Snake Goddess
Faience statuette from Knossos
c. 16OObc
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion,Crete
The goddess carries a
panther or a leopard on
her headdress

Jar with floral decoration, Knossos,
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete



Ancient  Aegean Art



Towards the end of the third millennium BC, a flourishing civilization with a vast potential for expansion - thanks to its maritime trade links - developed on the island of Crete and in the Cycladic islands to the north.
The highly original works of art produced in this area were to become models for the Mycenaean culture a few centuries later.


Aegean Art

The Aegean Sea, with its many islands, was the cradle of pre-Hellenic civilization. A widely diffused culture had appeared in the Cycladic archipelago by the middle of the third millennium bc. This early phase of Cycladic art was characterized by ceramics decorated with zigzags, running spirals, and ship motifs that symbolized the marine activity of the region. The islands abounded in marble, which provided the ideal material for the sculpture of vases and of idols, the most typical of which were female figures (possibly fertility goddesses). Also known are kouratrophoi (women with babies in their arms), musicians (lyre and pipe players) and hunter-warriors. These figures varied both in size -from a few centimetres to a metre or so in height - and in type. Examples include schematic figures, violin-shaped or with a rounded lower body, and even the more naturalistic ones have the head reduced to a plane surface relieved only by the nose. The artists worked to a canon of proportions: all features are formalized, faces (nose, eyes, and mouth) at best simply delineated, though details were also picked out in paint. In the course of the second millennium. Crete, to the south of the Cyclades, became dominant in the Aegean Sea and its islands. The prosperity of this civilization, named Minoan after the legendary King Minos, is evident in the construction of the palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia. These first palaces were all damaged in about 1700bc, and were at once rebuilt.


Fresco fragment with hunting scene,
from the palace at Tiryns
c. 1250BC
National Museum, Athens

Surviving art shows the development of original forms and styles with an interest in nature. This is manifested by items such as the precious metalwork and carved stone vases of the second palaces. Some of these are decorated with bull and lion heads, from which liquids were poured at ritual occasions. Even much earlier, decorative vitality was illustrated in the mottled surface colourings of Vasilki ware (the result of skilful painting and kiln control), and also in the seals enlivened by linear plant and animal motifs. A large number of high-quality ceramics were produced during the time of the first palaces (2000-1700bc). The Kamares style involved often refined wares in a variety of forms, featuring schemes of white and polychrome patterning on a dark background, often complex in the ordering of both geometric and natural motifs. After 1700BC, magnificent new palaces arose in urban settings, and an extensive building programme took place in the countryside. The pottery of this period developed slowly: simple, formalized renditions of flowers (daisies, delicate lilies, branches of foliage) and animals (leaping dolphins) were featured in white on a brown-black ground. They were developed from Kamares wares but had some original features. Soon, natural elements abounded, depicted in black set against a light brown ground and greatly inspired by floral and marine subjects. Swimming octopi with clutching tentacles covered the surfaces of vases, interspersed with argonauts, starfish, corals, shells, and jagged rocks. The technical brilliance of Minoan art is best seen in its products in miniature. Bronze cast figurines show male votaries wearing loincloths and the women wearing long skirts and open bodices that expose their breasts. The statuette of the snake goddess is more elaborate, typical of the Minoan faience, or highly coloured earthenware. An attentive observation of nature is clearly evident in images in frescos and on vases made of a variety of materials (many of a serpentine-related matter, others in obsidian, rock-crystal, and porphyry). Among those portrayed is the bull captured at full speed in its charge. The stone vases, with their relief carvings, are deservedly famous: one pear-shaped rhyton (horn-shaped drinking vessel) shows a bustling procession of reapers with pitchforks led by a priest wearing a scaled jacket, and four singers, one playing a sistrum (a rattle of Egyptian origin). The artisan conveys depth by superimposing bodies and crossing the forks; the narrow waists of the figures minimize the contrast of the frontal view of the torso and the side view of the legs. Even with the more stylized models of domestic animals, such as bulls, sheep, wild goats, and birds, this interest is maintained. Bulls are especially prominent, as they are enshrined in the legend of the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull. This compositional exuberance and freedom is contrasted with the tense formality that increasingly pervades portrayals after about 1450bc - following the arrival of the Mycenaean overlords in Crete. These mainlan-ders, whose local culture in central and southern Greece had been transformed under the spur of Minoan culture, now took advantage of Cretan weakness to establish control first there and then throughout the Aegean. Such stylistic changes are readily observed in the processional frescos that adorn the palace of Knossos, as well as the limestone sarcophagus from Hagia Triada, dating from about 1400bc, which is decorated with religious scenes of sacrifice and worship. They are also evident in the ceramics: for example, the octopus is now placed vertically, while surviving floral and marine motifs are arranged stiffly and symmetrically. The social organization of places like Mycenae, Tiryns, and Orchomenos revolved around a class of military leaders, often identified with the legendary Achaeans, celebrated by Homer. They built their palaces on elevated positions, later protecting them with immense, Cyclopean walls. Those at the citadel of Tiryns range in thickness between 5 and 17 metres (16 and 55 feet). Towers may have strengthened the walls, and water supplies on the outside were reached by underground passages. The majestic Lion Gate of Mycenae was built of simple, massive blocks. The two lions, created in heraldic pose, are positioned over the lintel, guarding the entrance; they are among the earliest examples of monumental sculpture on the Greek mainland.
The heart of each royal seat was the palace, centred on the enclosed megaron, a reception area surrounded by storage rooms, archives, living quarters and courts; it was smaller than its Cretan counterpart, with its open central courts. Just as Mycenean architecture borrowed from Cretan but diverged significantly from it, so the artistic styles developed along their own paths. Frescos depicting ritual scenes, as well as more violent pursuits such as battles, adorn the walls. Stone vases, metal weaponry, and jewellery all produced new forms. The decoration of ceramics grew progressively more stylized and simple, with banded zones reducing the patterned area; however, a pictorial element consistently remained.

