Monday, April 6, 2015

The Minoans: Frescoes

In Minoan society everything was painted on: walls, floors, toys, pottery, figurines, columns, and even clothing, but sadly only 5-10% of any given fresco survived. In temples wood columns were painted red, and stone friezes commonly show rosettes. True frescoes are painted on wet lime plaster, but Minoan artists also painted on dry surfaces. This was in stark contrast to their Egyptian neighbors, who painted directly on limestone or dry gypsum plaster. Wall and ceiling plaster was sometimes modeled in relief, such as the spiral relief in the north wing of Knossos, the bull relief at the north entrance passage, and the bull-grappling fresco in the east wing. Frescoes are found everywhere: in houses, shrines, and in temples.

The Hall of the Shields at Knossos

The origin of fresco painting is truly in the neolithic and EM periods. Important buildings during the FN (final Neolithic) and EM periods had their walls and floors covered in plaster. This early plaster consisted of lime mixed with clay, and was sometimes colored red or black, strikingly similar to the conventions of Catalhoyuk's plaster wall painting thousands of years earlier in the 7th millennium BCE. By the MM period, around 1,900 BCE, Minoans began to paint red and white geometric patterns on temples, they used flat washes on their temple walls. The earliest true frescoes are from around 1,700 BCE and the practice flourished during the NT period. Many early frescoes used dark red prominently, and the color continued its prominence through the NT period as the color of the Knossian palace's columns.

A diagram of the pigments used in Minoan frescoes

By the MM period high purity lime plaster and a greater variety of pigments allowed fresco painting to proliferate. The colors used in frescoes came from a wide variety of sources. Red and yellow came from ochers, black from carbonaceous shale or charred bone, blue from copper tinted glass or ground lapis lazuli. Green, pink, and grey were created from mixing pigments, but shading in light and dark was never used. Minoans painted real figures such as humans and animals, but not everything was done in a strictly realistic manner. Abstract swirling geometric designs are intricately incorporated into many frescoes, most notably into the griffins in the Throne Room at Knossos. Fresco painting usually involved three zones: repeating patterns above windows or doorways, the main composition in the center of the wall, and dado at the floor level, often imitating stonework.

A decorative frieze at the palace at Knossos

Detail from that frieze

Detail of a rosette on a griffin in the Throne Room fresco at Knossos. The rosette is located on the griffin's shoulder, it should be noted that this picture is upside down and the flowers actually point downward

Decorative rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera
Detail of a fresco now in Evan's reconstructed “Gallery”

Animals are commonly found in frescoes, especially monkeys. Monkeys are always painted blue, as was the Egyptian fashion, some even wearing harnesses. Dolphins, fish, and octopuses are common subjects. People are often shown smiling. While there are scenes of nature in Minoan frescoes, they are often exacted with an unrealistic aesthetic strategy, and incorporate a kind of abstract minimalism. The Spring fresco in Akrotiri shows this design style, as flowers and birds become a few interspersed brush strokes. The background in the Blue Bird fresco also exhibits this aesthetic sense.

Detail from the Spring Fresco

The Spring fresco in full, at Akrotiri

The lily fresco from the storeroom of house X of the southern area, Kommos, Crete, Minoan

Detail from the Monkey fresco

Blue Monkeys from the Beta 6 fresco at Akrotiri

The Blue Bird fresco from the House of the Frescoes at Knossos

The Blue Bird fresco in full

Detail of the Dolphin fresco at Knossos

Minoan frescoes of goats and the Boxer fresco at Akrotiri

A flying fish from a Minoan fresco

Minoan miniature frescoes are impressive, and from 1,700-1,400 Crete was the epicenter of Aegean fresco artistry. The sizes of frescoes ranged from truly tiny (a few centimeters across) to life sized humans. On the Procession fresco in the Knossos labyrinth fabrics are etched onto the figures with a string, allowing for ultra detailed lines and patterns. The attention to extreme detail shows itself in the intricately designed clothing on the life sized frescoes, such as the Cupbearer at Knossos, and the elaborate Procession fresco. The Villa of the Lillies at Amnisos includes 7 zones of differing ocher use with a decorative criss-cross pattern.

Reconstruction of the Bull Leaping fresco at Knossos

The Lillies fresco from Akrotiri

The Cupbearer fresco from Knossos

The Procession Fresco, this picture is actually much larger, please download it and zoom in

When ceremonies are depicted in frescoes, the priestesses are shown bedecked in bright colors, and are always central in the painting's narrative. Forming a background to the priestess foreground in such frescoes is the crowd, the commoners who flocked to such celebrations. In the Sacred Grove fresco they are drawn without individual identities only represented as a repeating pattern of bobbing faces lost in a sea of dark red. This was partially done out of necessity, as the entire fresco itself is already a miniature, making each face extremely small and details neigh impossible. The skill required to make this miniature fresco is astounding, and even with the size constraints the artist managed to create a pleasing and distinctively Minoan aesthetic.

The Sacred Grove miniature fresco

Arthur Evans assumed that Minoans were great lovers of nature since natural scenes are heavily represented in their frescoes. This wrongheaded stereotype of Minoan and LBA Aegean culture is still somewhat pervasive in modern society. In the academic community much of Arthur Evans' interpretation has been debunked, Arthur Evan's interpretation relies too heavily on his own western sensibilities. When Evans saw nature, he saw placid and idyllic romanticism, and in doing so overlaid his 19th century world view onto the Minoan world.

