Ancient Aegean Art includes pre-Greek art from anywhere in the area above. This breaks down to Minoan art, which comes primarily from Crete, Helladic art, which is the art of the Greek mainland, and Cycladic art, which comes from the islands excluding Crete. These boundaries a very general and it should be noted that in the last two decades or so Minoan art was discovered in Egypt and Israel and Minoan settlements were discovered in Sicily, and the Island of Thera.
There is evidence of Neolithic settlements on the Island of Crete as early as 7000, and on the Cycladic Islands as early as 4000 B.C.E. D.N.A. tests indicate that all of the people in the area were a mixture of Anatolian and Greek ethnicity. Distinctly different Cycladic culture and Minoan culture evolved simultaneously starting around 3000 B.C.E. on the Cyclades and on Crete respectively. With the exception of the Island of Delos, Minoan Civilization absorbed and acculturated the Cyclades by about 2000 B.C.E.
There are remarkable stylistic similarities between Cycladic art and early 20th century modern sculpture. Some of this similarity would disappear if we could see the figurines painted, as they probably originally were. Unfortunately, this similarity to Modern art has made Cycladic art extremely popular, which has lead to archeological confusion. A lot of Cycladic art is removed from where it is discovered for fast profit on the black market and this usually destroys the important archeological record in the earth. There is also a large amount of fake Cycladic art. Not much is known about the Neolithic sea-going people who carved these sculptures, making the sculptures themselves the basis for many theories.
Female figurines were popular. They range in scale from hand-held to life size, but always strike the same rigid pose with their arms folded across their chests and their feet pointing down. It is thought, since they have been found lying on their backs near burial sites, that the figurines have something to do with life, death and or the afterlife. While this may be true, it is unknown whether the female figurines are portraits of deceased individuals, portraits of gods, or something else. Whatever they represent they seem to reflect a similar interest in feminine power and mystery as the Paleolithic, Neolithic and early Mesopotamian female archetypes and deities such as the Venus of Wilendorf and the goddess Inanna. Many civilizations seem to start out revering primarily a female deity and then develop their religious beliefs into more complicated scenarios.
Unlike the female figurines, the sculpture of the harpist can't be sexed on the basis of prominent reproductive organs, but it is generally considered to portray a male. As sculpture, the Harp Player is far more sophisticated than the female figurines. With their many undercuts, the harpist motif would have been much more challenging to carve than the female motif was, which may have something to do with the rarity of Cycladic harpists compared to female figurines. As sculpture the harpist is interesting from all vantage points, and it incorporates dynamic negative spaces and curvalinear lines. I think that while smaller, this harpist is aesthetically the most excellent sculpture of its time compared to contemporaneous Sumerian and Egyptian carvings. Foreshadowing the vibrant art and culture of the Minoans, the sculptural finesse and musical theme seen in the Harp Player, suggests that the Cycladic peoples truly appreciated art.
Bronze technology reached Crete, most likely from the Fertile Crescent, as early as 2600 B.C.E. and helped forge a civilization that developed a written language as well as some of the most sophisticated technology, design, and art of the ancient world. The Minoans were lost to history for thousands of years but clues to their existence were preserved in Homeric myths. The civilization was rediscovered in the early 20th Century by British Archeologist and entrepreneur Arthur Evans. The Minoan language known as Linear A has yet to be interpreted. This conundrum, combined with the great beauty of their art and architecture help to cultivate a mystique that is steeped in myths as varied as that of Theseus battling the Minotaur to the lost city of Atlantis.
The Minoans are especially well known for their ceramics, which they traded to other societies such as the Egyptians, Anatolians and Canaanites. Minoan pottery decorated with bold geometric patterns is known as Kamares ware. These examples of Kamares ware date to as early as 2100 B.C.E. for the two on the left, and as recent as 1500 B.C.E. for the octopus jar on the right.
