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.