Friday, April 3, 2015

The Mycenaeans: Frescoes

As the Mycenaean palace hierarchy was blossoming (beginning around 1,400 BCE) Mycenaean artists were called in to paint elaborate scenes in the palaces of their Wanax. From 1,400 BCE and onwards towns such as Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos become centers of fresco art, although the use of frescoes is not entirely widespread. Between 1,300-1,200 BCE Mycenaean fresco art exploded around the Greek cultural sphere, frescoes became common d├ęcor at not only palaces, but houses, and many other buildings around towns. Even smaller local seats of palace authority, such as Argos, Nichoria, and Sparta, each had frescoes. Houses and workshops outside of the citadel proper at Mycenae had frescoes, at Zygouries a pottery workshop was found which had frescoes, and at Gla in Boeotia multiple buildings outside the citadel had frescoes, such as the storerooms, the kitchens, and the workshops. At Mycenae various tombs hold frescoes, and tomb frescoes were also found at: Tiryns, Prosymna, Kokla (near Argos), and Thebes. In Mycenaean culture fresco art was not simply the decoration of the houses of the elite, or of the town's ritual spaces such as in Minoa, but it was for even the common man. There may have been a gap between those artisans who commonly worked for average patrons and whose art festooned the walls of the town, and artisans who mainly were contracted by the elites for their personal villas. While such a distinction existed in Minoan society, an even greater distinction may have existed in Mycenaean society as there were many more common fresco artisans than in Minoa.

A fresco of Mycenaean women bearing gifts, 1,400-1,200 BCE

A fresco of a Mycenaean woman, 1,400-1,200 BCE

A pottery fragment from Lefkandi showing the Mycenaean male fashion of wearing checkered skirt with a fringe

Mycenaean fresco scenes often show ritual action, but with schematic drawing techniques. Walls were organized into three zones by artists: on the top of a wall was a band reserved for dados, the center was reserved for large pictoral scenes, and a bottom band covered by friezes. Such friezes were sometimes stacked one on top of another (most notably at Pylos), creating a panoply of twisting and convoluted patterns in a similar vein to the Egyptian fashion. This style pleased a certain aesthetic which is fulfilled today by the repetitive patterns of wall paper. Floors were themselves filled with patterns, with grid designs seen at the megarons of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos. At Mycenaean palaces not only were the walls covered in intricate paintings, but the floors were as well. Each inch of the interior of a Mycenaean palace vividly declared the expensive and colorful tastes of its ruler. The experience for a peasant of entering their Wanax' megaron would have been similar to a Minoan peasant entering the Knossian labyrinth, summed up primarily by the phrase an overwhelming of the aesthetic senses.

A fresco at Mycenae showing a ritual, a priestess in a cape holds a sword while another across from her holds a spear, two small men hover between them. In the lower panel a priestess is attended by a griffin. 1,400-1,200 BCE

Detail of the priestess holding a staff in that fresco

Detail of the priestess being attended by a griffin

One of the most interesting Mycenaean frescoes, showing daemons in a procession presumably carrying something on a pole or a litter. From the Ramp House deposit, Mycenae

Bull leaping is seen in some frescoes, but it was not given the artistic prominence it found in Minoa, it is only seen in a fragment at Pylos and in a fresco from the ramp house deposit at Mycenae. Taureador iconography disappears around 1,300 BCE, and courtly bull leaping on mainland Greece is considered controversial and was probably almost nonexistent. Lions and griffins were common motifs in frescoes at megarons, with horses, chariots, and warriors being a more common general theme. At Gla a dolphin fresco was found which bears much resemblance to its Knossian forebears, such ancestral cultural prowess continued to rub off onto adjoining civilizations even more than 100 years after its prominence. The boar hunt fresco at Tiryns tells us about the recreational lives of the LBA Greek elite: multiple dogs with collars herd boars who are shot down with bows and javelins. The elite have practiced this activity since the bronze age, and the addition of guns only changes the exterior of this activity, while the practice itself is still continued by the elite today.

Fresco of a boar hunt, from Tiryns, 1,400-1,300 BCE, note the dog collars

A fresco of female figures in a chariot accompanying the boar hunt, Tiryns, 1,400-1,300 BCE

Another boar hunting scene was found at Orchomenos in Boeotia which was done in an almost identical style. This fact points to the possibility of either traveling fresco workshops, or semi-widespread pattern books shared between artisans. Each of those answers to that question reveal the often unseen inner development of Mycenaean artisanal culture. In the first scenario (traveling workshops) either famous painters were employed (through word of mouth) across the Greek world by wealthy elites, or a master would set a tone for their workshop which was copied by other workshops which would spread one individual's style across Greece. In the second scenario (pattern books) artisans would have enough power that they would band together into a proto-guild, allowing them to set an artistic baseline then disseminated throughout the artisanial community.

