Mycenean Art (c.1650-1200 BCE)
Mycenae was a prehistoric city in the Peloponnese region of Ancient Greece. The term "Mycenaean" or "Mycenean" culture is used to describe one of the strands of Aegean Art that emerged in the eastern Mediterranean area. It is also used sometimes to describe early mainland Greek art as a whole, during the late Bronze Age (c.1650-1200 BCE). The actual start of the Mycenean era is marked by the shaft graves of Grave Circles A and B (1650-1500 BCE), containing luxurious relics of Mycenean nobles, which were discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876.
During the approximate period 1700-1500 BCE. Mycenean culture was dominated by Minoan Art, centred on the Mediterranean island of Crete. Minoan artists and painters paid regular visits to the Greek mainland, and the Mycenean artistic style became a balance between the exuberant naturalism of Crete and the formality of the mainland.
However, although the Myceneans obtained much of their ancient art from the Minoans, they were very different as a people. Mycenean rulers, unlike their Minoan counterparts, did not share prosperity with the rest of the people. Moreover, Mycenean kings were warriors with a tradition of conquest - witness their famous destruction of the city of Troy in Asia Minor (now Turkey). This warlike culture of the Greeks during the Mycenean era also led to their conquest of Crete and its Minoan civilization after it was weakened by earthquakes around 1400 BCE. (The warlike character of mainland Greek tribes was absorbed into Celtic culture as migrating Celts passed through the Black Sea region on their way to central Europe.)
All this affected Mycenean art, notably their architecture: their cities were surrounded by thick walls composed of massive blocks of stone, some of which endures at Tiryns, and at Mycenae itself, where the city was entered via the Lion Gate. The extraordinarily large blocks of stone around this lonely sculptural composition gave rise to the legend of a Cyclopean origin. To modern archeologists they signify rather that - unlike the Cretans - the Myceneans felt the need to fortify their palace-homes and their treasuries. This was a secular need, based on military concerns, rather than a religious need, of the type that motivated the building of the Egyptian pyramids. For more about building on the mainland, see: Greek architecture (900-27 BCE).
Of course, as in Egyptian art, most Mycenean painting, sculpture and precious metalwork were commissioned to glorify the rulers of the day - both in death as well as life. To begin with, aristocratic Myceneans were interred in deep shaft graves, but after 1500 BCE, they were buried in tholos tombs - large conical chambers cut into the side of a hill - along with a hoard of gold work, jewellery and ornamental weapons. (For another slightly later tomb culture, see: Etruscan art 700-90 BCE.)
Also, in their relief sculpture, Mycenean artists typically emphasized military and other mythological exploits, in a more formal 'geometric' style than that of the Minoans. Other types of art included ceramics, carved gemstones, jewellery, glass ornaments, as well as fresco painting in palaces and tombs.
The Lion Gate at Mycenae, famous then as now, is almost the sole surviving example of monumental Aegean sculpture, in or out of buildings. A triangular stone over a lintel is carved with two confronted lions flanking an engaged pillar, the whole forming a sort of heraldic shield celebrating the pillar-emblem (which had religious significance in Crete as well).
In the "Grave Circle" at Mycenae there were discovered some commemorative stones carved in low relief which indicate, with the Lion Gate, that sculpture was more advanced here in the golden period than it had ever been at Knossos in Crete. The figure compositions and the geometric patterning fill the panel-areas with a surer sense of plastic ordering, with greater satisfaction to the eye, than any of the stone fragments uncovered at Crete - though falling far short of Egyptian mastery. There is little terracotta sculpture of note, but two fragments of a box suggest that wood carving may have been well advanced. There is, in metal sculpture, a large bull's head of silver with horns of sheet gold, the whole very naturalistically treated. (See also: Greek Sculpture 650-27 BCE, and the Sculpture of Ancient Greece.)
But it is where the sculpture meets the art of jewellery that the Mycenaeans and their neighbours of the Peloponnese were supreme. There are gold buckles and pins and dress accessories with geometric ornamentation either abstract or flower-derived; elaborately decorative crowns and diadems and necklaces; gold and silver cups, sometimes patterned over, or with story scenes in relief. Even the vessels and utensils which elsewhere would be of pottery are here worked in sheet copper or bronze. Perhaps most beautiful, as a series, are the swords and daggers, bronze blades inlaid with more precious metals, in designs ranging from reticent abstract patterning to crowded pictorial schemes. (See also: Greek Metalwork.)
These weapons reveal an extremely high standard of ancient craftsmanship. The method of inlay, later known as damascening, is not difficult. On the shaped blade, and perhaps hilt, outlines of the design are scratched, and the metal within the outlined figures is removed to a slight depth, with space hollowed out under each edge - technically an "undercut." The gold and silver inlays are pressed in and hammered, and the whole is polished. The resulting contrasts in colour and texture heighten the interest of the linear and rhythmic design and lend it richness. [Note: It was this metalworking skill with weaponry that was spread across Europe by the nomadic Celts: see, for instance: Celtic Weapons Art - part of the Hallstatt Culture (800-450 BCE) - and also the later Celtic Art: Waldalgesheim Style (c.350 BCE).]