The Palace of Knossos on Crete is the major Minoan settlement that Sir Arthur Evans excavated after purchasing the land. It is not certain that this is the same palace that the mythical King Minos presided over, but it does share the similarity of having a large open courtyard in the center of it where bull leaping probably took place. There is no evidence at Knossos of a subterranean labyrinth, but the citadel itself is somewhat labyrinthine. The city kept building on itself and occasional damage caused by seismic activity and subsequent rebuilding resulted in some false passages and staircases that lead to nowhere. Citizens of Knossos would have come to know its nooks and crannies, but one can imagine that a stranger could easily get lost in Knossos, which could be the grain of truth from which the labyrinth myth grew. Knossos was designed for comfortable living. It's rooms and corridors are painted with beautiful frescos and let in lots of light and fresh air. Knossos had the best plumbing of the ancient world rivaling only that of the richest Romans. There were bathrooms with running water and a closed sewer system, features that thousands of years later, palaces as fancy as the Palace of Versailles still hadn't managed to develop. Another unique feature of Knossos are its inverted columns made of cedar wood. Compared to almost all other columns, which taper upwards, Minoan columns taper downwards. This tends to make the interior spaces feel light rather than evoking a feeling of stability and strength.
The Minoans seem to have invented fresco vero, the process of painting plaster walls while the plaster is still drying. This technique requires a great deal of skill and results in colors that stay brighter and last longer than fresco secco. Minoan wall painting is characterized by curvilinear lines and whimsical nature themes and is primarily decorative rather than being narrative or commemorative. One major difference between Minoan and Egyptian painting is that Minoan paintings decorate the walls of architecture that is made for the living rather than architecture that is made for the dead. The Queen's Megaron in the Palace of Knossos featuring a dolphin painting is an iconic example of Minoan interior design.
The bull leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos on Crete is one of the most famous of all Minoan frescos. It depicts a deadly sport and entertainment that the society enjoyed. Teams of acrobats would work together in an effort to grab the horns of a bull and flip themselves over its back. Scholars originally interpreted this work as a continuous narrative meaning that one person is depicted in different stages of the acrobatic maneuver. However, it is much more likely based on the color scheme of the different figures that the fresco depicts a male participant who is on the back of the bull and two female participants, one getting ready to catch the male and the other starting to grab the bull's horns. Minoans, like Egyptians before them and Romans and Etruscans after them painted males dark and females light. With the pinched wastes and curvaceous bodies of Minoan figures this color convention is sometimes helpful. The difference in color reflects a difference in gender roles where men very generally work outside where they get tan, and women very generally work inside so they don't get as tan.
Sailing and fishing were major parts of Minoan life. This painting of a young fisherman returning with his bountiful catch of tuna reflects not only these important daily activities and a staple of the Minoan diet, but also that the ocean probably had many more tuna in those days than it does today.
The fresco fragment depicting a Minoan woman is a famous artifact. The piece is known as Le Parisiene because the woman depicted with her makeup, billowing bodice, and careful curls shares many stylistic similarities with Parisian women of the late Victorian Era, roughly the time of the initial excavation at Knossos. These similarities in fashion reveal some Minoans were economically successful enough that they could afford to put a lot of time, energy and money into styling their looks.
The fresco featuring boats is believed to chronicle a specific naval battle. If so it is a rare example of Minoan art in that it may be a specific historical narrative and that it depicts human violence as opposed to a benevolent nature theme.
The room painted with a whimsical landscape on three of its walls is the first known example of pure landscape in history and is known as the Spring Fresco. A pure landscape is one that does not include any people in it. The fresco was discovered about twenty years ago on the Island of San Torini. San Torini was known as Thera in the ancient world. Thera underwent an intense volcanic explosion that wiped out and then covered its Minoan residents in volcanic ash. Like Pompeii, the volcanic ash preserved the ruins creating an archeological time capsule. This explosion was so large that it effected much of the ancient world. For many years it was believed that this explosion wiped the Minoans out completely, but is almost certainly not the case. Other scholars have speculated that the explosion sparked a tsunami that caused the Red Sea to first retract (allowing Moses and company to cross it) and then plunge forward (wiping out the pharaoh's pursuing army.) While this theory is impossible to prove, it is the case that the impact effected young Redwood trees growing as far away from the explosion as California. In fact, Redwood tree rings were recently used to more accurately date the explosion of Thera. Prior to studying the tree rings, the explosion was believed to have occurred around 1400 BCE. It is now thought to have happened closer to 1600 BCE, which proves when compared to carbon dates of late Minoan artifacts, that the Minoans recouped and rebuilt after this natural disaster.
The fresco depicting a youth picking crocuses also celebrates spring and symbolizes the girl's rite of passage to womanhood. Crocuses are the first flower to bloom in the spring, and are thus a harbinger of fertility. Minoan's shaved their children's' heads except for a pony tail. This girl's thin rings of hair around her blue head suggest that she is growing her hair out because she is no longer considered a child.
The Harvester Vase is carved from steatite. It is a ritual vessel for dispensing libations. It has a small hole at its base that would be kept closed by hand when not in use. There are frescos from Knossos depicting people walking in procession and using both hands to carry similar looking vessels. This type of vessel that must be emptied before it can be set down is called a rhyton. Some rhytons are used in religious rituals to dispense libations, and others are used in drinking rituals to produce inebriation. The Harvester vase is believed to be the religious type. Carved in bas relief on the cup are men marching and singing and carrying what look like pitchforks. A particular man wearing a cap and shaking what is thought to be a rattle leads the others in song through what is probably a religious ritual of some kind. The relief carving is especially fine and ahead of its time in terms of its figure ground relationship. Overlapping each other, and diminishing in size and detail from front to back, the harvesters comprise one of the oldest examples in the history of art of illusion of spatial depth.
The Vephio cup has a bas relief narrative sculpted in repousee. It is one of two gold cups found in the tomb of a Mycenaean king near Sparta in southern Greece. The other cup is most likely an example of Mycenaean craftsmanship. The two cultures shared many similarities. It may have been that the mercenary culture of the Mycenaeans adopted some of the Minoan's maritime culture and developed a fondness for Minoan art and craftsmanship. Both cups depict an athlete roping a bull presumably to capture it for use in ritual sport or sacrifice. The theme has much in common with a later Greek myth involving the hero Hercules.
These female figurines are depictions of what is generally reffered to as the Minoan Snake Godess. The one on the left is made of fiance and was discovered by Arthur Evans in his excavation f Knossos. The one on the right (shown in front and 3/4 view) is carved out of ivory and was found much later. Whether the woman was an actual goddess or a priestess or just a crazy lady holding snakes is not acctually known. However, considering the precious materials they are made out of, the woman's ornate costume and the consistancy of the motif, it is likely that the figurines have something to do with Minoan religion.
The Mycenaeans while sharing / adopting many aspects of Minoan culture were very much a warrior culture rather than being maritime traders. They were ethnically a little different from the Minoans as well coming as they did from mainland Greece and Macedonia. Ask yourself how many examples of war scenes or hunting scenes do you notice in Minoan art? War scenes and hunting scenes reveal the importance a society places on power and dominance. The major thematic differences between Minoan and Myceneaen artworks help to support the theory that Minoan society was mostly peaceful, secure, and possibly gender equal, while Myceneaen society was martial, subject to outside threat, and patriarchical. These profoundly different cultural concerns and circumstances between the Minoans and Mycenea. Mycenaeans organized themselves in city-states that competed with each other as well as other societies. The Greeks adopted this system, and other Mycenaean traditions. In fact, many of the Homeric myths describing the Heroic Bronze Age and celebrated by the Classical Greeks and Romans are about the lives and times of Mycenaeans. In this sense their culture has been celebrated and studied in the western tradition more so than any other Bronze Age society.
Despite the mythical Mycenaeans being so well remembered in writing, the actual Mycenaeans and all archeological record of them was lost for thousands of years. In the 1880s, a German railroad mogul decided to become an archeologist and search for the mythical city of Troy. Henrich Schliemann used his enormous wealth to purchase land on both the coasts of Greece and Turkey where he thought he might find ancient cities long since forgotten and buried. Taking a hint from a local peasant, Schliemann first excavated the Citadel of Mycenae, where Agamemnon was from. He later went on to find what is generally believed to have been Troy itself. Despite the many occurrences of destruction and then reconstruction evident from excavating Troy, there is no conclusive evidence substantiating the details of the Trojan war as it was chronicled by Homer. The closest evidence of the actual Trojan War was found in Greece, and it is an inventory of the spoils of war including a lot of names of women that are specifically Trojan names. Implicit in this finding is the fact that Mycenaeans had a written language, which is called Linear B, and that their language has been deciphered.
