Return to Home Page Harrys Greece Guide

Minoan and Mycenaean Art


No discussion of either Minoan or Mycenaean art would be complete without considering the architecture of these civilizations.

Royal palaces and tombs exemplify the concept of buildings as works of art. The older civilizations of Syria and Egypt were the source of this concept, as exemplified by many features typical in Minoan palaces, such as the artful cutting of large stone blocks square in shape, the use of stucco in a decorative fashion, the sophisticated drainage systems that utilized earthenware pipes, and the layout of rooms surrounding a central court.

Diffused light filtered down through strategically placed light wells, the use of windows avoided due to the intensity of the Cretan sun. Wooden colonnades also served this purpose. At Knossos , the combining of the functional and aesthetic aspects of the architecture can be easily seen and appreciated, and at Phaistos as well in the palace entrance, where the grand staircase leads up to two successive porches, light filtering down from a colonnaded veranda.

Minoan tombs also manifest the artfulness of their creators, the earlier ones cut into soft rock , with masonry added only for royalty. The finest of the latter is the well preserved Temple Tomb at Knossos, its name stemming from the shrine in the upper part, with the burial chamber below it, entered via rooms around a central court , built much in the manner of a typical house. The next period of monumental architecture in Greece is represented by the Mycenaean palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos during the 14th to 13th centuries BC. Though their complexity of design owes much to the Minoan palaces of Crete, a major difference is seen in the central position of the megaron in the Mycenaean palaces, consisting of a suite of rooms built according to a design dating back to Neolithic times. In these palaces a small court , a colonnaded porch leads into an anteroom, which in turn leads into the throne room, a large, open area with a low hearth in the center, the roof supported by four wooden columns. The doors are all aligned on the same axis, and the rooms have the same width, these factors providing for a symmetry absent in the earlier Minoan palaces, and also foreshadowing later Greek architecture. It is, however, in the design of the royal tholos tomb, that we see the most original and most striking of Mycenaean architectural forms. The domed funerary chamber is entered via a monumental passage (called 'dromos', which means 'road') , its masonry arranged upward in corbelled courses, the opening closing at the top, with earth then mounded on top of it, and the dromos then filled in.

There are nine of these tombs at Mycenae, which reveal evidence of three developmental stages in design. The earliest of these is the Tomb of Aegisthus (socalled), dating from the early 15th century BC, with a chamber constructed of miscellaneous rubble, though the doorway is lined with larger masonry, topped by a massive lintel. The next stage of construction (exemplified by the Lion Tomb of around 1450 BC), shows an attempt by the architects to relieve the enormous weight of the superstructure with a triangle above the lintel. The stones of which the chamber is composed also show some signs of their being 'dressed'. The third stage is represented by the socalled 'Treasury of Atreus' ( from around 1300 BC), with beautiful ashlar masonry, and an intricately decorated fascade, the entry flanked by a pair of half columns, which taper downward, as did their Minoan predecessors. A smaller pair of columns stand at either side of the weight-relieving triangle above the lintel, which is filled in and which was covered with friezes of spirals and rosettes. Similarities exist between this fascade and that of the famous Lion Gate, where the wall are also done with ashlar technique, the lions occupying the triangle. The outer wall of the citadel were built of huge, roughly dressedboulders, with small stones plugging any openings between them.

Painting and Pottery

Minoan fresco painting is deservedly famous for its beauty and delicacy of execution. One of the earliest of the many which remain is the Saffron Gatherer (around the 17th century BC), its windswept crocus blooms painted with swift, light strokes, typical of the Minoan genius for depicting spontaneous movement. Accurate observation of nature is also manifested in the depiction of the monkey in this fresco, and in the flower landscapes from frescoes at Ayia Triadha (around 1600 BC), in one of which a cat is seen stalking a pheasant in the underbrush. Many similarly naturalistic frescoes were found at Akrotiri, the village destroyed by the cataclysmic earthquake on the island of Thira (Santorini) during the same period. The frescoes painted in relief on the walls of the palace of Knossos include the Charging Bull (North Entrance) and the Priest-King. These are large scale figures, and represent a more formal treatment, without the vibrancy of smaller pieces such as the Toreador scene or the Parisienne, and especially the Miniature Frescoes, where entire crowds are portrayed in detail, with women painted in white and men in red, as was typical in most pieces of this period. The Mycenaean frescoes display great formality and symmetry, as reflected in the well known Griffin fresco from the Throne Room (late 15th century BC) , its subject matter repeated two centuries later in the throne room at Pylos. Though less well preserved than the Minoan frescoes, the mainland frescoes have as themes the Boar Hunt at Tiryns, a battle scene at Pylos, and warrior and horse preparing for battle, as scene in the long frieze in the megaron at Mycenae. Even before the earliest frescoes, painting on pottery had reached a high artistic level by the Minoans. The polychrome Kamares ware, first found in the eponymous cave sanctuary on the eastern slopes of Psiloritis (Mt. Ida), had its peak in the 19th to 18th century BC, with red and white decorations painted on a dark ground, the designs including both plant motives and abstract curvilinear ornaments. Free painting was also practiced by artists after this period, though determined by the shape of the vase. After 1550 BC dark paint was applied on a light ground, with flowers and marine motives, the octopus a favorite of the latter group, its elastic form easily adapted to almost any sizeable surface. These extreme naturalistic forms became more regular and symmetrical by the late 15th century BC, with the Palace jars from the Knossos area, and after 1400 BC, with artistic initiative shifting to the mainland, they lost their animated form and devolved into abstract linear patterns.


Votive figures, rather than monumental statues , are what have survived of Minoan sculpture, as well as relief work. Of the former, the most famous Minoan pieces are the two Faience Goddesses (from around 1600 BC) in their flounced skirts, and the Ivory Acrobat leaping over a bull, with fine detail shown in the veins and muscles. An ivory group from Mycenae depicts two women and a child (around 15th century BC). Though bronze work also existed, it was crude in comparison with the fineness of the ivory pieces. The Minoans were great masters of low relief, which combines their mastery of plastic skill with their pictorial genius. The gold cups from the tholos at Vapheio (15th century BC), are cases in point. These depict the hunting of wild bulls, with superb mastery of detail in a very small frame of only 10 cm. The Harvester Vase from Triadha (16th to 15th century BC) carved in soft black serpentine, depicts the carousing harvesters returning from the fields. In the shaft graves at Mycenae, the decorative use of precious metals in the daggers , with gold and silver inlaid in a dark nielo background, and minor details incised, , is reminiscent of the work of Minoan smiths. It is the small scale work of both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans in these arts that reached a very high level, and which also included the fine sealstones and signet rings which were an important means of identification in a preliterate world. The pictorial art of the Minoans really shines here, in the engraved studies of animals and birds, or depictions of cult scenes, the latter a main source of information about Minoan and Mycenaean religion.