Aegean Art
History, Characteristics of Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenean Cultures.

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Ruins of Knossos Palace, Crete. Once
one of the jewels of Aegean culture
and classical antiquity.

Aegean Art (c.2600-1100 BCE)


What is Aegean Art?
Cycladic Art
Minoan Culture
Mycenean Culture
More Resources on the Arts of Antiquity

What is Aegean Art?

The term "Aegean art" refers to a cluster of differing cultures that flourished in the area of the Aegean Sea in the eastern Mediterranean. This category of ancient art of classical antiquity - a precursor of Greek art (c.650-27 BCE) - commonly includes three civilizations: the Cycladic, the Minoan and the Mycenean, which first emerged around 2,600 BCE and ended about 1100 BCE. Although later than "Sumerian art", Aegean cultures coincided with the rise of later forms of Mesopotamian art and Mesopotamian sculpture - such as "Assyrian art" (c.1500-612 BCE) and "Hittite art" (c.1600-1180 BCE) - Aegean artists developed their own styles. A form of levantine Bronze Age art, Aegean culture was followed by several centuries of stagnation (the Greek 'Dark Ages') throughout Ancient Greece, although Mycenean traditions of metalwork were adopted by Celts migrating westwards through the Black Sea region, and duly became part of Celtic art, during the Hallstatt culture.

Note: for one of the best collections of antiquities from the Greek, Middle Eastern and Mesopotamian regions see the British Museum, in London.

Cycladic Culture

The earliest example of Aegean art appeared in the Cyclades, a group of islands that includes Naxos, Paros, Milos, Santorini and others. Archeological evidence shows that it originated between 2600 and 1100 BCE, but all that remains of it is a number of marble carvings of standing female nudes with folded arms. Made up of wedge-shaped bodies, and oval faces devoid of any facial features except for outlined eyes and noses, these fetish-figures are reminiscent of fertility Venus figurines from Paleolithic culture around 30,000-10,000 BCE. In any event, they are the first examples of Greek sculpture - an art form that was to influence Western culture for two millennia.

Minoan Culture

Minoan art, centred on the island of Crete, lasted from about 3000 to 1400 BCE, when it was destroyed by earthquake and invasion. Our knowledge of Cretan culture only began in 1899, when the British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) began uncovering at Knossos a civilisation which until then was completely unknown. This he called the Minoan, after Minos, the legendary king of Crete. The Minoans were a nation of craftsmen and merchants who enjoyed dancing, bull fighting, from which comes the Minotaur (half man, half bull). They strongly encouraged an interest in a highly decorative art. Their palaces were built like comfortable intimate country villas, with sophisticated plumbing.



Minoan Palace Architecture

The first palace at Knossos was destroyed by earthquake in about 1700 BCE, together with other smaller palaces. (See also: Minoan Architecture.) The great building which replaced it was constructed round a large central courtyard, reached by the winding passages recalled in the story of the maze (Labyrinth) through which the Greek hero Theseus had to thread his way. West of the courtyard were the State rooms, including the audience hall and the main shrines. Behind them lay store rooms with huge clay jars for oil and corn and recesses in the floor for chests of cloth and treasure. A form of writing now known as Linear A was evolved, probably for the palace records, but is still undeciphered. On the opposite side of the courtyard were the private apartments, the upper floor reached by a grand staircase. The plastered ceilings were supported on wooden columns, tapering downwards and brightly painted. The rooms were arranged round small courtyards for light and air, giving the impression of gradual growth rather than regular planning. There was a piped water supply, drains and a form of water closet.

Note: if the Palace at Knossos had survived into the era of classical Greek architecture, it is quite possible that it would have been listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, by Antipater of Sidon and other commentators.

Minoan Painting and Sculpture

The walls of the Cretan palaces were colourfully adorned with fresco painting. Many of them show the Minoan love of nature which also inspired their pottery decoration, with delicate plants, birds and leaping fish and dolphins. This naturalistic style of painting is the first truly historical European art, and it also included scenes from palace life, with processions, bull-leaping acrobats and other human figures. Human figures of both genders are depicted as slim-waisted and athletic, though females are given lighter skin tones. Minoan sculpture was wholly naturalistic, and included figurines of snake-goddesses and female attendants in the flounced skirts and bodices seen also in Minoan mural painting. These are found in ivory carvings, gaily coloured faience and cast bronze sculpture, in which male worshippers and vigorous figures from the bull sports were also made. One of the treasures of Cretan art is the famous Palaikastro Kouros (1480-1425 BCE), one of the earliest surviving works of chryselephantine sculpture of the late Bronze Age.

Note: For later artists and styles inspired by ancient Greek art around the Aegean, see: Classicism in Art (800 onwards).

Minoan Jewellery and Decoration

The Minoans excelled in goldsmithing and the intricate art of jewellery. Rings and pendants of gold were decorated with embossed designs, filigree and granulation (the attachment of minute grains of gold), as on the pendant of two hornets, from Aegina. This miniaturist skill is seen at its finest on the engraved seals made from semi-precious stones, where lions, deer, fish or scenes from the famous bull-leaping sports were carefully adapted to the round or oval shape of the seal.