The Mycenaeans built townships called citadels that had intimidating defensive walls made from large roughly hewn stones. Homer, who wrote during the Orientalizing Period around 800 B.C.E. when Greece was emerging from its Dark Age, described these walls as cyclopian because he assumed that the stones were much too large to lift and set, so they obviously must have been built by giant Cyclopeses rather than mere men. Some of the defensive walls are hallow on the inside and corbelled making them much stronger than a single-layered wall and allowing for the quick passage of soldiers assembling in defense of the city. The Hittites who were equally bellicose and rivals of the Mycenaeans also built some defensive walls using this technique.
The Mycenaeans were excellent engineers and architects. They developed impressive underground beehive shaped tombs also known as tholi. These tombs are the largest domed structures in the ancient world prior to the building of the Roman Pantheon. Each stone of the dome of a tholos is carved to fit exactly and the earth piled on top of the dome compresses the stones in toward each other, which helps hold the dome together keeping it strong. Minoans also built some tholi tombs and may have invented them, but none of theirs were as lavish as those of the Mycenaeans. Heinrich Schliemann found weapons and other trappings of ancient wealth when he excavated the largest known tholos located near the Citadel of Mycenae. Schliemann assumed that the structure must be a treasury and named it the Treassury of Atreus. Atreus was Agamemnon's son who persuaded the Greeks to unite and attack the city of Troy. This particular tholos is a late Mycenaean work and was built roughly around the time of the Trojan War.
The Mycenaeans built shaft tombs inside Mycenae prior to adopting the beehive motif and Schliemann unearthed many gold artifacts from these shaft tombs including death masks. Schliemann proclaimed one of these masks to be the Mask of Agamemnon. However, it is now understood that the artifacts from the shaft tombs of Mycenae date between 1650 B.C.E. and 1400 B.C.E. The Trojan War, if it happened, probably took place around 1280 B.C.E. or later. The bronze dagger with gold decoration was also found in one of the shaft tombs. The subjects of this dagger have graceful athletic figures with pinched waistes similarly to Minoan anatomical artistic convention. If it didn't directly shape it, Minoan metallurgy, style, and craftsmanship likely influenced this piece.
Schliemann was an odd duck to be sure. He most likely modified the mustache on the Mask of Agamemnon extending it into a handlebar as was the fashion of the day. This is archeologically as bad as it gets, and it's anybody's guess as to why Schliemann felt the need to modernize a mustache. He also divorced his first wife and married a young Greek girl who shared his passion for Homer. Schliemann had his new wife pose for photographs wearing a headdress and jewelry found in the excavation. Treating the artifacts like play things in the way that he did led to much speculation that the the findings were a hoax that Schliemann fabricated. Adding to this speculation, many of the gold artifacts that Schliemann found were brought back to a German museum and then mysteriously disappeared during World War II before being completely authenticated.
This gold lion head is another treasure excavated from the shaft tombs. It is believed to be a rhyton. Mycenaean ceramics is usually less elaborate and colorful than Minoan ceramics. The squid vase is a particularly refined Mycenaean ceramic piece. The Warrior Vase is a late Mycenaean work that is usually associated with the start of the Greek Dark Age. The Dark Age began around 1100 and was a period of constant fighting so destructive that the culture devolved so completely that written language was lost. The reason for the Dark Age is often attributed to the "sea people" who are thought to have added to the fierce competition between Mycenaean and Hittite city-states pitching the whole region into chaos. Both the Hittites and the Greeks reinvented themselves after the Dark Age. The Greeks ended up having the most staying power and Hittite culture faded out completely by around 700 B.C.E.