Painting Before 1300 AD (4): Minoan

Painting Before 1300 AD (4): Minoan

The paintings of the Minoan civilization, which flourished ca. 2800-1400 BC, are found on Crete and several other sites in the Aegean Sea. They’re the first surviving paintings to show the world as a gay, elegant, enjoyable place. Subjects range from children boxing, fish flying, and women dancing or picking flowers to graceful antelopes and men leaping over bulls.

Minoan fresco of a man leaping over a bull. Palace of Knossos, Crete, ca. 1600-1450 BC. Image: Wikipedia

Five hundred miles southeast of Crete, the Egyptians of the New Kingdom continued to follow their centuries-old artistic conventions. (See last week’s post.) The Minoans use a few of the same conventions, such as showing legs in profile and eyes full-front in a profile face. However, Minoan artists worked out how to show torsos in profile, so that the body appears a working whole, not awkwardly twisted in the middle.

Boxing children from Thera (Santorini), ca. 1550 BC. Image: Wikipedia

More importantly, the outlines of their figures are rounded and lively. By comparison, figures in Egyptian paintings look stiff and uncomfortable.

Minoan paintings were executed in a technique called “fresco”  (from the Italian word for “fresh”), in which water-based paints were applied to wet plaster. When dry, the plaster bonded with the color, making the painting extremely durable. The frescoes at Thera survived a massive volcanic eruption. The colors are vivid: red, blue, yellow and green, as well as black and white. They are applied without shading, in flat, bright designs that are easy to read, even from a distance.


Landscape from Thera, ca. 1600-1500 BC. Image: Yann Forget / Wikipedia

Who were the Minoans? Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who excavated the palace at Knossos, named them after the legendary King Minos of Crete. In Greek mythology, Minos’s labyrinthine palace at Knossos was said to be the lair of the monstrous Minotaur. According to modern archeological excavations, the Minoan civilization, centered on the islands of the Aegean and Crete, began about 2800 BC, and by 2000 BC or so had advanced to the point where it had a form of writing and such amenities as drains, stoves and bathtubs. The Minoans, who spoke and wrote an early form of Greek, seem to have been a peaceful people who prospered via trade with others in the Aegean Sea. No Minoan palace – not even the largest one at Knossos – had any fortifications. The Minoans left few martial artifacts, and only one fresco that might be war-related … or it might simply be a procession of ships.

Ship fresco from Akrotiri, Thera, ca. 1500 BC? Image: Wikipedia

Scholarly debate rages (yes, rages) over whether the downfall of the Minoan civilization was the eruption of Thera’s volcano ca. 1500, the eruption’s aftermath, or a completely different cause. When the palace at Knossos was rebuilt around 1450, its throne room was decorated in the style favored by the warlike Myceneans from the Greek mainland.

Throne room from the Palace at Knossos, after 1450 BC. Image: Kyriakos 162 / Wikipedia

Mirror-image griffins (a bird-headed lion) flank the throne. The plants behind the griffins are arranged with strict symmetry on either side of the throne. This Mycenean preference for the stiff and symmetrical can be seen even in minor arts such as vase painting. A Minoan vase with an octopus and a Mycenean vase of the same subject are immediately distinguishable: the Minoan octopus appears to be a living creature swimming through the water, while the Mycenean one is simply a decorative pattern.

That two such different styles could exist within the Aegean area, among peoples using the same techniques and colors, is a salutary reminder that time and materials don’t determine an artist’s style or subject.

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  • Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This lightly edited essay is the first of six in the section on painting before 1300 AD. I’ve only lightly edited this essay because copyright issues could get thorny … I’m using this series to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to Innovators in Sculpture. Both focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures. I’m using it to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to my Innovators in Sculpture. The Innovators books focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures.
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