Minoan Pottery

Much of the elegance of Cretan civilisation can be seen in the painted decoration and shapes of its ancient pottery, noted for a variety of bold designs and all-over decoration. At the time of the first palaces this was decorated in red, yellow and white on a black background, using mainly abstract designs with gracefully curved patterns. Selected fine clays produced a smooth, shiny surface. Jars, cups with handles and jugs with spouts rather like teapots were made on the potter's wheel, introduced from Asia Minor. At the time of the later palaces much more elaborate decoration in dark colours on a light background was preferred. This included spiral and other pattered designs, but the greatest inspiration came from sea creatures - octopuses, squids and shellfish - and delicately painted flowers and grasses. See also: Greek Pottery (7,000 BCE onwards). For more about chronology, see: Pottery Timeline.

NOTE: For the world's oldest known ceramic pots, please see: Xianrendong Cave Pottery (c.18,000 BCE).

Mycenean Culture

The third and final Aegean culture was the Mycenean or Achean civilisation, based on Mycenae in the Peleponnese from about 1650 to 1200 BCE. In contrast with the peace-loving, self-indulgent Minoans, the Mycenaeans were pirates like those described in Homer's Iliad, the epic poem about a quarrel over loot in a raid on the mainland. Mycenean art sprang from the power of a warlike aristocracy.

Mycenean Architecture

Mycenean architecture, for instance, was designed to be impregnable: cities were protected by thick walls of massive irregular blocks of stone, which still survive impressively at Tiryns, and at Mycenae. The city of Mycenae actually comprised a remote hilltop fortress surrounded by a wall up to 20 feet thick, and travellers entered through the Lion Gate, made up of megaliths weighing several tons. The earliest remains at Mycenae are the Shaft Graves, surrounded by rings of upright stone slabs. (See also: Megalithic Art.) They date from about 1550 BCE, when Mycenean civilisation was still emerging. Among the wealth of weapons and treasure they contained were many objects showing Cretan artistic influence. A royal tomb, the so-called Treasury of Atreus, consisted of a circular stone-walled chamber with a corbel-vaulted roof nearly fifty feet high. It was reached by a passage ending in a doorway with finely carved green marble pillars and a stone lintel weighing over a hundred tons. The Mycenean cities also had their palaces, whose main feature was a megaron, a rectangular hall with an entrance porch supported on columns, entered from a courtyard. The four columns carrying the hall roof stood round a large central hearth, the focus of the feasts of the heroic society celebrated in Homer's poems. Mycenean script (Linear B) has been identified as an early form of Ancient Greek.

Mycenean Painting and Sculpture

Something of the Minoan freshness is missing from paintings which decorated the palaces of the Mycenean rulers, whose different interests were illustrated in rather rigid and formal hunting expeditions and chariot processions. Plastic art was essentially limited to relief sculpture rather than statues, and is exemplified by the Lion Gate (c.1250 BCE, Mycenae).

Mycenean Metalwork

Much of the Cretan artist's ability later served Mycenean patrons: the Vaphio cups, embossed with scenes showing the capture of wild bulls, were found in one of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. Such objects as the gold so-called "Mask of Agamemnon", also from a Shaft Grave, show the stiffer and more reserved Mycenean taste. Other cups and bronze daggers were inlaid with gold, silver and niello, and the Myceneans appear to have discovered the art of enamelling metal with coloured glass. There was a long tradition, learned originally from Egypt, of carving cups and bowls from marble and other coloured stones. The interior was hollowed out with a tubular drill fed with sand and water, and the finishing was by laborious grinding with sand or emery. See also: Greek Metalwork.

Mycenean Ceramics

Like Cretan pottery, Mycenean ceramic art was also decorated with sea creatures as well as delicate flowers and grasses, though typically without the Minoan liveliness and elegance. The Myceneans also favoured pictorial scenes of riders in chariots and hunting, and later on, birds and animals drawn in outline, the bodies filled in with fine patterns possibly inspired by embroidery or weaving. These appeared on bowls, jars, drinking goblets and flasks with a double handle on top in the form of a stirrup.

Seafaring Nature of Aegean Civilization

Aegean cultures were largely sea-faring, and these sea-faring peoples had a different outlook from their land-based neighbours. Man as a voyager has to act as an individual, not as an anonymous member of a highly organised rigid society. He needs a different sense of time and scale from that of the cultivator and herdsman tied to his land. This sense of independence and self-confidence was to have profound influence on the mainland-based Greeks - the successors of Aegean culture, who occupied the Peleponnese and the islands. They took over, too, the seafarers view of man and society, which had a major effect on their attitude and which led in turn to their achievements in art, science and philosophy, which had such a profound impact on Renaissance art and later movements.

More Resources on the Arts of Antiquity

- Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE)
- Egyptian Sculpture
- Etruscan Art (c.700-90 BCE)
- Sculpture of Ancient Greece
- Art of Ancient Persia (3,500 BCE onwards)
- Roman Art (c.500 BCE - 500 CE)

• For more about the civilizations of Classical Antiquity, see: Homepage.

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