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Minoan Art

Minoan Art

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore the art and architecture of the Minoan civilization.

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Tutorial

An overview of Minoan history and artistic style.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of "Exploring Art History with Ian." My name is Ian McConnell. Today's lesson is about Minoan art.

As you watch the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as often as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or things we are going to learn, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe some general characteristics of Minoan palaces, or, really, palace, in this case, describe some characteristics and examples of Minoan sculpture, pottery, and fresco painting, and explain the myth of the Minotaur as it relates to Minoan civilization.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

First term is Minoan. Relating to the Bronze Age civilization that existed on the island of Crete. Named after the mythological King Minos.

Labyrinth is a maze or series of intricate and confusing passageways, so-called because of the labrys, or double-headed axe, symbols found on walls and structures of Crete.

The Minotaur is a mythological half-man, half-bull that lived at Crete.

Fresco painting is a painting in water-based paints on fresh plaster.

Continuing the key terms, buon fresco is a type a fresco in which the plaster is still wet and paint bonds with the plaster.

And fresco secco, dry fresco, is so-called because it involves painting on the wall after the plaster has already dried.

The big idea for today is that Minoan civilization was a major cultural and military power in the Aegean region in its day, centered on the island of Crete.

Just a side note, this lesson has required artwork, which is listed in purple.

The point, as always, I've labeled as 0 AD. The artwork we're examining today falls between 1900 BC and 1375 BC. I've pointed out the beginning of the Roman Republic, right there, as another reference point.

Quick geography lesson. Here's a map of modern-day Greece. Right there in dark green. We'll be looking at a civilization that had strong ties to ancient Greece, so it's worth mentioning. If we zoom, in we can see a close-up of modern-day Greece, and just southeast a bit is the island of Crete, highlighted in red. Here is the Aegean Sea. And what I'm showing here is a geological fault line, as in tectonic plate fault line, which lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea right by Crete, and makes a divide between the Eurasian Plate above and African plate below. Both moving in that direction.

As these plates move, they create a lot of geological disturbances, earthquakes, as well as volcanic activity, and in fact it was a volcanic eruption about 10 times as large as the Mount Saint Helens eruption, on the present-day island of Santorini, which is here-- modern-day Santorini-- that likely contributed to the eventual demise of Minoan civilization. An interesting fun fact for you here.

Now, the fabled Minotaur and the myth associated with it is an important Greek myth with strong associations with the Minoan civilization. The bull, the animal, is an important figure in Greek mythology, and it seems to be of particular importance to the people of Crete, because it's an image that pops up repeatedly in artwork.

According to the myth, the Minotaur was a creature held captive in a labyrinth, or maze, by the king, Minos. And the Minotaur was a horrible creature, enjoyed eating people, with the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man. Now, why did he have that? Well, he was actually the love child of the king's wife and a sacred bull. But that's really another story altogether. Eventually he was slain by the mythical hero Theseus, who became the eventual king of the city-state of Athens.

The discovery of ancient site of Knossos in northern Crete is relatively recent, being unearthed between 1900 and 1903 by an archaeologist named Arthur Evans. He was interested in searching for this lost kingdom due to the legend of King Minos and the Minotaur. Upon discovery, he labeled the civilization Minoan after the mythical king.

Because of the earthquakes, the palace complex was severely damaged over time, and rooms and passageways are thought to have shifted considerably. The Greeks refer to the complex as a labyrinth due to its frequent use of the decorative double ax motif, like on the right, except without the handle, called a labrys. The maze-like quality of the complex, as well the term labyrinth, is how Minoan palaces came to be associated with mazes.

Because I've been talking so much about this palace at Knossos, I think it's important to show you what I'm talking about.

This palace complex was made of stone, constructed using the post and lintel technique. Now, this, of course, is the ruins in here. It looked much better in its day. The palace complex, like I said, is made out of stone, constructed using the post and lintel technique. Now, this is not a required work of art. It's just a picture for reference.

The next image, however, is a required image, as denoted by the purple. It's a sculpture of a goddess holding snakes, aptly named the Goddess with Snakes. And it's true purpose isn't known for sure, but it's thought that it is likely an image of man, or woman in this case, their dominance over nature, with snakes representing fertility and agriculture.

This theme of nature is recurring in Minoan art, as with the example ceramic work called the Octopus Flask, which takes a dynamic rendering of an octopus and a rather detailed representation of its suction cups. The iconography relates the Minoans' connection with sea, which they were dependent on with respect to their livelihood.

So the Minoan civilization became a really powerful force within the Aegean, and gradually annexed more and more of the surrounding territory, particularly the Cycladic Islands.

In continuing with the theme of nature, the Saffron Gatherers fresco, shown here, is an example taken from a home on one of the Cycladic Islands named Thera. Now, it depicts the collection of saffron crocus flowers by a young girl. Saffron was, and really remains, an expensive spice that probably was one of the principal spices that Crete traded among the other Aegean. Civilizations.

This is also a great example of wet fresco. The pigments are applied as the plaster is still drying, which allows the image to set inside the plaster and become a permanent part of the wall. But no one's created both wet and dry frescoes.

This fresco is of a springtime landscape, and it's another example from Thera. And it's important how it's the first example of a landscape-only image in ancient art. It's the first example of a landscape-only image.

This is probably the most recognized image of a fresco from the Palace of Knossos. It depicts what is thought to be a ritualistic scene, perhaps of sacrifice, given the importance of the bull in Minoan culture. It may depict three athletes, or it could be three different poses of one athlete jumping over the bull-- beginning, middle, end. This is a much more dynamic image than what we've seen in Egyptian art. A sense of liveliness or energy is a characteristic scene throughout Minoan works of art, such as with the Octopus Flask's squirmy legs, or what could be interpreted as aggression in the image of the snake I showed you before.

Well, that brings us to the end of the lesson. Let's see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe some general characteristics of Minoan palaces, or palace, I should say? Can you describe some characteristics and examples of Minoan sculpture, pottery, and fresco painting? And explain the myth of the Minotaur as it relates to Minoan civilization?

And once again, the big idea for today is that Minoan civilization was a major cultural and military power in the Aegean region in its day, and was centered on the island of Crete. And that's it. Thank you for joining me today. I will see you next time.

Citations

Image of Minoan Snake Goddess, Photo by Chris 73, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Snake_Goddess_Crete_1600BC.jpg; Image of Marine Style Octopus Jar, Photo by Weyergraf, Creative Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M_ller_60freigestellt.jpg; Image of Saffron Gatherers, Public Domain, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saffron_gatherersSantorini-3.jpg; Image of Bull-Leaping Fresco from Knossos, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Knossos_bull.jpg; Image of Spring Fresco from Akrotiri, Creative Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NAMA_Akrotiri_4.jpg; Image of Palace at Knossos Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Knossos_-_North_Portico_02.jpg; Image of Crete Public Domain http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Periferia_Kritis.png; Image of Greece Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EU-Greece.svg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Fresco Secco

    Dry fresco, so called because it involves painting on the wall after the plaster has already dried.

  • Buon Fresco

    A type of fresco in which the plaster is still wet and the paint bonds with the plaster.

  • Fresco Painting

    Painting in water-based paints on fresh plaster.

  • Minotaur

    A mythological half-man, half-bull that lived at Crete.

  • Labyrinth

    A maze, or series of intricate and confusing passageways, so-called because of the labrys (double-headed axe) symbols found on walls of structures of Crete.

  • Minoan

    Relating to the Bronze Age civilization that existed on the island of Crete, named after the mythological king Minos.