the general realism of pre-Homeric art, the glorification of the human physique seems also to indicate a direct line of descent from Aegean to Greek.
A second convention of Cretan painting is that the man's flesh is indicated by a dark tone, the woman's by a light tone. This is useful in identifying male and female toreadors in the bullfighting or bull-leaping scenes, for it seems that girls entered into the sport dressed as boys. Here, perhaps, in the forced entry of slaves into the bull ring, is the basis in fact for the legend that Athenian maidens and youths were fed to the bull-headed Minotaur.
Noted Minoan artworks include: the frescoes "Fisherman with Fish" (pre-1600 BCE) from Akrotiri, "Lilly Prince" (1600) and "Ladies in Blue" (1600) from Knossos; the "Bull Hurdler" (1550), a fresco from Knossos Palace; "Riverscape" a mural painting (1550) from Akrotiri and "Boys Boxing" (c.1500) from Santorini.
The palace in which the murals at Knossos exist might well be used to test the truth of Homer's architectural descriptions. There is a complex of courts, halls, and rooms magnificent in extent. Now that some of the decorations have been restored it is possible to visualize too the colour and luxurious splendor that once surrounded the Minoan kings and their courtiers. Evans estimated that Knossos at the time of this restored palace, the last of several on the site, had a population of one hundred thousand. But only the art of the palace and the nobles remains.
Conjectural restorations suggest what may have been the visual aspects of the exterior architecture, but the remaining foundations and fragments, the column bases, and the few depictions in murals offer little to the student's aesthetic enjoyment. Aegean architecture is lost beyond recovery. Moreover, the great palaces were probably built a piece at a time, more to live in than to look at. They had good baths and drains, and a wealth of interior furnishings, but they were not monumental or unified in design.
The palace at Knossos is nonetheless interesting for its indications of a way of life generously sprinkled through with many different types of art. The throne-room is large and well paved and has at one end what seems to be a sumptuous bathing pool. The walls were gaily figured, and the high-backed throne is still in place, though its decorations have been shorn off.
Other features are the many storerooms, in some of which huge jars were found. The storage chambers are so numerous and so large that archeologists have inferred the existence of a great commercial trade in oils and metals and other precious commodities, centered in the royal palace. Someday the world will know more about these matters, for written records exist in great numbers. They are still largely undeciphered. But scholars continue to unravel the mysteries surrounding the "Minoan" script - which had already been marked as related to the Greek and as belonging to the Indo-European language group. When the script has been fully mastered, and the "documents" have been painstakingly translated, the world will gain in knowledge of the customs, history, and arts in the Aegean lands.
That the Minotaur may well have been the legendary representation of a sacred bull actually kept in the Knossian palace by King Minos seems doubly likely when the ground-plan of the edifice is studied. For here are parts that form a veritable maze or labyrinth, with long corridors, false entrances to lead one down blind halls, and rooms to be reached only after many tortuous turnings. Haphazard planning may explain part of it: there is no symmetry in Aegean architecture, no axial planning. Nevertheless, the Labyrinth of the legend is demonstrably there in Minos's palace, as also are frescoes of bull-leaping. Greek legend has it that the designer of the Labyrinth was the famous artificer Daedalus, first of mortals to invent a way of flying. Since the essential truth of so much similar lore has been confirmed, further discoveries may yet reveal the facts behind the tragedy of the Daedalus-Icarus legend.
The ruins of other palaces unearthed in Cretan cities confirm the impression of Aegean architecture as massive, diffuse, and structurally simple, on an uncentered plan and disunified in effect. So far as can be judged, the actual architectural refinements were slight; the columns lacked elaborately shaped capitals and organic moldings; but the applied surface ornament was colourful and sumptuous.
Of Knossos it remains only to say that the imperialism of the Cretan kings followed the usual pattern. After a period of great prosperity and power - for the court class, at least - the culture apparently collapsed and all but disappeared. Why this occurred is not entirely clear, although it is believed that in about 1500 BCE an earthquake destroyed all the palaces except for the Palace of Knossos, which itself was flattened by another quake sometime around 1425-1370. In any event, about 1400, the Minoans were overrun by the Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland. Knossos was burned, and no further palaces were built on the ruins. From this point onwards, Cretan art was not important, and it was the Mycenaeans who became the leaders of the Aegean civilization - or perhaps chief among a circle of prosperous cooperating communities. The final snuffing out of Knossos may not have occurred until 1100 BCE, but, three centuries before, leadership had passed to the mainland cities. That said, some authorities believe that these cities were actually founded by Cretan colonists.
For more about classical architecture, painting and sculpture, see: Art Encyclopedia.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART