Angela van Rose
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The Magnificence of Cretan art


The Magnificence of Cretan art

Why Greece and why Crete in particular?

As I promised you some time ago, I plan to present occasionally an art topic which might be of interest to everyone who is enthusiastic about art. I decided that I should start with Ancient Greek art and more specifically with the beginning of the Greek civilization by focusing on Cretan (or Minoan as I will explain later) art. The Ancient Greeks were quite extraordinary people and the modern world owes them a lot indeed – from purely scientific discoveries to literature and even democracy. It is really astonishing that the idea of democracy was born more than 2,500 years ago.

However, I certainly do not like to idealize the Ancient Greek city (or polis) of Athens which decided to expel its tyrants and establish democratic rule because the Athenian democracy was entertained by a very small portion of its populace. The slaves and the women in Ancient Greece and even in Athens were deprived of any meaningful rights. Therefore, the people who claim that democracy was thriving in Athens are seriously wrong. The real democracy, in my firm opinion, was introduced in the United States of America in the 18th century and the Americans are the only nation that can be most deservingly proud of having democratic rule from the very inception of their country. Nobody can accuse the Ancient Greeks of failing to produce some of the most exceptional works of art, though. And as strange as it may seem, the Greek civilization did not start neither in Athens nor in Sparta.

The Minotaur Cretan art

Everything started with a terrifying myth (definitely not a fairy tale)

Up to the beginning of the 20th century no one could believe that the myth about the Minotaur and Theseus was based on actual historical events. The myth is really gory as it involves human sacrifices. According to the myth, the ruler of the extremely beautiful Greek island of Crete was the might King Minos. Crete is actually the largest island of Greece and it is located at the southern edge of the Aegean Sea. So, it is nowadays close both to Turkey and Egypt.  By the way, Greece is one of my favorite travel destinations and I might share with you in the future some of my experiences there and recommendations for sites in Greece that are definitely worth exploring. But let’s go back to  Minos who was not an ordinary mortal (the Greek mythology is generally not interested in common people) but the son of the supreme god Zeus (a.k.a. Jupiter as per the Roman mythology) and the beauty Europa. Minos was obviously supercilious and showed his disdain to the god of the seas and oceans Poseidon (better known with his Roman name Neptune), brother of Zeus.

In order to punish Minos Poseidon made Minos’s wife fall madly in love with an animal. This animal as you have already divined was a bull (probably a fine specimen but the myth does not provide any specific information about its overall appearance ?). Minos’s wife became pregnant and she gave birth to a most unnatural creature – the Minotaur. The Minotaur had the head of a bull and the body of a very strong man. Minos was not particularly proud of this monstrous critter and forced the Minotaur to live in a labyrinth situated beneath the Royal Palace at Knossos (or Cnossos or sometimes even Cnossus) in Crete. The Minotaur was feeding on human flesh and each year the polis of Athens had to send seven girls and seven boys to be slaughtered by the Minotaur. Some other versions of the myth state that the human victims from Athens were sent every seventh or ninth year because almost every Greek myth has at least several different interpretations. Ultimately, the Athenian hero Theseus managed to defeat and slay the Minotaur thanks to the support rendered to him by the daughter of king Minos Ariadne who had fallen in love with Theseus. Without doubt Ariadne felt sorry very soon over her decision to back up Theseus but this is an entirely different story (once again not a fairy tale). What matters most is that up to some 120 years ago this whole story seemed improbable figment of  the imagination of the Ancient Greeks and nothing more.

Photos of Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans

The search for the Minoan Civilization and Cretan art

It is no coincidence that the whole civilization of Crete for the period of 3000 to 1100 BCE  was named after King Minos and thus it is today known as the Minoan civilization. The whole civilization of Crete was buried deep into the obscurity of time until Sir Arthur Evans made some excavations in the beginning of the last century and he struck more than gold. It is worth mentioning that before him Heinrich Schliemann (the excavator of Troy and Mycenae) who is regarded as one of the most significant pioneers of modern archeology made some attempts in Crete at uncovering some of the Homeric relics but without any success. Up to Schliemann’s time no one believed that in his epics Homer had actually presented historical figures and places. Instead, everyone was confident that the world created by Home was nothing more than realm of fiction and myths.

Schliemann proved everybody wrong. However, Crete turned out to be an impregnable fortress for Schliemann and it was Sir Arthur Evans who found the right place for the city of Knossos and the palace of King Minos. Knossos was known in Ancient Greece as place of a powerful civilization predating the classical period of the Aegean civilization. It was Sir Arthur Evans, however, who decided to name the stately culture found by him ‘Minoan’ after King Minos. So, Sir Arthur Evans can be considered the true discoverer of the Cretan or Minoan art after it fell into obscurity for several millenia. Moreover, Sir Arthur Evans devised classification of this culture by organizing it into several periods: Early, Middle, and Late Minoan periods. Some scholarly have ardently disputed the classification of Sir Arthur Evans because they believe that Sir Arthur Evans has selected the wrong king (if King Minos was a historical figure indeed). According to some scholars, King Minos appeared at the nadir of the Cretan ruling dynasties and, therefore, King Minos does not deserve the homage paid to him by Sir Arthur Evans. Of course, such controversies are completely understandable because the Minoan civilization spans over a very lengthy period of time – almost for a couple of millennia from 3000 BCE to 1100 BC. Sir Arthur Evans determined that Knossos and its palace had been destroyed several times and it ceased to exist around the year 1100.

The Minoan Palace

The Palace at Knossos

The Palace at Knossos in Crete is considered the key architectural achievement of the Minoan civilization and of Cretan art, respectively. By the way, the Palace is known also as the Minoan Palace because it is believed by some scholars that Minos was not a specific king but the designation for a Cretan ruler or a monarch. The reconstruction that you see in the picture above (courtesy of Brown University) is very impressive but the remains of the Minoan Palace are far from being very attractive and pleasing to the eye. I am providing below a small part of the Minoan Palace which wasn’t excavated but was erected on the basis of some paintings.

Palace at Knossos part of a wall

The vivid colors of the colonnade give us an excellent idea of the style in which the Minoan palace was built. Sir Arthur Evans was very surprised to find out that the columns at the Minoan Palace were quite different from all other Greek columns known in the Ancient Greek world. The Minoan columns were short and wooden, and they tapered downwards. What is most amazing about the Palace at Knossos is its underground structure, though. The mazelike structure was called a labyrinth by the Ancient Greeks and it is a solid proof that the myth about the Minotaur and Theseus actually rests on true events and actual settings. In the Palace at Knossos Sir Arthur Evans discovered a lot of documents and he determined that two separate scripts were used – Linear A and Linear B. It is really astonishing that 4 thousand years ago the Cretans were using their own alphabet (two actually) and this is an indubitable proof of the extremely high level attained by the Minoan civilization.

Toreador or Bullfighter of Crete

The Toreador

A lot of beautiful wall paintings have survived from the Minoan palace that are the most convincing proof of the strength and the vitality of Cretan or Minoan art. However, it is impossible for me to present all of them. That is why I have selected the ones that have impressed me most. Without doubt the most unusual mural is the so-called ‘Toreador’ which you can see above. It is also the most popular fresco from Knossos. The ‘Toreador’ wall painting depicts a bull, a male, and two ladies. Most probably you will ask yourself how it’s possible to guess the gender of each figure in this fresco. It turns out that there was a convention in Minoan art according to which the female figures were painted in white or very pale colors whereas the male figures were always painted in dark colors. It is completely unclear what the male person is trying to do on the bull’s back. There are several interpretations and the most horrifying one seems to be, alas, verisimilar – the scene represents a ritual practice which involves the sacrifice of both the bull and the man. The more innocuous interpretation explains the scene as some sports activity which was similar to the modern rodeo. The realistic colors, the movements of the depicted figures, and the minutest details on this exquisite fresco make this fresco a true art masterpiece.

The three ladies in blue Crete

The Ladies in Blue

Another fantastic artwork from Knossos is the fresco known as the ‘Ladies in Blue’. It reveals a group of three women depicted in a blue background. What is most striking about this mural, in my opinion, is not the activity that the three ladies were involved in. Once again there were a lot of disputes about the meaning of the scene depicted in this particular fresco. It is really not important to me what they were doing, though.  I am fascinated by the splendor of the wall painting. The women are young and beautiful. Before commenting on their dresses which can be described as ‘provocative’, I would like to note that the hairdos of the ladies are indicative of their social status and those coiffures are simply stunning. Any modern woman can dream of having such perfect curls. The three ladies are wearing a garment that is extremely low-cut and it naturally reveals their breasts. Fashion can be quite unfathomable, though. Please look at the picture below in which you will recognize a fine lady who has been a huge celebrity as an actress and a singer for several decades now.  

Yes, this is Jennifer Lopez. She was wearing this green silk chiffon dress at the Grammy Awards some 20 years ago. Do you find the similarities between Jennifer Lopez’s dress and the dress of the ladies in blue? It turns out that the fashion of the Minoan civilization was copied bluntly some 4,000 years later. However, what I disapprove most of this ‘revealing dress’ is the fact that this type of garment degrades the women in general. I have no doubt that men strongly approve of such a low-cut dress but men’s opinions are rarely relevant and reasonable with respect to the fashion industry and women’s dignity in particular. More importantly, it is a pity that the fashion industry can move in a full circle without realizing that certain designs should be never recreated in order to show genuine respect to all women.

Lady with a flower Crete

The Single (almost naked) Lady tending to a flower

There is another fresco which is quite impressive. The lady in it reveals her breasts but this is something that we already discussed with respect to the three ladies in the previous fresco. So, is there anything special about this particular fresco? We should admit that the lady is very beautiful and the fresco looks quite old and dilapidated in some parts. However, there is a problem, a very serious problem. The picture you are seeing above is a forgery and such a fresco does not exist at the Knossos Palace. Or anywhere else in Crete. The picture is a forgery and not a particularly successful one but still it could deceive someone who is not vigilant enough. I will save the embarrassment of the gentleman who has posted this picture on Internet but this particular forgery can lead us to two obvious conclusions: First, the Cretan or Minoan art is so valuable that some people have gone to great lengths to imitate it. And second, there are a lot of art forgeries and all of us should be very careful about the authenticity of any artwork which is brought to our attention since art is not immune to deception and counterfeiting.   Art fraud is a very intriguing topic that I might discuss sometime later.  

The Snake Goddesses Minoan art

The Snake Goddesses

In Knossos Sir Arthur Evans discovered a lot of objects, including pottery and statuettes and they represent fine specimens of Cretan or Minoan art. Large and imposing statues were not found but this fact alone does not mean that the Minoans were not interested in large statues. Such statues, if they existed, could have been plundered and destroyed by the tribes that most probably invaded Crete several times and caused the demise of this great civilization. However, two of the most impressive Cretan art statuettes excavated by Sir Arthur Evans are the so called ‘Snake Goddesses’ which you can see above. They are currently exhibited in one of the major Greek museums which is situated on the island of Crete (the Archaeological Museum in Herakleion). The two ‘Snake Goddesses’ are believed to be a mother and daughter but this can easily be a spurious statement.  It is curious that the head and one of the arms of the smaller figurine were initially missing and Sir Arthur Evans had to carry out some restoration work so that we can admire this splendid work of art. It is quite possible that the ladies holding two snakes are Goddesses but, in my opinion, they could be  mere mortals who have decided to show their extraordinary power to tame snakes. Of course, what was the purpose of those statuettes is important but we can only speculate about it.

The Snake Goddess Minoan art

More significantly, we can relish the beauty of those Cretan art miniature sculptures (both are about 30 centimeters high). The details in those figurines are stunningly precise but I am also very impressed by the dresses that the two ladies are wearing. There is no need to comment further on the bared breasts but, if we can ignore this circumstance, we should admit that the garments are extremely elegant. It is really amazing that more than 3,500 years ago there were fashion designers who were able to produce such high-quality and high-end dresses.

The hats of the two ‘Snake Goddesses’ are equally impressive. The imagination of the artisans who have created those amazing statuettes is just incredible. On top of their high-caliber ability of producing such detailed and intricate designs the creators of the ‘Snake Goddesses’ demonstrated their expert skills as ultimate milliners. The idea of putting a cat or a snake on the head of a lady as a headwear is both unconventional and brilliant. The hats, by the way, are a very important fashion accessory (obviously highly appreciated even in the early Antiquity) and I have written a fashion blog post on this topic.

Cretan art

The findings in Crete feature also those two magnificent objects of Cretan or Minoan art shown above which have purely utilitarian purpose (storing beverages – most likely wine) but they clearly demonstrate the amazing skills of the Cretan artisans.

I hope that this quick glance at the some of the most impressive achievements of the Cretan or Minoan art was of some interest to you and I will await your feedback through your comments.

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