History of Western Paintings – Ancient Egypt

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The civilisation of ancient Egypt was roughly contemporary with the neighbouring cultures in the ancient Near East. While the Mesopotamians were constantly subjected to enemy attacks, however, the fruitful Nile Valley was surrounded by desert and thus not easily reached by invading forces. Furthermore, unlike the politically unstable city-states of the ancient Near East, Egypt remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years under a series of pharaonic dynasties; the term “pharaoh” literally means “palace”, but it used to designate the kings of Egypt. The relatively predictable Nile floods are also in contrast with the unpredictable and violent storms and droughts of Mesopotamia. More secure in this life, Egyptians created works of art and architecture that tend to focus on the afterlife.


Geese. Dynasty 4, c. 1680-2500 B.C. Detail of a tomb painting from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Medum. Height: 10.5″ (27cm). Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

The Egyptians spent much of their life on Earth preparing for death and the afterlife. Elaborate tombs were constructed, stocked with provisions and decorated with statues, reliefs and wall paintings. Of course, such luxurious burials were the privilege of pharaohs (kings), their families and officials only. This painting of geese comes from a mastaba, an Old Kingdom tomb form consisting of a rectangular structure of mud brick or stone surmounting an underground burial chamber. It is from the contents of tombs that we have acquired most of our knowledge of Egyptian civilisation.

An Egyptian pharaoh was worshipped as a god not only during his- or very rarely her – lifetime, but after death as well. The Egyptian vision of the afterlife required that the pharaohs, their families, and their privileged officials and attendants be supplied with all the necessities and comforts of this world in the next. Thus tombs were stocked with food, wine, clothing, jewellery, games, furniture, weapons, musical instruments and so on, to provide for the ka, or the spirit of the dead person, for all eternity. In addition, nearly every square inch of the walls and ceilings of tombs was elaborately decorated with painted reliefs, hieroglyphs (the Egyptian system of writing, which has been deciphered by modern archaeologists), and wall paintings. It is from tombs, their contents and decorative programs, that we have acquired most of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture; the Egyptian’s houses, even palaces and other structures, were often made of perishable materials and so have not survived. Life was short for most ancient Egyptians; their emphasis on the afterlife is revealed by their tombs, which were meant to endure, not the structures for this life.


Nebamun Hunting Birds. Dynasty 18, c.14000-1350 B.C. Fragment of wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes. Height: approx 32″ x (81cm). British Museum, London

Many Egyptian tomb wall paintings replicate everyday scenes of the inhabitant’s world; pharaohs are shown hunting birds, hippopotami and other animals. Their underlings are depicted carrying out tasks such as ploughing fields and picking fruit that they performed in the service of the pharaoh and other superiors during this life. While these paintings repeated the cyclical pattern of the seasons for all eternity, others are more specifically religious in subject matter, focusing on the other world. Frequently, pharaohs are shown at the own funerary banquets, presenting offerings to gods and goddesses, and on occasion, pharaohs are portrayed in their mummified state, attended by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead.


Annubis, God of the Dead, Leaning over Sennutem’s Mummy. Dynasty 18. Tomb of Sennutem in the cemetery of Deir el-Medina, Luxor-Thebes, Egypt

Many images in tombs deal with death and the afterlife. In this image, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, attends to Sennutem’s mummy. The Egyptians mummified their dead in the hope of preserving the body for eternity so that the ka, or spirit of a person which lives on after death, was provided with a body to inhabit. Mummification involved the removal of the internal organs, placement of the body and organs in a salt-based preservative for a month, or so and, finally, wrapping the body and organs in layer after layer of linen.

Two-dimensional depictions of royal figures in Egyptian art had long been standardised. Typically, pharaohs, queens and members of their families and courts are shown with heads, hips, legs, and feet in profile, while their torsos and eyes are depicted as if viewed from the front, like Mesopotamian depictions of the human form. This combination allowed for the most composite view of the human body.


Banquet Scene. Dynasty 18, c.1400-1350 B.C. Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes. British Museum, London

Non-royal members of Egyptian society, however, are frequently portrayed in more natural poses – as are animals – and often they are shown completely in profile. Royal figures are rarely depicted exerting themselves. Their composite stance does not allow for much movement and thus they stand immobile and perfect for all eternity. In contrast, farmers, slaves – workers in general – are commonly shown in action. They pick grapes, hunt birds and plough fields quite energetically. Royal members of Egyptian society, the pharaohs in particular, thus come across as impervious to the world around them. It is important to recall that pharaohs were divine, and their impassiveness is that of transcendent beings. Regardless of class, women tend to have fairer skin, as befitting indoor people, while men, including kings, are darker-skinned from the outdoor life.

It is not the pharaoh’s individual personalities that re emphasized in painted and sculptural representations, but what might be called their “pharaoh-ness”. Pharaohs simply exist, while their attendants perform. This distinction is maintained, with some exceptions, in many of the works of art created over the course of Egypt’s ancient civilization – almost three thousand years.

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Atum and Osiris. Dynasty 19, c. 1279-1212 B.C. Wall painting from the tomb of Nefertari (wife of Ramesses II). Valley of the Queens, near Deir el-Bahri, Egypt.

The tomb of Nefertari, wife of pharaoh Ramesses II, was discovered in 1904. It was found plundered and with much of the painted surface of the walls flaked off. These paintings, however, have been quite successfully restored. Atum (right), creator of the world, is depicted holding the ankh, the symbol of everlasting life, in his right hand. Osiris (left), ruler of the dead, holds the symbols of kingship, the crook and the flail. According to Egyptian religious belief, Osiris was violently murdered by his brother, thus accounting for his mummy-like appearance.

The discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 by Howard Carter, a British archaeologist, resulted in some of the most important contributions to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians’ civilisation in general and their burial practices in particular. This is especially true since the tomb was found almost intact, unlike the many tombs that have suffered significant damage from plundering over the centuries. The tomb of the Boy King (ruled 1335-1327 B.C.) is a treasure trove of Egyptian art and artefacts. The back of Tutankhamen’s throne is an exquisite depiction in gold, faience, glass paste, semi-precious stones and silver of Tut and Queen Ankhesenamen, his sister-wife.


Tutankhamen with His Queen Ankhesenamen. Dynasty 18, c. 1355-1342 B.C.

Detail of the back of the throne of King Tutankhamen, from the tomb of Tutankhamen, Valley of the Kings. Carved wood covered with gold and inlaid with faience, glass paste, semi-precious stones and silver. Height of throne 41″ (104cm). Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Among the many luxurious items found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen is a magnificent throne, the back of which is shown here. The relaxed informality of this tender moment between King Tut and Queen Ankhesenamen is somewhat unusual in Egyptian art, but typical of this particular period in Dynasty 18. Under Tut’s predecessor, King Akhenaten, a less rigid depiction of royalty, characterised by fluid, playful lines and elegant, feminine figures, resulted in images of royal figures which were not as static, formal and idealised as were typical depictions of royalty in Egyptian art.

The two figures are depicted in a style first associated more with the reign of King Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV, Tut’s predecessor, who ruled from 1352 to 1335 B.C. During Akhenaton’s reign, representations of the human form, while still displaying an emphasis on line, became more relaxed and informal, less rigid and static. The conventional broad shoulders, narrow hips, and toned musculature that we think of in depictions of pharaohs have disappeared. The curvy, fluid, playful lines and the somewhat elongated, elegant and feminine shapes of Tut and his queen are markedly different from typical Egyptian painted and sculptural representations of royalty, where the human figure is more squarely geometric, compact and stiff, giving the impression of idealised, rational, dignified and eternally existing personages – the gods they were. In contrast, the sinuous naturalism of Tut and Ankhesenamen allows them the freedom of potential movement. As a result, they seem more of our world.

Generally speaking, though, Egyptian artists had little interest in modelling or in the depiction of depth. Royal and non-royal figures alike appear very two-dimensional, made up of flat areas of colour and the frequent inclusion of hieroglyphs in the same space as the figures calls attention to the flatness of the image as a whole.


Sowing and Ploughing in the Fields. Dynasty 19, 13th century B. C. Tomb of Sennedjem, Thebes

Many tomb wall paintings show hunting and farming scenes meant to reflect the cycle of the seasons that will repeat for eternity. In this image, sowing and ploughing are depicted. Egyptian painters seem to have had little interest in rendering three-dimensional human forms existing in space. Painted figures are not modelled, made up instead of flat areas of colour contained by line. Background settings are often excluded and the frequent presence of hieroglyphic texts calls attention to the flatness of space. The desire for clarity seems more important to the Egyptian painter than the illusionistic rendering of space and form.

Egyptian painting is also found in the Books of the Dead. The books of ancient Egypt were actually scrolls made from papyrus, the Greek term for the plant that grows plentifully along the Nile and from which the word “paper” derives. Books of the Dead were places inside the wrappings of a mummified body on it’s coffin. Consisting of combinations of spells, prayers and other magical writings tailored to the deceased, they were intended to guide the dead person through the trails of judgement in the afterlife. Most Books of the Dead contain judgement scenes. In some, Osiris, god of the underworld, presides over a ceremony in which the dead person’s heart is weighed against an ostrich feather in order to determine whether he or she will merit eternal life.


Judgement in the Other World, from the Book of the Dead. 350 B.C. Papyrus. Staatliche Museen, Ehyptisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

Egyptian Books of the Dead were actually included in the wrapping of the mummified body. These books, which were meant to aid the trials of judgement in the afterlife, were actually scrolls of papyrus. The judgement scene illustrated here is typically found in Books of the Dead. The heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather representing truth to determine the deceased’s fate. Ammit, the lion-like monster on the pedestal at the left, awaits the decision; if it is negative, he will devour the heart. The god Thoth, to the left of the scales, records the event. The deceased herself is depicted presenting her offerings before the god Osiris (god of the dead). Behind Osiris stand the goddesses Isis (wife of Osiris) and Nephtys (sister of Isis and Osiris).

History of Western Paintings – Ancient Greece

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Around 1100 B.C. invaders from northwest of the Balkan Mountains entered what is today the Greek mainland, the islands of the Aegean and Asia Minor, the western part of Turkey. These invaders mixed with the Bronze Age peoples already inhabiting these areas, forming the civilization of ancient Greece. Organized into city-states, the ancient Greeks shared a common language and religion, but had dif­ferent governing structures. Often there was fierce rivalry between city-states, although on occasion the Greeks would combine forces against the Persians, who were a constant threat to the Aegean until the fifth century b.c. Around the sixth century B.C. the city of Athens rose to political, economic and cultural prominence.

Krater. 750-735 B.C.

Dipylon Cemetery, Athens. Geometric Style. Height: approx. 40″ (101cm). National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Some of the oldest surviving works of art created by the ancient Greeks are their ceramic vases. Many early vases served as monuments marking graves in cemeteries, thus explaining their large size and the funerary scenes often found adorning their exterior surfaces. One such vase from the Dipylon cemetery in Athens, dating to 750-735 B.C., is decorated in the “geometric” style. Unlike the more organic, curvilinear, free-floating designs seen on Minoan vases, geometric-style vases have more rectilinear and programmatic decoration, organized in bands. The torsos of the figures making up the funeral proces­sion in the second register from the top – the deceased himself can be seen laid out on his bier at the far right – consist of triangles, while their arms are composed of long, very thin rectangles. The humanity of these abstracted figures is subordinated to their role as decorative elements in the overall patterned design. The geometrically conceived human figures and patterns alternate and mix together on the surface of this vase, creating a two-dimensional rhythm.

Rhodian Oenochos (wine jar). Second half of the 7th century B.C.

Height: 13″ (32.5cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

“Orientalising” vases such as the one illustrated here, so called because of the influence of works from the Near East and Egypt on the decoration, were produced in Greek pottery centers, such as Rhodes, in the seventh century B.C. The elegantly stylised deer and geese on this wine jar resemble animal forms in the art of the ancient Near East. The decorative plant forms at the base are very similar to the lotus buds found depicted in the ancient Egyptian art.

In the seventh century B.C., “orientalising” style vases were produced in several Greek pottery centres. As the name suggests, the decoration of these ceramic vessels was often influenced by motifs found in the art of the Near East and Egypt. Many of these vases were produced in Corinth, a major port which imported objects from the East. The orientalising style oenochos, or wine jar, from Rhodes, another centre of pottery production, is decorated with elegantly stylized deer and geese, resembling animals seen in many works from the ancient Near East. Interspersed between these animals are geometric design elements, while a plant motif resembling the lotus bud forms found in Egyptian painting and sculp­ture adorns the lowest register of the jar.

The flourishing of Athens as a cultural centre is attested to by the great quantity and high quality of painted vases produced in Attica (the name given to Athens and its surrounding area) from the late seventh century until around 480 B.C., known as the Archaic period in Greek art. Archaic Greek vases tend to be smaller than the earlier geometric and orientalising vases, and many of these utilitarian vessels – kylixes, or drinking cups; amphorae, for storing oil or wine; kraters, for mixing wine and water; and so on – were exquisitely decorated, frequently with narrative scenes that are often mythological in sub­ject. In this period, decorative patterning now functions almost exclusively as a framing element. The human figure, whether mortal or immortal – unlike the hybrid forms of Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods, the immortal gods and goddesses of Greek mythology are entirely human in appearance – becomes the main theme of Greek vase painting. The same humanism inspired artists to start rejecting the composite depiction of the human body, that is, the combined frontal and profile views, and move toward a more realistic rendering of human form in three-dimensional space. In this new art, the musculature is often carefully delineated and figures foreshortened.

Exekias. Dionysus in His Boat. c.540 B.C.

Interior of an Attic black figured kylix. Diameter: 12″ (30cm). Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

Dionysis relaxes in his boat after having frightened off a band of pirates by causing grape vines to spring up. The pirates, after jumping overboard in fear, are turned into dolphins. Suitably, this stroy about the god of wine decorates a kylix, or drinking cup

A detail from the inside of one kylix shows a depiction of Dionysus, the god of wine, reclining on his boat. The scene represents an episode from a Homeric hymn in which Dionysus, having been abducted by pirates, causes grape vines to sprout from his boat. The pirates jump overboard in fear and are turned into dolphins. The talented artist who painted this wonderful scene is actually known to us by name: Exekias (flourished c. 550-525 B.C.). Many Greek vase painters of the Archaic period signed their works – another example of Greek humanistic tendencies – and thus, for the first time, an artist’s oeuvre can be documented. An outstanding example of Exekias’ sensitivity can be seen in one of his amphorae; he created a simple composition consisting primarily of two figures, Achilles and Ajax, whose curved forms beautifully echo the amphora’s rounded contours.

Exekias. Achilles and Ajax Playing Dice. c.540-530 B.C.

Attic black figure amphora from Vulci. Height: 24″ (61cm). Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican

In the black-figure technique of Greek vase painting, figures were painted using slip which turned back when the vase was fired. The red background is the unslipped area of the ceramic surface. A stylus was used to scratch through the slipped surface to create details in red – the complex, delicate, deftly incised patterns on the cloaks worn by Achilles and Ajax in this image testify to Exekias’ genius. Although engaged in a game of dice (Achilles calls out “tesara” [four] and Ajax calls out “tri” [three]), both heroes sit poised for action, holding their spears at the ready. Many Greek vases owe their survival to the Etruscans in pre-Roman Itlay. The Etruscans were avid collectors of Greek vases. This vase comes from the Etruscan site of Vulci, roughly half way between Rome and Florence.

These vases by Exekias are two of the best examples of the black-figured style. In this technique, the figures are painted using a slip – clay mixed with water – that turns black when the vase is fired. The red background is the un-slipped area of the ceramic surface. Details of the black figures can be scratched through the slip surface with a stylus; white and reddish-purple glosses were often added over the black. The red figured technique leaves the un-slipped figures to be fired to the reddish colour of the clay, while the background is painted in with slip to fire black. The artist can then add detail simply by applying slip to the red figures with a thin paintbrush. Red-figured vases became more popular around the end of the sixth century B.C., perhaps because that technique better expressed the developing Greek interest in the physical and psychological natures of individual human beings.


Hydria with Women at the Fountain. 530 B.C.

Vulci, Museo di Villa Giulia, Rome

Non-mythological subjects also appear on vases. In one example, a group of women at a fountain appropriately decorates a hydria, or water jug. Several vases have images relating to the Panathenaic games, festivals held in Athens similar to the Olympic games which first took place in 776 B.C. (The Olympics were discontinued by the Romans in 394 A.D. only to resume more than fifteen hundred years later, in 1896). Greek vases often depict actual athletic events, such as footraces. Because they com­peted nude, athletes were a favourite subject for Greek artists interested in depicting the human body. This type of vase might have been given as a prize to a winning athlete.

Three Participants in a Footrace at the Panathenaic Games. 6th centrury B.C.

Black figured apmhora. Musee Vivenel, Compiegne, France

This vase was given as a prize to the winner of a footrace at the Panathenaic Games. What the Greeks considered the naturally beautiful human figure, whether the mortal or immortal, had become the main subject of vase painting by this time. Athletes, because they competed nude, were a favourtite subject of Greek artists perfecting the depiction of the human form. The arrangement of small figures and patterns in the horizontal registers, characteristic of the “geometric” and “orientalising” styles, is replaced in Archaic Greek vases, such as the one illustrated here, by larger less crowded scenes

The Greeks saw themselves as a rational, civilized, and dignified people, and thus superior to the Persians, whom they considered barbarians. When the Greeks finally succeeded in halting the onslaught of their foes from the East, they embarked on an age of great prosperity, known as the High Classical period, which lasted from about 450 to 400 B.C. During this time, the humanistic tendencies of the Greeks came to fruition, and were expressed in all media. The core principle and aesthetic tenet of the time are best summed up by the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 485-410 B.C.), who said, “Man is the measure of all things.” This interest in humanity, this confidence in human capabilities, is probably best seen, as far as the visual arts are concerned, in Greek sculpture and architecture; it was at this time that the Parthenon was rebuilt, under the famous Athenian statesman Pericles, and decorated with some of the best examples of High Classical sculpture.

Niobid Painter. Apollo and Artemis Slaying the Chilldren of Niobe. c. 455-450 B.C.

Attic red-figure calyx-krater from Orvieto. Height: apporx. 21″ (53cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

In Greek mythology, Niobe was the granddaughter of Zeus, ruler of the gods. After boasting about the number of children she had (seven sons and seven daughters) in comparison to the goddess Leto, Niobe was punished for her hubris by Apollo and Artemis, the two offspring of Leto, who slaughtered all Niobe’s offspring. The red-figure technique was more conductive to the Classical Greek artist’s interest in realism, qualified by idealism, in the depiction of the human form. In portraying the nude figure of Apollo, the Niobid Painter has clearly delineated musculature. Despite the horror of the event, Apollo and Artemis have typically controlled, rational expressions on their faces – the essence of the Classical ideal


The human form in art was infused with realism; the musculature was carefully modelled, movement was implied and drapery fell naturally over the body. This realism encompassed an ideal of humanity that resulted in dignified, confident, emotionally restrained, and rational expressions and postures. Painting at this time also reached great new heights, primarily in the form of wall and panel painting, virtually none of which survives. Vase painting, especially the red-figure style, continued, although it had reached its heyday during the Archaic period. Interestingly, the painters of late fifth century red figure vases seem to have been influenced by large scale painting, with mixed results. The compositions become complex and crowded, better suited to a flat wall or panel, while the Archaic harmony between the painted figures and the curved shapes of the vases is no longer as suc­cessfully achieved. Furthermore, vase painting is not conducive to the depiction of light and shad­ow or to the creation of the illusion of space receding into the distance, both advanced techniques in Greek wall paintings of this period.

Banqueting Scene, a Guest Reclines on a Coach Lsitening to a Musician Play the Double-Flute. 460-450 B.C.

Centre medallion of a red figured cup. Musee du Louvre, Paris

The youthful flute player, rendered in full profile (including the eye), is successfully depicted occupying space and stands with his weight concentrated on his right leg. The Greek artist’s keen interest in the rendering of the human form is clear here. Compare this figure with painted depictions of Egyptian pharaohs, with their awkward combined frontal-profile forms and rigid stances. Thin, black lines delineate musculature and drapery folds in this banqueting scene. The reclining figure holds a kylix, or drinking cup, similiar to the one which this image decorates.

It is, however, during the Classical period that white-ground vases became more popular. In this style, either the red-figure or black-figure technique served to decorate a white ground; in addition, artists employed tempera paint. Tempera allowed for a wider range of colours, but the tem­pera additions, unfortunately, often have not survived, given their tendency to flake off. The lekythos painted with a scene of a warrior taking leave of his wife was probably made to be placed either in or on a tomb. The graceful figures on this vase magnificently display the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” that the German scholar Johann Joachim Winckelmann considered to be characteristic of High Classical Greek art.

Achilles Painter. Warrior Taking Leave of His Wife. 440 B.C.

Eretria. Atiic white-ground lekythos. Height: approx. 17″ (43cm). National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The Greeks colonized southern Italy, where they were in contact with the indigenous Etruscan culture. An ancient Greek wall painting from the so-called “Tomb of the Diver” in Paestum, Italy, probably reveals Etruscan influences. The dive taken by the figure could be interpreted as the passage of the deceased into the otherworld. The Greeks did not build large tombs to house their dead; for them, the realm of the dead seems to have been a vaguely defined, mysterious place.

Diver. c.480 B.C.

Ceiling fresco from a Greek tomb at Paestum, Italy. Height: approx. 40″ (102cm). Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Paestum

We know that in addition to vase painting, the Greeks painted large scale compositions on panel, what have not survived the tests of time. A few mural paintings do survive, like this one from a Greek tomb in Paestum, Italy. The dive taken by the youth perhaps symbolises the passage from life to death

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek city-states were dominated by the kings of Macedon, an area to the north of Greece. The most famous of these conquerors was Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), who also subjugated the Persian Empire and Egypt. In a Roman floor mosaic, based on a Greek painting of the battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius III, the artist has applied foreshortening and shading techniques to create an effect of three-dimensional space. The emotional and physical intensity of this image – conveyed through the facial expressions of the participants and the depiction of dramatic movement – is probably typical of late Greek wall painting.

Perhaps by Philoxenos or Helen of Egypt. Alexander the Great and Darius III at the Battle of Issos. Roman mosaic copy after a Greek painting 310 B.C.

106″ x 200″ (270cm x 510cm), Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

The 5th century Peloponnesian War weakened Greece considerably. By the end of the fouth century B.C. the Greeks were under Macedonian rule, the most famous leader of which was Alexander the Great. This Roman floor mosaic from a house in Pompeii is a copy of a large scale Greek painting and depicts the battle between Alexander and the Persian king Darius III. Foreshortening – note in particular the horse seen from behind in three quarter view in front of Darius’ chariot – is masterfully employed here. Light is reflected from the shiny surfaces of armour and figures cast shadows. The dramatic emotionalism of this image is probably typical of 4th century Greek panel painting, none of which survives

History of Western Paintings – Minoan Art

The flowering of the Minoan civilization, centred on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea, coincided with the New Kingdom in Egypt and the Babylonian period of Hammurabi in Mesopotamia. “Minoan” comes from the name “Minos” the king of Crete in Greek mythology who provided the human-flesh-eating Minotaur, a half-man and half-bull monster, with a constant supply of young men and women from Athens. After the late nineteenth-century discoveries of sites thought to have existed only in the cre­ative mind of Homer, such as Troy in Turkey, and Mycenae on the Greek mainland, the English scholar Sir Arthur Evans set out to discover ancient Crete. Due to the lack of decipherable texts, we know less about Minoan society than we do about ancient Egypt or the ancient Near East and thus Minoan art remains somewhat mysterious. Furthermore, earthquakes and, apparently, warfare with the Mycenaeans of the Greek mainland resulted in the destruction of many Minoan palaces and works of art.


Minoan Woman or Godess (“La Parisienne”). c.1450 B.C. Minoan fresco fragment from the palace at Knossos, Crete. Height: approx. 10″ (25cm). Achaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

The surviving Minoan wall paintings come from the ruins of the palace complexes, the best example of which is at Knossos on Crete, excavated and (over-) restored in parts by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. It is unclear precisely what functions the palaces served. They seem to have been religious, economic, and administrative centres, as well as the rulers’ homes. The myth of the Minotaur, son of Minos’ queen, Pasiphae and a sacred white bull, describes a labyrinth built by the ingenious Daedalus to contain the mon­ster. The palace complexes are themselves labyrinthine, consisting of many open, airy courtyards, private apartments, storage rooms, shrines and baths. Several wall paintings survive from the palace at Knossos, albeit in a rather ruinous state. Many have been heavily restored, with the lost areas filled in by modern reconstruction. Unfortunately, only a fraction of what originally must have existed remains.


Young Fisherman with His Catch. c.1650 B.C. Detail of a freco in Room 5, West House, Akrotiri, Thera (Santorini). Height: approx. 53″ (135cm). National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Many Minoan wall paintings reveal the impor­tance of the sea to this island civilization, which had lucrative trading contacts with the Greek mainland, Egypt, and the Near East. The Young Fisherman with His Catch is from the site of Akrotiri on the island of Thera—today, Santorini—a Minoan outpost north of Crete. A violent volcanic eruption around 1620 b.c. destroyed Thera, but many murals from Akrotiri were fortunately preserved in the volcanic ash.


Boats. c.1650 B.C. Detail of Minoan fresco, Thera (Santorini). National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The Minoan peoples traded with the Greek mainland, Egypt and the Near East. They were certainly skilled seafarers. The boats shown here are part of a larger frieze. The attention paid to the details of the boat design and the awareness of the different tasks carried out by the crew members in this mural reveal that the designers of these murals were certainly very knowledgeable when it came to boats. Dolphins, along with other aquatic creatures, are found frequently in Minoan art.

A frieze of boats is also preserved from the same site. The careful attention paid to portraying the different types of boats and the various tasks performed by crew mem­bers reveals that the makers of these murals belonged to the seafaring world they depicted. We know little about the religious practices of the Minoan civilization. The many images of women found in tombs and shrines suggest that the chief deities may have been goddesses. A wall painting from the palace at Knossos shows an elegant woman, possibly a priestess participating in a religious ceremony. The profile view of her face, combined with the large frontal eye, is similar to the treatment of figures in the ancient Near East and Egypt.


Bull Jumping (“Toreador Fresco”). c.1450 B.C. Wall painting from the palace complex, Knossos, Crete. Height: approx. 24.5″ (62cm). Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

Minoan religious practices remain somewhat obscure. This enigmatic scene may be a religious ritual in which male and female participants (females are fair-skinned, as in Egyptian art, indicating their sheltered lives out of the sun) take turns vaulting over a charging bull. The grace, elegance and rhythmic playfulness of both the bull and the bull-jumpers, achieved with curvy, elastic lines, is characteristic of Minoan style.

Perhaps the most famous Minoan mural is one called Bull Jumping, from the palace at Knossos. It is not clear in what context this activity is taking place, although it may be part of a religious ceremony in which male and female acrobats take turns vaulting over a bull. The thin-waisted, elegant, stylized figures with flowing curls are quite different from any of the figures seen in either Egyptian wall paintings or Mesopotamian figural representations, though, despite their energetic outdoor activity, the females have the conventionally lighter skin colour common in Egyptian painting. The weightlessness and playfulness of the bull-jumpers are the antithesis of the timelessly dignified pharaohs adorning Egyptian tombs, while the wonderfully elongated and curved body of the bull, with its long, graceful horns, resembles some of the abstracted animal forms found in paintings and relief sculptures of the ancient Near East. Also of note is the decorative border that frames the scene, serving to complement the rhythmic motion of the bull-jumper.


Vase. c. 1900 B.C. Phaistos, Crete. Minoan, ceramic. Height: 10.5″ (27cm). Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

Several stellar examples of painted Minoan pottery, produced in workshops in the palace complexes, have survived. A vase from Phaistos, Crete, displays bold swirling white and brown patterns on a black background, a less disciplined, more organic design than that found on the beaker from Susa.

History of Western Paintings – The Ancient Near East

Palaeolithic people led an unsettled life; this nomadic society of hunters and gatherers has little control over their food supply. Beginning around 8000 B.C. however, people began to grow their own food, raise their own animals, and organise into permanent communities. Although, like their Palaeolithic predecessors, the Neolithic people (from neos, meaning “new” in Greek) used stone to make basic weapons and tolls, organised agriculture and animal husbandry left more time and labour for other activities, including the production of clay vessels. Since their size and weight made them difficult to carry, clay vessels are characteristic of stationary communities.

Neolithic villages made their first appearance in the Near East, an area consisting roughly of modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Iran. A late example of Neolithic painted pottery from this region is a beaker from Susa (present day Shush in Iran) dating to c. 4000 B.C. The highly abstracted animal forms contained within patterned borders are common to many works of art from this area. Decoration takes precedence over naturalism to create designs with beautiful stylised animals, such as the thin band of elongated dogs beneath a frieze of graceful long necked birds around the top of the beaker, and the marvellous ibex with circular horns, it’s body composed of two curved triangles, that dominates the large central portion. In contrast with Palaeolithic depictions of animals, which may represent attempts to control the animal kingdom, animals, now domesticated, seem simply to decorate this Neolithic vase.


Beaker. c.4000 B.C. Susa (modern Shush, Iran). Ceramic, painted in brown glaze. Height: 11″ (29cm). Musee du Louvre, Paris

The Paleolithic peoples who created cave paintings were monadic hunters and gathers. Neolithic culture (New Stone Age), which first appeared in the Near East c. 8000 B.C. is characterised by settled villages, domesticated plants and aminals, and the crafts of pottery and weaving. The highly abstracted, stylised animals forms, representative of the “Animal Style”, and patterns decorating this Neolithic beaker from Iran are commonly found in workds from the ancient Near East. An ibex (wild coat), with enlarged, circular horns and a body consisting of two curved triangles, decorates the centre of this vessel. The top band contains skinny, long-necked birds, and, directly below, a band of elongated dogs encircle the beaker.

The early Neolithic agricultural communities gradually evolved into more complex societies, with systems of government, law, formal religion, and, perhaps most importantly, the first appearance of writing, thus marking the end of prehistory and the beginning of recorded history. The political structures alternated between conglomerations of independently ruled city-states and centralised governments under a single leader.

The city-states of the Near East frequently fought one another. In addition, the lack of natural barriers made the area particularly vulnerable to invasion. This almost constant warfare was a frequent subject of art. A further destabilising factor was the unpredictable climate; floods, drought, storms, and the like plagued the inhabitants of this region. This, they understandably tended to worry considerably about survival in this world – a world of invasions, political instability and natural catastrophes.

From about the fourth millennium B.C. the Sumerians inhabited southern Mesopotamia, a Greek place name meaning “the land between the rivers”, that is the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. They invented the wheel and a form of writing in which a stylus, usually a length of reed cut at an angle, was used to impress characters on wet clay. Cuneiform, meaning “wedge shaped”, which aptly describes the appearance of this writing, has been deciphered; our ability to read ancient Mesopotamian texts makes the ancient art of the region more accessible to the contemporary viewer than the art of prehistoric societies. Ancient near Eastern images usually have clearly structured compositions, ground-lines and readable narratives emphasising human beings, their history, and their relation to their gods and goddesses. All of these characteristics enable us to interpret the art more easily than the more elusive prehistoric cave paintings discussed earlier.


Triumph of a King, the Standard of Ur. c.2700 B.C. Mesopotamia. Wooden panel inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone. Approx. 8″ x 19″ (20cm x 48cm). British Museum, London

Neolithic village communities in the ancient Near East gradually developed into complex city-states, which were often politically unstable societies almost contstantly at war with east other and against invading peoples. War and victory are frequent subjects of ancient Near Eastern art. This image, an inlaid panel from the side of a box, may show an actual historical event, depicting the aftermath of war, with a victorious banquet scene in the top register. Historical narrative and a clear, formal composition distinguish this image from prehistoric cave paintings.

The various city states that comprised ancient Sumer were often at war with one another. The so called Standard of Ur is a box, the function of which is not known, that was found in a royal cemetery among daggers, helmets, and other military regalia. The box displays scenes of both war and peace, probably episodes of specific historical events. Stylistically, the depictions of human form in the Standard of Ur resemble those we will see in other ancient cultures. Frontal and profile views are combined in a single figure, emphasising the conceptual over the illusionistic, and the size of a figure directly corresponds to his importance; on the Standard of Ur, the seated, regal figure in the top row is bigger than this standing before him. Also typical is the arrangement of figures in the bands. There is little overlapping of forms, or any indication of a setting, resulting in a very two dimensional image. This straightforward, regimented presentation of figures contrasts markedly with the informal arrangement of imagery in prehistoric caves.


Priest Guiding a Sacrificial Bull. 2040-1870 B.C. Fragment of a mural painting from the palace of Zimri-Lim, Mari (modern Tell Hariri, Iraq). National Museum, Aleppo, Syria

A fragment of a wall painting from the palace of Zimri-Lim at Mari (today, Tell Hariri, Iraq) shows part of a religious ceremony: a priest leading a bull to sacrifice. Zimri-Lim was a ruler during the Amorite occupation of Mesopotamia. His palace was destroyed by the celebrated Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1750 B.C.) author of the famous legal code and a fellow Amorite leader. The fragmented murals of Zimri-Lim’s palace are some of the few wall paintings to survive from Mesopotamia.

Among the most famous achievements of the Mesopotamians are the construction and decoration of the Ishtar Gate, originally one of the main entryways to the ancient city of Babylon (Iraq). Babylon had been the political and cultural capital of Mesopotamia under Hammurabi, and towards the end of the seventh century B.C. with the decline of the Assyrians – probably the most powerful people to dominate Mesopotamia and the surrounding regions – The Babylonians reasserted their power. The best known ruler of this Neo-Babylonian period was Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.), the famed leader mentioned in the Old Testament who was responsible for building the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as well as the Ishtar Gate, now reassembled in Berlin. The Ishtar Gate and the walls lining the Processional Way (the street leading from the Gate) were faced with glazed brick. Sacred animals, also of glazed brick – among them, lions, associated with the Goddess Ishtar, and dragons, sacred to Marduk, the patron God of Babylon – and these geometric borders ornamented both the Gate and Processional Way. The somewhat stylized forms of these animals, and their rhythmic arrangement within the decorative borders, recall the Neolithic vase from Susa, with which we began our discussion of the art of the ancient Near East.


Lion. c.575 B.C. Processional Way, Babylon. Glazed brick. Height: approx 38″ (96.5cm). Achaeological Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

History of Western Paintings – Prehistoric Art

The history of Western painting beings approximately thirty thousand years ago, with prehistoric depiction if animals, various shapes and symbols, and human beings on the walls of caves. Some of the best examples of Cro-Magnon painting are the Palaeolithic paintings found in the caves at Altamira in Northern Spain and Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France. (“Palaeolithic” made up of the Greek words paleo, meaning “old” and lithos, meaning “stone”, is a term used by scholars to describe the early Stone Age, from c. 40,000 to 8,000 B.C.) The creators of these pictures used crushed minerals mixed with water and saliva as paints; “brushes” were most likely made of chewed twigs, blunt pigments were probably more commonly applied with the hand or by spitting them from the mouth or through tubes made of bone or reed. The resulting earth-toned images tend to be rather blurry. Given the undefined space and the uneven, rough surface of the ceilings and walls of the caves, these images appear to be positioned somewhat haphazardly, without ground-lines (baselines indicating the ground on which figures stand) or background settings, and only rarely combined to suggest a narrative.

The caves at Altamira were first found by a hunter in 1868; in 1879, Maria the young daughter of the Marquis Marcellino de Sautuola, an amateur archaeologist studying portable prehistoric artefacts, noticed the paintings by accident. Many of the Marquis’ late nineteenth-century colleagues would have thought the function of the painted images that adorn the vast walls and ceilings of prehistoric caves to be purely aesthetic. Clearly, those commentators might have mused, the desire to be surrounded by beauty has been inherent in human nature since the beginning.


Bison c 12,000 B.C. Altamira cave, Santander, Spain. Paint on limestone

The fact that animals are overwhelmingly the main subject of cave paintings may point to a more practical, less romantic interpretation. Palaeolithic peoples were hunters – animals were essential to their survival. Given that the pictures for the most part do not seem to be composed narratively, as if recording an actual episode, their purpose was more likely conjuration. Painting animals on cave walls might also have been an equally magical way to ensure their continued reproduction. In a few instances animals are depicted as if wounded, suggesting that a ritual injuring or killing of an animal rendered in paint perhaps guaranteed a successful hunt in real life. The frequent overlapping of imagery and the fact that entire cave surfaces appear to have been repainted many times suggest that the act of painting was more important that the pictures produced. This supports the interpretation that these images had a magical function, that they represented attempts to control the animal kingdom and thereby assure the survival of the human group.

The animals painted on the surface of prehistoric caves are depicted remarkably accurately; in some examples, the artists even suggest muscular bulk through deft shading. By comparison, the rarely found representations of humans are very schematic, often resembling stick figures. Added to this fact, the sheer number and the wide variety of animals portrayed – including horses, bison, mammoths, bears, ibexes, aurochs and deer – suggest the great significance of animals to Palaeolithic society. We will never know for certain what functions prehistoric cave paintings served. The various interpretations necessarily reflect more the interpreters’ theoretical frameworks than any verifiable reality: lacking a written language, the prehistoric people of the caves left no verbal records to help further our knowledge.