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4 Tutorials that teach Mycenaean Architecture
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Mycenaean Architecture

Mycenaean Architecture

Author: Ian McConnell

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

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An overview of Mycenaean Architecture.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History With Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about Mycenaean Architecture. As you're watching 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 the things you're going to learn today-- are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, identify traits of Mycenaean architecture, compare and contrast the architectural style of Mycenae with that of Minoan architecture.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is corbelled vault. It's the simplest type of vault involving step support elements. Ashlar masonry, is a stonework made of large rectangular cut stones. Beehive tombs are larger round rooms found in Mycenae. Cyclopean construction is construction done with masonry consisting of blocks so large that they appear to have been built by a cyclops, a huge one eyed humanoid monster.

Big idea for today is that the aggressive, fortress-like qualities of Mycenaean architecture are sharply contrasted to the palatial qualities of Minoan architecture.

And this lesson does have required artwork. Look for titles that are in purple.

So when in history does this take place? The period of time we're looking at covers about 800 years, from around 1900 to 1100 BC.

Quick geography for Mycenae, here's modern Greece in dark green. The ancient city of Mycenae lies southwest of Athens and Northwest of the island of Crete. I'll take a moment to explain a couple key terms. Here's a portion of the lion gate, which we'll look at in greater detail in a few moments. And I'm showing you this to give you an idea of what ashlar masonry is, which consists of large rectangular cut stones which are fit together-- without cement, by the way. These enormous stones were thought to be only movable by the mythical race of cyclops, which lends its name to the type of construction of this type cyclopean construction.

Now this image is from a passageway in the architectural site of Tiryns near the city of Mycenae. It's a great example of the architectural feature called a corbelled vault. There are different variations of the corbelled vault. This diagram shows the basic principle. Let me get my diagram here behind corbelled vaulting. It's a typical post and lintel construction.

Corbelled vaulting is a progressive narrowing of step-like elements until they meet at the very top. Now it's a sturdy type construction. But the large blocks are cantilevered inward as the corbelling itself isn't self-supportive like a true arch would be.

Now these next images are great examples of the qualities that have come to be associated with Mycenaean architecture. And as opposed to the palatial architecture that is seen on Crete these are very thick, sturdy fortress-like structures which reflect a cultural difference from that of the Minoans. Now this is called the lion gate, so-called because of the carving of the two opposed lions within the corbelled vault at the top, which itself rests upon a large post-and-lintel opening. It was constructed as part of the fortification serving to funnel any attackers into the narrow space where they would be a real disadvantage to the soldiers protecting the fortress from the top of the walls.

It's made of cut stone and dates from around 1250 BC. And here the triangle is just showing you that corbelled vault. And, speaking of that area let me zoom in. Here's a close-up of the lion carving.

Now this image is another look at that corbelled vault from Tiryns which was constructed between 1400 and 1200 BC. Now these two images from two different Mycenaean art structures hopefully give you a sense of the qualities associated with Mycenaean architecture.

Now compare those with the ruins of the palace complex at Knossos, Crete. There's definitely a sense of airiness and delicacy that isn't evident in Mycenaean architecture, which reflects the cultural disposition of Minoans as a more peaceful civilization.

Now the architectural elements that we see in Mycenaean royal residences are carried over into their tombs as well. Similar in some ways to Egyptian burials Mycenaean royals were buried in large tombs with many treasures. Now this image is of an exterior view of the doorway to a tomb, or the so-called treasury of Atreus. Mistakenly thought to house the treasury of the King Atreus the legendary father of the King's Agamemnon and Menelaus who were brothers. Now a fun fact, it was supposedly Menelaus's wife, Helen's, abduction and her supposed elopement with the Trojan prince Paris that sparked the Trojan War described in the Greek writer Homer's Iliad. Now this structure was built between 1300 and 1200 BC.

Now this is the interior of the treasury. It's actually corbelled vault buried under a mound of earth. And here's a cross section drawing of the tomb. Because of their shape tombs like this are referred to as beehive tombs.

Now the Mycenaeans were known to be rich in gold. And according to Homer that was the case. This example from a Mycenaean grave is an example of their artist's ability to work with gold. This type of metal work is called repousse. This mask is called the funerary mask of Agamemnon. And it's in quotes for a reason as I'll explain in a moment. It was made between 1600 and 1550 BC. And it is made of gold.

So why do we care? Well it's an example of Mycenaean funerary art work, which would be laid over the body of an individual. Now it's commonly referred to as the mask of Agamemnon who is the suppose the King of Mycenae. Now who it truly belongs to is a mystery. But it wouldn't be Agamemnon. And the reason is that because it dates between 1600 and 1550 BC this predates the Trojan War by several hundred years. It does, however, depict some interesting stylistic elements such as the scroll-shaped ears, the leaf-shaped shut eyes, thin lips and mustache. And it's thought that it may actually represent an actual person. But if it is it would be a highly stylized representation of that person.

So that brings us to the end of lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson are able to identify and define its key terms? Can you identify traits from Mycenaean architecture? Can you compare and contrast the architectural style of Mycenae with that of Minoan architecture?

Once again, the big idea for today is that the aggressive fortress-like qualities of Mycenaean architecture are sharply contrasted to the palatial qualities of Minoan architecture.

And there you go. That's your lesson for today. Thank you for joining me. I'll see you next time.

  • Corbeled Vault

    The simplest type of vault, involving step support elements.

  • Ashlar Masonry

    Stonework made of large, rectangular cut stones.

  • Beehive Tombs

    Large, round rooms found at Mycenae.

  • Cyclopean Construction

    Construction done with masonry consisting of blocks so large that they appeared to have been built by a Cyclops (huge, one-eyed humanoid monster).