“...the roses on their tea cups and the ivy-covered trellises on their wallpaper would not blind us to the Victorians' capacity to exploit child labor and commit acts of ruthless military aggression in India and Africa.” - Rodney Castleden

The “sacral ivy” fresco from the House of the Frescoes, Knossos, from pg 67 of The Arts in Prehistoric Greece, by Sinclair Hood

Much of the Minoan's frescoes depict not nature strictly, but show an entire other world. As Castleden puts it, they “call down deities” as the individual's experience of the frescoes was entirely intertwined with its cultic aspects. The frescoes are brimming with meaning lost now to humans today, a meaning significantly more complex than Evans' “reverence of nature”. The plants and animals often depicted in frescoes are in fact not natural, but supernatural. Imaginary plants are shown, curled into elaborate spirals. Various plants which bloomed at different times of the year are seen in frescoes blooming together, setting the whole scene apart from a standard depiction of the natural world. Otherworldly Griffins are a common theme in Minoan art but their intended symbolic usage is also now lost on us. They seem to always accompany priestesses cementing their connection between Minoan myth and the real world. On the famous Agia Triadha larnax (a clay sarcophagus) a goddess is shown driving a chariot pulled by griffons. There is no explanation for what that scene represents, but certainly it is outside of the natural world and depicts the realm of myth. Frescoes are often used as symbolic “signposts”, such as painting processions in hallways in which processions took place. It is very likely that the minds of many Minoans would have entirely connected these frescoes to their cultic activities. What did priestesses think when they saw frescoes of griffons, and what did artists feel as they painted such scenes? We sadly do not know.

Detail of the Griffin fresco from the Throne Room at Knossos

A wider shot of the Throne Room at Knossos

What is not so clearly seen in Minoan art is their darker side. Bull sacrifices are not shown except in one spot: on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. This lone depiction of the funerary practices obviously shows gore, with the bull on a sacrificial table surrounded by blood. There is a naval battle shown on the north wall frieze of room 5 of the west house, which shows the dead floating in the water and soldiers dressed to kill with helmets, spears, and shields. A fresco from Akrotiri shows an altar covered in the blood of recent sacrifices, and the Boxer rhyton includes one individual being gored by a bull. These scenes of violence, combat, and blood, are few and far between and the vast majority of frescoes do not show these gruesome consequences of Minoan practices and naval military dominance.

The sacrificial bull from the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

Casualties in the water, from the naval battle fresco at Akrotiri

Minoan fresco art shows their culture only insofar as they desired to see themselves. Both male and female figures are often physically toned and proportionally beautiful, wearing elaborate and form fitting clothing. Minoan frescoes imitated Egyptian frescoes and often painted men in a rosy hue and women in a whiter tone. Even as this is the case, there is much ambiguity when ascertaining the gender of figures with some pieces (such as the Priest King fresco) being neither red nor white. The beautiful and sculpted human figures seen in Minoan frescoes were intended to grace the halls and rooms of the rich, either in their private residences or on the palace-temple's walls. Workshops by the Royal Road in Knossos also include frescoes, and Akrotiri on the island of Thera includes frescoes in every building excavated. The use of frescoes at Akrotiri flies in the face of the exclusive Knossian temple frescoes, suggesting that frescoes were incorporated into many class levels and were brought into the daily lives of more common people. This liberal use of fresco art also suggests that if the remainder of the city of Knossos is explored one would find frescoes commonly as well, although it is possible that each town would have had a different relationship with its painters.

Frescoes only show one aspect of Minoan culture. Not everything was included as a fresco or painted on a jar, and even then what has survived is only a minute fraction of the whole. The complexity between individuals and art, and between art and symbolism, are both completely intertwined with each other and completely invisible in the material record. It would be impossible to deduce the complexity of 12th century CE medieval society from their stained glass windows, while their existence speaks volumes about the lives of those who lived at the time, it does not tell the full story. Also an interesting problem to note is that an entire species of crafted art (carved wood) has completely disappeared. This is a huge gap in knowledge, so huge its total effective loss is unknown. It would be similarly difficult to truly understand medieval society if by chance no stained glass windows had ever been discovered.

Inaccurate reconstruction from 1914 of a fresco, attributed to Emile Gillieron the son. Actually the blue figure was a monkey, the tail of which is seen on the right

Minoan frescoes are not only found on Crete, or at the nearby Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on Thera, but they are found around the Aegean. Minoan style frescoes are found on the Aegean islands of Melos, Keos, and Rhodes, strikingly similar to NT period designs. Frescoes are also found outside the Aegean, such as at the palace of Yarim-Lim at Alalakh in Syria, where a Minoan style griffin was painted. A Canaanite palace at Tell Kabri had a painted plaster floor and miniature frescoes similar to the ones found at the West House at Akrotiri. Fragments of frescoes found at the royal palace at Qatna, Syria, show Minoan influence, such as spirals, imitation stonework, palm trees, and riverside scenes with crabs and turtles. The most spectacular Minoan frescoes are seen at Avaris in Egypt, the capital of the Hyksos dynasty of Egypt. These frescoes show rocky landscapes, bulls and acrobats, griffins, maze patterns, half rosette friezes, and one leaper has a Theran hairstyle. It is entirely impossible to prove whether these sites around the eastern Mediterranean were done by Minoans or simply by local artisans copying Minoan styles. Either way, the cultural dominance of Minoan artistry was paramount across the near eastern world, popular enough to be desired by foreign rulers from across the sea.

A scene of birds, a wall painting fragment from the Malkata palace made in later reign of Amenhotep III who died in 1,353 BCE. While this fresco is distinctively Egyptian, the upper border of the scene is reminiscent of Minoan abstract dados and includes a repeating pattern of rosettes


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
Frescoes, by Anne P. Chapin

List of Aegean Frescoes, on Wikipedia


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