The art as the Aegeans practiced it is seen in many variations, most often with gold and silver floriation or figure as inlay and incrustation, though there are also designs of simple, direct engraving. Among the finest recovered examples are the blades with hunting scenes. The fitting of the elements of the design to the long narrow space shows a rare feeling for compositional order. There is here that which is so generally lacking in Aegean murals and stone vases: elaborate picturing without loss to functional integrity. The formal relationship of representation to available space and frame is duly observed.
The golden crowns and diadems tend to be florid and heavy-handed, and the masks in thin sheet gold - placed apparently over the faces of warriors at burial - are sculpturally unimportant. But many of the buckles, buttons, and minor dress ornaments have a delicacy that puts to shame much of the jewellery of modern times. The engraved designs are geometrical - circles and spirals (contemporaries of early Celtic art, such as Celtic spirals) - and regular flower and insect forms. One series of disks in almost uniform size, probably used as dress ornaments, runs to formalized butterflies, blossoms, and octopuses. Animals enter into the more freely designed individual buckles and pendants. They are sufficient to mark the Mycenaean craftsmen as master sculptors in miniature metalworking.
When it comes to goldsmithing, the golden cups found at Mycenae are as a group extraordinarily beautiful in proportioning and in workmanship. If they have been overshadowed in popular and critical interest by the Vapheio Cups, which belong to the same mainland phase of Aegean art, it is because the latter are more excitingly figured, with elaborate story-scenes of bull-hunting and sacrifice. There is a superior quality of art in the simpler, reticently ornamented vessels, both those which are mug-shaped and flat-bottomed and the suavely curved forms. The rounding of some of the goblets, with an indescribable delicacy of line, reminds one of a legend recounted by Greek writers, that Helen of Troy molded golden cups to the form of her own breasts.
The Vaphio Cups, to be sure, represent better the spirit of Aegean art as a whole. They are luxuriously ornamental, and there is a journalistic exactness in their pictured episodes. They might, in fact, stand for the artistic expression of periods overintellectualized and sophisticated in taste. Products comparable in character, showing decoration pushed to extremes of profuseness and laboured to a minute natural exactitude, might be cited from the same period in Babylon, from the period of Greece's deterioration, or Rome's, or from the High Renaissance - to recall but a few parallels in history.
For all the praise that has been heaped by savants and craftsmen on the Vaphio Cups, their virtues are primarily in a perfect technique. That an artist should have shown so much on a small golden surface is marvellous; marvellous too the joining of outer figured shell and inner smooth vessel. But this is scarcely organic art. The design protrudes. The bulging figures are inconsistent with the uses of the utensil. The whole is showy. It is only when they are accepted as specimens of illustration that one marvels at them, noting with wonder the vigour and true-to-life appearance of the bulls and men, and the sharp detail of rope and foliage. Here indeed, as one Victorian expert remarked, is the work of a pre-Homeric Cellini. with its sixteenth-century cleverness, realism, and extravagance. (For similar examples of Celtic gold metalwork, see: the Broighter Collar (c.50 BCE) and boat.)
One other art, also miniature, nourished in Mycenae, and perhaps throughout the Aegean world. It was that of gem-engraving, as exemplified in seals. There are gold seal rings with picture designs, and also countless thousands of emblems cut on precious or semi-precious stones. A seal of this sort appears on the wrist of a cupbearer shown on a Knossian mural, though the signet seems to have been more often worn on a necklace. It may be inferred that every person of standing in Aegean society had his own device and the means for impressing it in clay.
The subjects are sometimes pictographic or hieroglyphic - in the Mycenaean-Cretan writing that is partly syllabic, partly ideographic - or heraldic, or freely pictorial. Animal motifs are favourites, and there is often the muscular vigour and lively action already noted in the modelling of the Vaphio Cups, and here perfectly appropriate. Hunting scenes are common, and the human figure is used both decoratively and for realistic purposes. Combats of warriors are not uncommon. At the other extreme are agricultural and nautical symbols and regular natural forms. The craftsmanship and the sense of design are in general very high. Scores of examples are pleasing in composition, decoratively striking, and in a fitting crisp and bold style.
The story told in terms of Mycenae and Knossos might be recounted in part as pertaining to Tiryns or Dendra. The many centres were interdependent; their separate cultures overlapped, influenced one another, formed together the integral but varied civilization that is called Aegean. Sometimes one branch of art was more advanced at one city than in the others; but in general the arts as described are typical of the scattered communities, whether in Argolis and Laconia or in the Cyclades or in Crete. Only Troy, on the distant Asian shore, and Cyprus, down in the eastern Mediterranean, demand separate notations - and Troy less for intrinsically valuable work than for the confirmation offered there of the outlines of the total Aegean development.
As it happened, not long after the Myceneans conquered Troy (c.1260-1240 BCE), they were themselves attacked by invading Dorians and in about 1100 BCE (the start of the Greek 'Dark Ages') the city of Mycenae, along with much of its art, was destroyed. It managed to survive as a small city state until 470 BCE when it was sacked and burned by its neighbour Argos. Later, the city was revived yet again, but by 125 BE it was in ruins.
For more about the arts and culture of Ancient Greece, see: Art Encyclopedia.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART