Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Art History: Minoan Art



Minoan Art
 
 
Aegean Art and the Cyclades     2800 BCE - 1100 BCE Crete     2000 BCE - 1375 BCE
The Palace at Knossos
2000 BCE - 1375 BCE 
Old Palace period c1900-1700
Second Palace c1700-1375

The Palace at Knossos
2000 BCE - 1375 BCE 
Old Palace period c1900-1700
Second Palace c1700-1375
Knossos, Crete Form:  The palace at Knossos is actually a large warren of complex and confusing passageways, rooms, and patios that cover approximately six acres of space.  It was originally laid out on a grid plan but because of earthquakes and rebuilding the complex in some areas has deviated from its original plan.
The overall plan includes loving quarters, gathering spaces and storage areas.  Some of the planning and technologies used in the complex include underground terra-cotta pipes, bathrooms and toilets, submerged food storage areas and airshafts and internal courtyards which allow for cool air to circulate throughout the structure.
Much of the complex is built with dressed stone (mud bricks and rubble faced with local cut stone), ashlar masonry (alternating courses of masonry) and trabeated (post and lintel) masonry.  The columns used to support the structure were originally made of wood however, modern restorers have decided to replace the lost columns with concrete or stone.  Much of the complex was brightly painted with frescoes and some encaustic paint.  It is not known if Sir Arthur Evans' reconstructions and the colors he chose are completely accurate.
Iconography:  Aside from the obvious size and opulence of the buildings we are not quite sure how the palace at Knossos have been views or perceived by the people of Crete; However, we do know that the ancient Athenians viewed Knossos as a place of horror and the home of the inventor Daedelus, his son Icarus, and the monstrous and foreign Minotaur (see the Legend of the Minotaur in Stokstad page 134). or go here : http://www.bulfinch.org/fables/bull20.html
Context: The people of Knossos seem to have been a peaceful, wealthy and self sufficient culture.  They possessed a writing system.  We can assume that they had engineers, artisans and a similar distribution of labor that we have.  We do not know what kind of government or religion they had. 
 
We do know that the palace was legendary to the ancient Greeks of the mainland who saw the Minoans as ancient enemies who were responsible for committing treacherous acts against the ancient Athenians (see the Legend of the Minotaur in Stokstad). The motif of a double headed ax exists throughout the decorations at Knossos and through a series of historical games of "telephone" the term labyrinth (the Greek term for double ax) has been passed down to us through the Greeks and come to mean maze. Around 1900 Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist and treasure hunter discovered, excavated and renovated much of Knossos.  Much of what we see today may not be accurate because Evans replaced and rebuilt sections according to whims and aesthetic choices based on his opinion rather than careful research.  It is unfortunate that Evans took some of the liberties he did because archaeological sites are finite resources and once they have been explored they are left depleted.
Today, archaeologists and art historians follow a much stricter code of conduct and rules that govern how a site is excavated and in what order.  This preserves the site and allows a much better picture of the culture based on scientific method.

 
Stairwell In The East Wing
1700 BCE - 1400 BCE
Knossos, Crete
 
  Form: This is one of the internal airshafts that allowed for light and air to circulate.  This type of structure is referred to as trabeated or post and lintel.  The columns serve as the posts and the wood or stone that spans the space is called the lintel.  The original columns were made of wood and were designed to have an inverted style.  The thin end is at the bottom and the shaft of the column grows thicker near the top or capital.  This is very different compared to similar columns from Greece and Egypt. 
Iconography:  These columns unique shape is iconic of Knossos. 
Context:  The unique shape of the columns is unique to the structure of Knossos but there is a sculptural representation of this column on the mainland at Mycenae and this may indicate some kind of trade between the mainland Greek culture and the Minoans.

 
The Queen's Megaron
c1500 BCE
Knossos, Crete
Form:  The central scene is a maritime scene that does not appear to have a central focus.  The paintings of the dolphins are done with contour lines that are then filled in with color.  All of the fishes are done in profile and there is no attempt to show any kind of pictorial depth or space.  Instead the fishes bodies are scattered about as a type of wallpaper pattern. These paintings were done in a technique called fresco.
 
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1)
fres.co n, pl frescoes [It, fr. fresco fresh, of Gmc origin; akin to OHG frisc fresh] (1598) 1: the art of painting on freshly spread moist lime plaster with water-based pigments 2: a painting executed in fresco -- fresco vt

Iconography:  It is also possible that the Minoans viewed dolphins in a similar way that we do.  Seeing them as intelligent and friendly and possibly entertaining creatures.
 
Context: These frescos are restored versions of the originals.  On the lower left of the fresco you can see how the frescos were layered over time and that the designs changed over time.  The use of porpoises or dolphins in a marine motif probably is indicative of the Minoan's familiarity and reliance on the sea. The curvilinear wave like patterns at the borders of the image may also be based on Minoan observation of nature.  The function of these frescos was probably just for entertainment and not didactic or religious in nature.  The subject matter while similar in the fact that it is a genre scene serves a very different function to its Egyptian counterpart.  (See the fresco from the tomb of Nebamun.)
According to the Brittanica,
 
Fresco is a method of painting water-based pigments on freshly applied plaster, usually on wall surfaces. The colours, which are made by grinding dry-powder pigments in pure water, dry and set with the plaster to become a permanent part of the wall. Fresco painting is ideal for making murals because it lends itself to a monumental style, is durable, and has a matte surface. Buon', or "true," fresco is the most durable technique and consists of the following process. Three successive coats of specially prepared plaster, sand, and sometimes marble dust are troweled onto a wall. Each of the first two rough coats is applied and then allowed to set (dry and harden). In the meantime, the artist, who has made a full-scale cartoon (preparatory drawing) of the image that he intends to paint, transfers the outlines of the design onto the wall from a tracing made of the cartoon. The final, smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is then troweled onto as much of the wall as can be painted in one session. The boundaries of this area are confined carefully along contour lines, so that the edges, or joints, of each successive section of fresh plastering are imperceptible. The tracing is then held against the fresh intonaco and lined up carefully with the adjacent sections of painted wall, and its pertinent contours and interior lines are traced onto the fresh plaster; this faint but accurate drawing serves as a guide for painting the image in colour.
A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours. When the painter dilutes his colours with water and applies them with brushstrokes to the plaster, the colours are imbibed into the surface, and as the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented along with the lime and sand particles. This gives the colours great permanence and resistance to aging, since they are an integral part of the wall surface, rather than a superimposed layer of paint on it. The medium of fresco makes great demands on a painter's technical skill, since he must work fast (while the plaster is wet) but cannot correct mistakes by overpainting; this must be done on a fresh coat of plaster or by using the secco method.
Secco ("dry") fresco is a somewhat superficial process that dispenses with the complex preparation of the wall with wet plaster. Instead, dry, finished walls are soaked with limewater and painted while wet. The colours do not penetrate into the plaster but form a surface film, like any other paint. Secco has always held an inferior position to true fresco, but it is useful for retouching the latter.
The origins of fresco painting are unknown, but it was used as early as the Minoan civilization (at Knossos on Crete) and by the ancient Romans (at Pompeii). The Italian Renaissance was the great period of fresco painting, as seen in the works of Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Correggio, and many other painters from the late 13th to the mid-16th century. Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Stanza murals in the Vatican are the most famous of all frescoes. By the mid-16th century, however, the use of fresco had largely been supplanted by oil painting. The technique was briefly revived by Diego Rivera and other Mexican Muralists in the first half of the 20th century.

Spring Fresco
c1600-1500 BCE
Thera, Akrotiri
Cyclades
Form:  This is a garden scene that also does not appear to have a central focus.  The paintings of the plants and rocks are done with contour lines that are then filled in with bright color.  Although there is no overlapping or attempt to establish space, the scene itself, since the viewer is surrounded by it, unifies into a garden environment in which the inhabitant of the room is immersed. Iconography:  This garden scene represents a delight in the natural surroundings.  Beyond that the symbolism is probably not anymore deeper than that. 
Context:  Such frescos probably served the same purpose wall paper or murals serve in our culture.  Nevertheless it does let us know that the Minoans appreciated natural forms enough to think of them as beautiful. 
This particular fresco is not strictly Minoan because it was found on the island of Thera, (today known as Santorini) a small island on the border of the Cyclades near the coast of Crete.  Akrotiri is particularly important because it is small volcanic island that erupted and sealed the entire site with a layer of volcanic ash.  The ash preserved the frescos and have allowed historians the opportunity to review some of the earlier excavations on Knossos.  This has actually forced historians to revise some of their ideas concerning dating works and linking the styles of Crete to the Cyclades of the 1600 and 1500's.

 

Kamares Ware Jar
Old Palace Style
c2000-1900 BCE
10"
Phaistos, Crete

Kamares Ware Jars
c1800-1700 BCE
old palace style
20"
Phaistos, Crete

Octopus Jar
1500 BCE
11"
Palaikastro,Crete
Form: In all three vessels the central motif is an organic naturalistic maritime subject.  All share an over all decorative style of decoration sometimes referred to as horror vacui.  Created on a wheel the vase is decorated with fired engobe.   Engobe is a glaze made of thinned down clay sometimes called slip which has additives such as iron oxides which turn colors when fired.  The paintings are done with strong contour lines that are then filled in with color.  The plants or sea horse motif  in the first vessel tends to be fairly simple and it is the most stylized.  As the later styles develop they appear to become more naturalistic, but since all of the fishes are done in profile and there is no overlapping attempt to show any kind of pictorial depth or space is secondary. The most naturalistic of the three is the Octopus jar.
Iconography:  The maritime and or organic decorations, as in the frescos, represent a delight in their natural surroundings and their reliance and familiarity with the sea.  Beyond that the symbolism is probably not anymore deeper than that.
 
 

Bull Jumping Fresco
1450 BCE - 1400 BCE
Knossos, Crete
Form:  The Bull Jumping fresco is an active scene of three wasp waisted figures engaged in an acrobatic performance in which the lightest darkest skinned youth (probably the male according to standard conventions of skin color and sex).  The figures are all in profile and again, as in the other frescoes, there is no overlapping or a background which would create spatial depth. Iconography:  The overall scene might be a representation of a fertility ritual or an acrobatic display of prowess by some sort of entertainers.  The youthful figures all appear to be in ideal physical condition and the scene could represent either a ritual in which youths heroically triumph over a bull.  The female assistants aiding the male vaulter may be a symbol of male and female roles or all of the figures are taking turns.  Perhaps then these youthful figures represent the ideal conditions and pursuits to which the culture aspires. 
The bull, as in the story of the Minotaur, Mesopotamian art and literature, cave painting and even in Chatal Huyuk represents a powerful, almost divine creature full of male potent energy.  If one conquers such a creature it may demonstrate a mastery over these qualities.
Context: This painting is just one in a series of paintings that depict bulls in the palace's east section.

 
Bull's head Rhyton
from the palace complex at Knossos,
c1500 BCE
12" shell, rock and crystal
horns are restored (gilt-wood)
Knossos, Crete Form:  The horns on this piece were added by restorers.  Carved from stone, this portrait of a bull in the round is polychromed (ornamented with many colors poly- many, chroma- color) with white shell around the nose and the eyes are painted jasper crystal.  The main portion of the head, made from a greenish black stone called steatite has been etched (this is sometimes called scraffito) with an awl (sharp nail like tool shaped somewhat like an icepick) to give it the appearance of hair or fur. 
Iconography:  The bull, as in the Greek story of the Minotaur, the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, cave painting and even in Chatal Huyuk represents a powerful, almost divine creature full of male potent energy.  It is also a source of food.
Context:  Stokstad believes that this object was not meant as a votive or religious object and that in fact it was a kind of drinking cup along the order of the "beer bong."  Stokstad suggests that the cup was turned upside down and liquids were poured into the neck which then poured out the nostrils of the bull.  It is also possible that this was not the function of this object.  It may very well have been an art object.
Janson's "History of Art" makes the observation that the iconography of this rhyton relates to the possible cult surrounding bulls, suggested by the "Bull Vaulting" fresco.

 

Young Fisherman
c 1650 BCE
53" fresco
Thera, Greece
Cyclades
Context:  This fresco,  pulls together some of the ideas discussed about the frescos depicting aquatic motifs, genre scenes, and idealized human bodies.  It was also found on the island of Thera, (today known as Santorini) a small island on the border of the Cyclades near the coast of Crete.  Akrotiri is particularly important because it is small volcanic island that erupted and sealed the entire site with a layer of volcanic ash.  The ash preserved the frescos and have allowed historians the opportunity to review some of the earlier excavations on Knossos.  This has actually forced historians to revise some of their ideas concerning dating works and linking the styles of Crete to the Cyclades of the 1600 and 1500's. This probably served the same purpose wall paper or murals serve in our culture.  It is a genre scene (a scene of everyday life) and would have been viewed just as entertainment.
Form:  The image, as in all the other frescos and pots we have looked at lacks depth.  The thin "wasp waist" and over all inverted "v" shape of the body is important to note because we can see similar forms in the "Bull Vaulting" fresco and suggestions of this in the Cycladic figurines.  The body is in a type of modified composite view, the eyes are a full frontal placed on a profile face, the torso is frontal and the legs are in profile.  The composite view we see here is probably the easiest or only way this artist knew how to render  such a scene.
Iconography:  The scene is a symbol of  "the good life" in much the same way that we look at paintings of sportsman or hunters.  Even in Chinese scroll paintings and poetry, the image of a fisherman is often an icon of a peaceful and happy existence.  The idealized youth figure ties into many culture's ideal of youthful beauty going about an honest profession or leisuretime activity. 

