The innate predisposition of humans to express the beauty of nature that surrounds us led us through the centuries to discover and define Beauty. From the smallest artifacts to the most emblematic public monuments, our quest for Beauty has been the core and the driving force behind Aegean Civilizations, and the emergence of European Art.
The Aegean Civilizations
In the Aegean Archipelago, southeast of mainland Greece, a group of 220 islands forms the Cyclades. The name “Cyclades” would translate as “circle of islands”, forming a circle around the sacred island of Delos. Delos was the birthplace of the god Apollo, so sacred that while humans could live there, no one could be born or die on its soil. The island until today has maintained its sanctity and has only 14 inhabitants, the caretakers of the archaeological site. According to Greek mythology, Poseidon, God of the sea, furious at the Cyclades nymphs turned them into islands, positioned to worship god Apollo.
Today the Cyclades are among the most popular tourist destinations in Greece. Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Milos, Sifnos, Syros, and Koufonisia are among the most popular. Two of those islands are volcanic, namely Santorini and Milos.
The Cycladic Art – A Prelude To Post Modernism
The ancient Cycladic culture flourished from c. 3300 to 1100 BCE. Along with the Minoan civilization of Crete and the Mycenaean of mainland Greece, the Cycladic civilization is one of the main Bronze Age civilizations of Greece.
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The most prominent type of artwork that has survived is the marble figurine, most commonly a single full-length female figure with arms folded across the front. Archaeologists refer to these figurines as “FAF” for “folded-arm figures”.
Apart from a prominent nose, the faces are a smooth blank, strongly suggested by the existing evidence that facial details were originally painted. The looting of cemeteries and the unprecedented scale of illegal excavations that took place in the region during the past century brought a lot of these figurines into private collections without any information regarding their archaeological context. However, it is apparent that they were used mostly as burial offerings. This violent displacement negatively affected the study of the Cycladic civilization.
In the 19th century, Classical Art was seen as ideal, and in many ways, set the aesthetic rules. During this time, the Cycladic figurines were disregarded as primitive and crude. Paul H.A. Wolters, a German classical archaeologist in 1891, described them as ‘repulsive and odious’. It was only during the last century, with the emerging trends of modernism and post-modernism, that a particular aesthetic value was attached to the Cycladic figurines, as they became objects of art to be studied and imitated.
Major museums around the world have dedicated Cycladic collections and exhibitions. However, out of the approximately 1400 known figurines, only 40% came from a systematic excavation.
The New York Metropolitan Museum has an extensive collection of Cycladic Art, permanently displayed in Gallery 151. Let’s take a look at a few cases.
The above figure represents a rare type known as steatopygous, meaning fat accumulation in and around the buttocks, a characteristic undoubtedly indicative of fertility.
Marble head from the figure of a woman, early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BCE). The face, nose, mouth, and ears are rendered in relief, while color renders the eyes, vertical lines on the cheeks, bands on the forehead, and hair. One of the best-kept objects where the decorative paint techniques are evident.
A male figure playing a stringed instrument sits on a high-backed chair. This work is one of the earliest (2800–2700 BCE) of the small number of known representations of musicians. Note the distinctive and sensitive modeling of the arms and hands.
As a last note on the Cycladic Art, and certainly worth mentioning, are the mosaics of Delos. As a great cult center, equal to Delphi and Olympia, the island had several complexes of buildings. In 1990, UNESCO listed Delos as a World Heritage Site, describing it as “exceptionally extensive and rich” conveying “the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port“.
The mosaics of Delos are a significant body of ancient Greek mosaic art. They date to the last half of the 2nd century BCE and early 1st century BCE, during the Hellenistic period. Among Hellenistic Greek archaeological sites, Delos contains one of the highest concentrations of surviving mosaic artworks. Approximately half of all surviving tessellated Greek mosaics from the Hellenistic period come from Delos.
Minoan Art – The Emergence of Beauty in Creation
Toward the end of the 19th century, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans commenced excavations at Knossos, Crete. He discovered a structure that reminded him of the legendary Labyrinth, where King Minos had imprisoned the Minotaur. As a result, Evans decided to name the Bronze-Age civilization on Crete “Minoan”. The name persisted ever since. Evans regarded Knossos as ‘the cradle of European civilization’.
Recent studies and research reinforce Evans’ notions. In 2018, Ilse Schoep, the author of The Administration of Neopalatial Crete, wrote:
“Evans’ narrative was to promote Crete as the cradle of European civilization, the implications of this observation for the concepts that he constructed and the interpretations that he made have not been fully explored. Although we have now, in theory, moved beyond a grand narrative … in the evolution of civilization, in practice Evans’ rhetoric lives on, not only in the popular literature, as might be expected, but also in mainstream academic discourse.”
The Minoan civilization spans several millennia and is classified into:
- Early Minoan: 3650–2160 BCE
- Middle Minoan: 2160–1600 BCE
- Late Minoan: 1600–1170 BCE
Palaces and Frescoes
Minoan Palaces, so far excavated in Crete, include:
- Knossos, the Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete
- Phaistos, the Minoan palace of Phaistos in Crete
- Malia Palace, the Minoan Palace of Malia in eastern Crete
- Zakros Palace, the Minoan Palace of Zakros in eastern Crete
The art of the Minoan civilization of Bronze Age Crete exhibits a love of nature, animal, sea, and plant life. Motifs from nature are used to decorate frescoes, pottery, and inspired forms in jewelry, stone vessels, and sculpture. Minoan artists expressed their art in flowing, naturalistic shapes and designs, and their art exhibits a unique vibrancy for its time. Aside from its aesthetic qualities, Minoan art also gives valuable insight into the religious, communal, and funerary practices of one of the earliest cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
The Minoans, were a seafaring nation. Their culture was influenced by the Near East, and influences from Egypt and Babylon can be found in their early art. Minoan artists were constantly exposed to both new ideas and materials that they could use in their own unique art. Palaces and homes of the aristocracy were decorated with true fresco painting (buon fresco).
Minoan art was not only functional and decorative but also had a political purpose. In particular, the wall paintings of palaces depicted rulers in their religious function, which reinforced their role as the head of the community. Art was the privilege of the ruling class; the general population consisted of farmers, artisans, and sailors.
The “Throne Room” at Knossos, directly underneath the fresco gallery, heavily restored by Evans, dates to the Late Bronze Age. The throne seated a king, a queen, or a priestess; the griffins are associated with priestesses. The wavy shape at the back of the throne might refer to mountains.
Minoan pottery went through various stages of development. It evolved through the millennia from plain geometric forms to elaborate impressionistic depictions of nature, as well as, abstract human figures. Sometimes, shells and flowers decorated the vessel in relief. Common forms are beaked jugs, cups, pyxides (small boxes), chalices, and pithoi (very large handmade vases, sometimes over 1.7 m high, used for food storage).
The later stage of the Minoan pottery evolution, known as Marine Style, is characterized by detailed, naturalistic depictions of octopuses, argonauts, starfish, triton shells, sponges, coral, rocks, and seaweed. Further, the Minoans took full advantage of the fluidity of these sea creatures to fill and surround the curved surfaces of their pottery. Bulls’ heads, double axes, and sacral knots also frequently appeared on pottery too.
A rhyton is a roughly conical container to drink or pour fluids. Mostly used as a libation-offering vessel, the bullhead, in particular, was common in religious rituals, banquet,s and festival settings. Libations of wine, water, oil, milk, or honey were used to worship a god or honor the dead.
The bull-headed rhyton is one of the most famous finds from Sir Arthur Evan’s excavations of Crete in 1900. It is indeed spectacular. Naturalism and attention to detail are exemplified in this almost individualized portrait bust of a bull. The naturalism is obvious in the curvature of the nose, the projecting rounded ears, and the fat deposit hanging from the bottom of the bull’s neck. Atop the bull’s head, curly tufts of hair and forelock designs are evident, and dapples decorate the neck. This life-like pose will only appear again in art during the Classical Greek era a millennium later.
This rhyton boasts the most exquisite materials. The main vessel is made of steatite stone while the muzzle has a white inlaid shell, and the eyes are made of rock crystal and red jasper. The horns are wooden with gold leafing and are reconstructions of the original. Crafted deliberately, the eyes are rock crystal painted on the backside with red pupils and black irises, then set into red jasper for a dramatic bloodshot look and inlaid into the steatite.
Figure sculpture is rare in Minoan art. Still, several small figurines survive to exemplify that Minoan artists were as capable of capturing movement and grace in three dimensions as they were in other art forms. Early figurines in clay and bronze typically portray worshippers but also animals, especially oxen.
Later works are more sophisticated; among the most significant is an ivory figurine of a man leaping in the air, over a bull that is a separate figure. The hair was in bronze wire and the clothes were in gold leaf. Dating to 1600-1500 BCE, it is perhaps the earliest known attempt in sculpture to capture free movement in space.
Another representative piece is the striking figure of a goddess brandishing a snake in each of her raised hands. Rendered in faience, the figurine dates to around 1600 BCE. Her bare breasts represent her role as a fertility goddess, and the snakes and cat on her head are symbols of her dominion over wild nature.
Both figurines are in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete.
Smelting technology in ancient Crete allowed for the refining of precious metals such as gold, silver, bronze, and gold-plated bronze. Semi-precious stones were used, such as rock crystal, carnelian, garnet, lapis lazuli, obsidian, and red, green, and yellow jasper.
Minoan jewelers possessed the full repertoire of metalworking techniques (except enameling), which transformed precious raw material into a staggering array of objects and designs.
This famous pendant, one of the finest and best-known examples of Minoan art, represents two bees or wasps storing away a drop of honey in a honeycomb. The composition centers around a circular drop, the two insects face one another, their legs supporting the drop, their bodies and wings finely detailed with minute detail. Gold discs hang from their wings, while an openwork sphere and suspension ring stand atop their heads. This masterpiece of Minoan jewelry, brilliantly conceived and naturalistically rendered, illustrates fine artisanship.
Gold was the most prized material and was beaten, engraved, embossed, molded, and punched, sometimes with stamps. Pieces were attached to the main piece using a mixture of glue and copper salt which, when heated, transformed into pure copper, soldering the two pieces together.
The Minoan Legacy and the Aegean Civilizations
Minoan artists greatly influenced the art of other Mediterranean islands, notably Rhodes and the Cyclades, especially Thera. Minoan artists were themselves employed in Egypt and the Levant to beautify the palaces of rulers there. The Minoans also heavily influenced the art of the subsequent Mycenaean civilization based on mainland Greece.
Their impressionistic approach to Art was indeed the first step in a long line of European Art that, through the millennia, has evolved in its many forms and orders or, as described here by the art historian R. Higgins,
“…Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Bronze Age to Classical Greece was something less tangible; but quite possibly inherited: an attitude of mind which could borrow the formal and hieratic arts of the East and transform them into something spontaneous and cheerful; a divine discontent which led the Greek ever to develop and improve his inheritance.”