Seated Harpist
Marble statue from Keros, Cyclades,
National Museum, Athens
The cleanness of line in this and other pieces has influenced artists in modern times



painted relief plaster from the palace at Knossos,
c. 1425bc.
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete


A catastrophic earthquake in about 1700bc left the magnificent palace at Knossos in ruins. However, impressive and extensive reconstruction work produced an even more glamorous successor. This second palace was built on the terraced mound around a central court, with the surrounding quarters -up to four storeys high in places — spreading out in a design more concerned with practicality than symmetry. Among many imposing features were monumental entrances, staircases, colonnaded halls, lightwells, lustral basins, and extensive storage facilities. Lavish use was made of wooden columns, tapered at the base, which contributed to the light, airy atmosphere. The frescos took much of their inspiration from nature: flowers and animals mingle with humans in symbolically charged settings. Colours were bright, if not always strictly realistic, species were at times hybridized, and human anatomy was carefully portrayed. Occasional scenes of court life exist, such as ritual dances, as well as sporting events, such as bull-leaping. After about 145Obc, development towards a more static and formalized style (found also in pottery) is evident in friezes, such as the Campstool and Cup-Bearer frescos: reliefs like the Lily-Prince retain the older, naturalistic style.

Head of a charging bull, detail of painted relief from Knossos, c. 1600bc.
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

Remains (extensively restored)
of a lustral basin
from the palace at Knossos



At some point between l620bc and 1500bc (scholarly opinion differs), a terrible volcanic eruption devastated the island of Them (modern-day Santorini). The disappearance of part of the island possibly inspired Plato's myth of Atlantis, his Utopian island that was swallowed by the sea. On Thera, the marvellous wall paintings of the great city at Akrotiri have survived in the rock and ash. Geometrical patterns and marbled stones exist, as do plant motifs such as crocuses, lilies, and myrtles; animal motifs such as monkeys, swallows, antelopes, lions, and dolphins; and scenes of life in town and countryside, which range from images of marching soldiers to peaceful cattle. Painted on plaster, all are represented in a simple yet meticulous manner, and the artists have paid close attention to colour. Episodes of a single, apparently continuous narrative appear in the miniature frieze of the West House. The detailed topography has persuaded some that the frieze portrays an actual event associ ated with the houses occupant — possibly a sea voyage, via Crete, to North Africa.

Detail of frieze West House
Akrotiri, Thera, Greecec



Flask with octopus decoration
c. 1450BC
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete


Aegean art, from its earliest days on Crete and the Cyclades. only seldom featured grandiose or overtly royal figures - more the norm in the Near East. However, mythological, symbolic, and ritual concepts permeated every aspect of daily life. One regularly depicted symbol was the bull - featured in the abduction of Europa by Zeus, and as the father of the Minotaur on PasiphaŽ, queen to Minos. The animal may-have stood for the more remote figure of the god-king, its horns used to mark out the sacredness of a place. In later Greek myth, the Titaness Metis (or Counsel) assisted Zeus in administering the potion by which Cronos was made to disgorge Zeus' siblings. Zeus dethroned his father and took Metis for consort. Alarmed by a prophecy that a second, male child would depose him, Zeus swallowed the pregnant Metis by trickery. Eventually, his daughter Athene was born fully-formed. The octopus, being apparently a large head with many arms and being able to change colour at will, became a symbol for the divine wisdom of the two goddesses and stood for clear thinking.

Kamares vase
c. 1800bc
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete


Named after the cave sanctuary on Crete's Mount Ida, where the first substantial amounts of Kamares pottery were found, such wares combined refined technique and creative flair. It is believed this style of pottery was produced for the first palace centres of Knossos and Phaistos between the 20th and 19th century bc. Decoration of the vases consisted of balanced and often repeating patterns of linear and spiral-based motifs, with many naturalistic elements as well as stylized humans, all painted in white, yellow, orange, red, and crimson-mauve on a metallic-looking black or brownish ground. Stamped motifs, such as shells and flowers, added relief elements. Such shapes decorated all manner of plates, fruit stands, jugs, jars, bowls, and cups - some with walls as thin as eggshell, others quite heavy.



This work, pan of the Taureador fresco from the east side of the Palace at Knossos. shows a sport invoking three figures and a bull. From Persia to Egypt. the bull was an important animal in ancient symbolism, and was often ritually sacrificed. In Crete, contests pitting bull against athletes (in a ritual activity termed taurokathapsia, or bull-leaping) arc portrayed in various media: the danger seems to apply solely to the humans. This painting, made with pigments on lime plaster, features a beautiful palette of subdued colours, including ochre and blue. Like many of the works found by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos, the fresco was badly damaged and in need of restoration.

Wall-painting on lime plaster
15th century bc
Archaeological Museum. Herakliou. Crete.




Following his earlier excavations at Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, the romantically-minded archaeologist, turned his attention to Mycenae, the city of the legendary King Agamemnon, who was murdered by his wife and her lover. He believed that he had found the remains of the unfortunate king and gave the royal name to a magnificent gold mask, found in one of a group of shaft graves that had been encircled by a stone perimeter and enclosed within the later citadel walls. The strong features and accentuated lines of the mask, together with the retold story by such figures as the Greek travel-writer Pausanias. evoke the memory of the tragedy. The mask did not actually belong to Agamemnon, but the funeral trappings and the profusion of gold indicate that the graves did contain royalty. As well as the masks, there were vessels of metal, stone, and clay; smaller personal items of metal, ivory, and stone; vases of faience; and many metal weapons, some with intricate inlay. Chief of these are the dagger blades, set with heavily Minoanized scenes of the hunt, of animals and flowers; these are all cunningly built up from individually prepared stamps of gold, silver, and copper.

Gold Agamemnon mask,
 Mycenae, c. 1500BC
National Museum, Athens

Dagger blade with decoration showing a lion hunt, Mycenae,
c. 1550bc
National Museum, Athens

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