A Mycenaean fresco showing hunting

The skill attained by Mycenaean master fresco painters is similar to the height seen in MM culture, Mycenaean artists even had their own version of miniature frescoes. Their miniatures were slightly larger than Minoan miniature frescoes, although some were painted in sepia tones without color.

The Lyre Player” fresco from the Palace of Nestor, Pylos, 1,400-1,200 BCE

 A fresco of a well dressed woman in a procession, Tiryns, 1,400-1,200 BCE

Detail of a well dressed woman in a procession, Tiryns, 1,400-1,200 BCE

A painted plaster face of a Mycenaean woman wearing a headband. Fresco artists did not confine their work solely to walls, but at times made figurines such as this piece, 1,300-1,250 BCE

A painted plaster face of a Mycenaean woman, from the side

Fresco painting in the Mycenaean world disappeared along with the palace hierarchy between 1,200-1,100 BCE. With the final decline of palace fresco painters, an integral aspect of Aegean culture which had existed since the earliest Minoan times finally disappeared. The skill which had been acquired by some craftsmen may have been lost, and specific motifs and patterns were forgotten, but peak artisanal skill was simply moved elsewhere. Foreign countries became the epicenter of artisanry, specifically Assyria and Egypt continued to dominate regional artistic culture during the EIA (early iron age).

In 911 BCE the Assyrian empire had finally recovered from the BAC having reconquered all of the tradition Assyrian homeland. From then on, Assyrian kings amassed large armies and built huge palaces and temples. These buildings, as well as the gold ornaments aristocrats were so keen on wearing, were highly decorated by master craftsmen. By the 6th century BCE Persian rulers conquered much of the near east including Egypt, and as a result scoured their new holdings for artisanal experts. During this period so many Egyptian master artists were taken to Persia that there was a so-called brain drain, with Egyptian art of the period often done by novices or the self-taught. Yet simultaneously, the glorious palaces of the new Persian empire were ornate, elaborate, and extravagant. Persepolis became the epicenter of art and culture, and once again artisanal expertise had migrated following the fluctuation of near eastern power structures. The same drain on Crete post-1,450 BCE had come home to Mycenae.


Frescoes, by Anne P. Chapin


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  2. Have you seen the Mycenaean fragment showing what appears to be an elite or divine female warrior figure, that is, a female figure wearing a boars' tusk helmet, holding a collar-wearing griffon. Some people think it's actually Athena (it's possible, maybe even probable, but not provable at all). should include it here in this post of yours! It's a nice piece of art, AND it's controversial. (Well, as controversial as antiquities get...) :D I love your blog, its image collection is so great!

  3. Oh, oh also, the altar fresco you include with the "grain goddess" (misnomer) and the two larger figures (and the floating males), I thought it would be cool to mention that there is some serious scholarly speculation that the two larger women may be our earliest images of Athena and Hera. (possible, but not provable). It is thought that the woman on the left, holding a golden sword and wearing a priestess's robe, may be Athena, while the richly dressed woman on the right, grasping a staff, might be Hera. Supporting evidence includes the location of the fresco--it's on the side of a step-like altar, so that the grain-bearing woman is at ground level, while the significantly larger women are on/at/above the altar. Plus, the pillars which the women stand between indicate that they are in a religious temple. I like speculation like this, because it makes a crumbling, faded picture of basically feet, much more interesting, and curious. Oh, and another fascinating tidbit is that the ancient artist went out of his/her way to indicate that the so-called "grain goddess" is in fact a mortal human--she's wearing a seal-stone (which would bear her "coat of arms" so to speak, and which would be used on wax seals) on her right wrist! Little details like that make me salivate just thinking about how many other "clues" there must have once been. Keep your eyes open!! haha

  4. The fresco depicting the two women opposite each other holding a sword and a spear respectively plus the lower figure with a griffin are interesting because even though it was found in Mycenae two of the three women are Minoan. The woman on the right of the pair with the spear and the one below are wearing unmistakable Minoan clothes. The open bodices exposing the breasts and the striped v-shaped pattern in the skirts are unique to Crete. As this fresco was found in Mycenae it appears as though there is a considerable melding of the two cultures and without one being subjugated by the other.

  5. i like the two small men, so cute they're BFF's

  6. them two small men are BFF's, i love them so much
    i have never seen anything more beautiful than those two men, is it ok that i'm crying?

  7. Hunting seems to have been a common theme in the's frescoes. I do not agree with animal cruelty

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