Aegean Civilizations: The Emergence of European Art

Modern and postmodern artists like Modigliani, Moore, Picasso, Giacometti, among others, discarded western visual tradition and sought inspiration from ancient cultures and the Cycladic Art.

Jan 28, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
Cycladic Sculptures, two figures, ancient greek
Two Cycladic Marble Sculptures, a head and female figure

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.

This is the first of a series of five articles that will take the reader on a journey through ancient Greek civilizations and the manifestation and evolution of Art as expressed in the artifacts that have survived the millennia and adorn Museums around the world.

From the Bronze Age Cycladic and Minoan civilizations that start the series, we will proceed to the Mycenaean Art era, the time of the Great Kingdoms, Homer and the Trojan War, a time of heroes and gods. The third article will endeavor to present the vast accomplishments of the Classical – Golden Age, the era that set the standards for Art, as it also laid the foundations of many sciences, philosophical and political trends.

The Cyclades Islands
The Cyclades Islands, source

The phenomenon of classical Greece spread in the known world, mostly by the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic period marked the expansion of Greek art, sciences, philosophy but also its eventual decline and sepsis. From the ruins of classical masterpieces, from the pagan sculpted heads of gods brutally decapitated by the zealots of the new religion, the Christians founded the Byzantine Empire, a whole new world of Art emerged, constricted and confined by the austerity religion imposed, nevertheless rebellious in its innovative approach to 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 the Greek mythology, Poseidon, God of the sea, furious at the Cyclades nymphs turned them into islands, positioned to worship god Apollo.

Today Cyclades are from the most popular tourist destinations in Greece, the islands of Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, Milos, Sifnos, Syros and Koufonisia. Two of those islands are volcanic namely Santorini and Milos.



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Cycladic sculpture marble figure with folded arms, Parian marble
FAF- Folded Arm Figurine, female statue of Parian marble; 1.5m high, 2800–2300 BC (largest known example of Cycladic sculpture)

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The ancient Cycladic culture flourished from c. 3300 to 1100 BC. Along with the Minoan civilization of Crete and the Mycenaean of mainland Greece, the Cycladic civilization and art are the main Bronze Age civilizations of Greece.

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 a “FAF” for “folded-arm figure”.

Apart from a prominent nose, the faces are a smooth blank, strongly suggested by the existing evidence that facial details were originally painted. Illegal excavations at an unprecedented scale in the last century, the looting of cemeteries in the region, were the main cause that a lot of these figurines are found in private collections, unrecorded within an archaeological context, but it is apparent that they were used mostly as burial offerings. This violent removal also affected negatively the study of the Cycladic civilization.

Greek Cycladic Marble Female figurine
FAF – Female figurine, Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens

In the 19th century where Classical Art was ideal and set the aesthetic rules, these figurines were not appealing as primitive and crude. Paul H.A. Wolters, a German classical archaeologist in 1891 describes the figurines as ‘repulsive and odious’. It was only during the last century with the emerging trends of modernism and post-modernism that attached particular aesthetic value to the Cycladic figurines, where they became objects of art study and imitation.

Major museums around the world have dedicated Cycladic collections and exhibitions, however, out of approximately 1400 known figurines, only 40% are through systematic excavation.

The New York Metropolitan Museum has an extensive collection of Cycladic Art, permanently displayed in Gallery 151.


Cycladic marble female figure, Aegean Civilizations
Marble female figure, from the earliest FAF examples 4500–4000 BC, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue

The figure represents a rare type known as steatopygous meaning fat accumulation in and around the buttocks, a characteristic undoubtedly indicative of fertility.



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Head of Cycladic statue from Amorgos
Head of Cycladic statue from Amorgos – The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Marble head from the figure of a woman, early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC). The face, the nose, mouth and ears are rendered in relief, while colour renders the eyes, vertical lines on the cheeks, bands on the forehead and the hair. One of the best-kept objects where the decorative paint techniques are evident.

Cycladic Marble seated harp player, Metropolitan Museum Art
Marble seated harp player, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A male figure playing a stringed instrument sits on a high-backed chair. This work is one of the earliest (2800–2700 BC) of the small number of known representations of musicians. Note the distinctive and sensitive modeling of the arms and hands.

Large collections of Cycladic Art are on display in the Museum of Cycladic Art and in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens where one can browse virtually and explore more of this art form.

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 and in 1990, UNESCO inscribed Delos on the World Heritage List, citing it as the “exceptionally extensive and rich” archaeological site which “conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port“.

Ancient Greek Theatre in Delos
Ancient Greek Theatre in Delos, source – Wikipedia.


House of the Dolphins, floor mosaic
House of the Dolphins, floor mosaic,

The mosaics of Delos are a significant body of ancient Greek mosaic art. They date to the last half of the 2nd century BC and early 1st century BC, 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.


A map of Crete showing important Minoan sites
A map of Crete showing important Minoan sites,

South of the Cyclades island complex, at the southernmost of the Aegean Sea, is the island of Crete.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, British archaeologist Arthur Evans commenced excavations at Knossos. 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, and he regarded it 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 civilization spans over several millennia and is classified in to:

  • Early Minoan: 3650–2160 BC
  • Middle Minoan: 2160–1600 BC
  • Late Minoan: 1600–1170 BC

Palaces and Frescoes

Knossos Palace Entrance, Southern Propylaeum
Knossos Palace, Southern Propylaeum/Entrance, Photo: Josho Brouwers,

Minoan Palaces, so far excavated in Crete are:

  • 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, used to decorate frescoes, pottery, and it inspired forms in jewelry, stone vessels, and sculpture. Minoan artists express their art in flowing, naturalistic shapes and designs, and there is a vibrancy in Minoan art that was not present in the contemporary East. Aside from its aesthetic qualities, Minoan art also gives valuable insight into the religious, communal, and funeral 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, Babylonian, and Egyptian influences that 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),

Three Women fresco, Knossos Palace
Knossos Palace, Three Women fresco, via

Minoan art was not only functional and decorative but also had 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 was farmers, artisans, and sailors.

Throne Room in Knossos Palace
The Throne Room in Knossos Palace, via

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.

Bull Leaping Fresco at Knossos Palace
Bull Leaping Fresco at Knossos Palace, via



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Minoan Pottery

Minoan flask with octopus, Marine Style
“Marine Style” flask with octopus, c. 1500-1450 BC, via

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).

Minoan Ewer of Poros, Marine style
Marine Style “Ewer of Poros”, 1500-1450 BC, via

The latter stage of the pottery evolution, known as Marine Style, 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. Bull’s heads, double axes, and sacral knots also frequently appeared on pottery, too.

Minoan Rhyton

Bull’s Head Rhyton, Palace at Knossos
The Bull’s Head Rhyton, 12”, Little Palace at Knossos, dated 1450-1400 BC, via Archaeological Museum of Heraklion

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 ritual, banquet and festival settings. Libations of wine, water, oil, milk, or honey were used to worship a god or honour 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 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 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 inlayed into the steatite.

Minoan Sculpture

Greek Bronze Age Bull Leaper figurine, Ivory
Bull Leaper figurine, via

Figure sculpture is rare in the Minoan art, but 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 of animals, especially oxen.

Later works are more sophisticated; amongst the most significant is a figurine in ivory of a man leaping in the air, over a bull that is a separate figure. The hair was in bronze wire and the clothes in gold leaf. Dating to 1600-1500 BC, it is perhaps the earliest known attempt in sculpture to capture free movement in space.

Minoan Snake Goddess, Knossos
Minoan Snake Goddess, Knossos, via

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 BC. 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.

Minoan Jewelry

Greek Minoan Gold Bee Pendant
Bee Pendant, permanent exhibition of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, via

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 the 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

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.

Best 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.’

Author Image

By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.