 
 

Snake Goddess 1600 BCE
faience, height approx. 12"
Knossos, Crete

detail of a Statue from Tell Asmar c2900-2600 BCE
gypsum, shell and black inlay 
Mesopotamia
Form:  This small thin waisted figure is made of faience (glazed earthenware) shares some of the same physical characteristics as her fresco counterparts.  As in the "Bull Vaulting" fresco she is bear chested.  Her garments share in some of the geometric and patchwork designs that are in the border of the fresco as well and she is holding snakes in either hand and has a leopard or cat on top of her head.  Janson's makes the observcation that her facial characteristics are somewhat similiar to the features in some Mesopotamian art.  Her eyes and arched eyebrows look somewhat like the statues from Tell Asmar. Iconography:  The sculpture is either a representation of a deity or or an attendant or worshipper.  Most scholars appear to agree that snakes are a symbol of male fertility associated with the penis, however, this is a rather masculine and Freudian interpretation of this icon.  Stokstad suggests that the cat on her head serves an apotropaic purpose or is a symbol of royalty. 
The bared breasts, (this costume is also in several murals from Knossos) could be an icon of fertility or plenty.  Herbert Broderick, a professor at Lehman College, has suggested that the snakes and cat are symbols of danger.  By handling these animals, in a manner very similar to some American Christian groups handling of snakes, that this female is proving her spiritual power and therfore becoming initiated into a cult. Context:  It is interesting to note that these symbols are associated with the Greek god of wine, drama, and liberation, Dionysos (the Romans called him Bacchus).  There is a particular tale in which snakes and panthers appear on the deck of a ship on which Dionyosos is kept captive. (see the Exekias kylix)
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (1)
fres.co n, pl frescoes [It, fr. fresco fresh, of Gmc origin; akin to OHG frisc fresh] (1598) 1: the art of painting on freshly spread moist lime plaster with water-based pigments 2: a painting executed in fresco -- fresco vt According to the Brittanica,
 
Fresco is a method of painting water-based pigments on freshly applied plaster, usually on wall surfaces. The colours, which are made by grinding dry-powder pigments in pure water, dry and set with the plaster to become a permanent part of the wall. Fresco painting is ideal for making murals because it lends itself to a monumental style, is durable, and has a matte surface. Buon', or "true," fresco is the most durable technique and consists of the following process. Three successive coats of specially prepared plaster, sand, and sometimes marble dust are troweled onto a wall. Each of the first two rough coats is applied and then allowed to set (dry and harden). In the meantime, the artist, who has made a full-scale cartoon (preparatory drawing) of the image that he intends to paint, transfers the outlines of the design onto the wall from a tracing made of the cartoon. The final, smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is then troweled onto as much of the wall as can be painted in one session. The boundaries of this area are confined carefully along contour lines, so that the edges, or joints, of each successive section of fresh plastering are imperceptible. The tracing is then held against the fresh intonaco and lined up carefully with the adjacent sections of painted wall, and its pertinent contours and interior lines are traced onto the fresh plaster; this faint but accurate drawing serves as a guide for painting the image in colour.
A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours. When the painter dilutes his colours with water and applies them with brushstrokes to the plaster, the colours are imbibed into the surface, and as the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented along with the lime and sand particles. This gives the colours great permanence and resistance to aging, since they are an integral part of the wall surface, rather than a superimposed layer of paint on it. The medium of fresco makes great demands on a painter's technical skill, since he must work fast (while the plaster is wet) but cannot correct mistakes by overpainting; this must be done on a fresh coat of plaster or by using the secco method.
Secco ("dry") fresco is a somewhat superficial process that dispenses with the complex preparation of the wall with wet plaster. Instead, dry, finished walls are soaked with limewater and painted while wet. The colours do not penetrate into the plaster but form a surface film, like any other paint. Secco has always held an inferior position to true fresco, but it is useful for retouching the latter.
The origins of fresco painting are unknown, but it was used as early as the Minoan civilization (at Knossos on Crete) and by the ancient Romans (at Pompeii). The Italian Renaissance was the great period of fresco painting, as seen in the works of Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Correggio, and many other painters from the late 13th to the mid-16th century. Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Stanza murals in the Vatican are the most famous of all frescoes. By the mid-16th century, however, the use of fresco had largely been supplanted by oil painting. The technique was briefly revived by Diego Rivera and other Mexican Muralists in the first half of the 20th century.