Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenean Art

Map of the Mediterranean

Public domain image

Map of the Aegean

map by Eric Gaba -- Wikimedia Commons user: Sting (cc-at-sa)

Scenes from the Cyclades

Sunrise at Irakleia by tranchis (cc-at-nc-sa)

West Coast of Syros by GOC53 (cc-at-nc-nd)

Cycladic Art

Cycladic figures on flickr

Cycladic figure, Spedos type

photo by peteranddorota (cc)

More information from Cycladic Art Museum, in Athens

How would you describe the Cycladic artists’ approach to portraying the human form?

Cycladic figures come in a number of “types,” usually named for the places where they were excavated. The most common type, like the one you see above, is called “Spedos.” It’s often known as the “canonical form.” You don’t need to know all the types, but you should know the two basic categories, naturalistic and schematic.

Link to a schematic Cycladic figure of the Violin Type.

These violin figures are even more schematic.

Cycladic “frying pan” with broken handle

Cycladic “frying pans” on flickr

Photo by diffendale (cc-at-nc-sa)

These objects, which come mainly from one particular island, Syros, are actually hollow ceramic bottles with designs incised into the clay. They’re called frying pans because of their shape, but we know they weren’t used for cooking. In fact, we don’t know exactly what they were for. They have been found mostly inside of tombs and may have been funeral drums (with skins stretched over the handles), or vessels for libations (ritual offerings of liquid), or simple symbolic offerings for the dead.

Some of the designs clearly represent aspect of the environment of the Cycladic Islands (fish, suns, boats). Geometric patterns such as spirals may also represent natural elements such as ocean waves.

Minoan Art

Sir Arthur Evans/Public domain image

Our understanding of Mycenaean Culture–the culture of Greece from about 1600 to 1100 BCE Minoan Culture–the culture of the island of Crete up until 1600 BCE–is complicated by the methods of archaologist Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the Cretan Palace of Knossos and other sites in the early 1900s. He hired restorers to recreate statuettes, frescos, and areas of the palace. These restorers worked in ways that we now consider mislead. For more information, see

Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery, an Article by Mary Beard in the New York Review of Books.

These days, we are skeptical of that conclusion, and an number of scholars have argued that Evans was often projecting his own ideas onto the artifacts–seeing things he wanted to see.

Female Figure with Snake

photo by foonus (cc-at-nc-sa)

Evans thought that this figure represented an aspect of the great Mother Goddess and that it was evidence of a matriarchal society in Crete–an idea that is now disputed by many scholars, who think this may represent a priestess.

Like many Minoan artwork, she was found in pieces, and her skirt, her left arm, and the snakes may be re-creations made by the restorers. Christopher Witcombe has a good write-up from the year 2000 of theories about this statue, and scholars continue to work to understand more.

Note the alternate standards of modesty. Upper arms should be covered in public.

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Bee Pendant

photo by tortipede (cc-at-nc-sa)

Bull-Leaping Frieze from the Palace of Knossos

photo by agelakis (cc-at-nc-sa)

Steatite Rhyton in the Shape of a Bull’s Head

photo by Agelakis (cc)

Bronze statuette of Bull and Bull Leaper

photo by vintagedept (cc-at)

Minoan ceramic Bull’s Head Rhyton at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palace at Knossos, with partial reconstruction

photo by flickrolf (cc-at-nc-sa)

The Labrys

photo by Templar1307 (cc-at-nc-nd)

Floor plan of the Palace at Knossos

Public Domain image

A wooden model of the Palace at Knossos

photo by Templar1307 (cc-at-nc-nd)

The Throne Room at Knossos

photo by Marcel Germain (cc-at-nc-nd)

Dolphin Frieze in the Queen’s Chambers

photo by CanadaGood (cc-at-nc-nd)

The “Prince of Lillies”

Reconstructed from 3 different pieces that are possibly from different images.

photo by agelakis (cc)

Mycenaean Art & Architecture

photo by MesserWoland (cc-at-sa)

This is the basic layout of a “megaron complex,” an important architectural unit in ancient Crete and Mycenae.

The ceiling is supported by posts or columns (3) on the porch and in the naos (1). Between the porch and the naos there is an antechamber (2). Typically there is an open hearth (fire pit) at the center of the naos.

This architectural layout is the basis for later Greek and Roman temples.

Megaron at Nestor’s Palace

photo by diffendale (cc-at-nc-sa)

Lion’s Gate at Mycenae

photo by StrudelMonkey (cc-at-nc-nd)

Tholos Tomb

photo by Templar1307 (at-nc-nd)

Mycenaeans are known for their beehive-shaped tombs. (Tholos is Greek for beehive.) Evans mistakenly called one of Tholos Tombs the “Treasury of Atreus.” Why might he have mistaken a tomb for a storehouse?

Notice the primitive “corbel” arch at the entrance of the Treasury of Atreus.

photo by greekgeek (cc-at-nc-sa)

Mycenaean Terra Cotta Figures at the Metropolitan Museum

The “Mask of Agamemnon”

photo by Feuillu (cc-at-nc)

This mask got its name from Sir Arthur Evans. when dug it up and thought he was gazing on the face of the Homeric leader Agamemnon, he was way off. The mask was created several hundred years before Agamemnon would have been born.

Marine style pottery

The Mycenaeans imitated the Minoans in some aspects of cultural life. Most clearly, they imitated the Minoan “marine style” of pottery.

Minoan marine style pottery

photo by Templar1307 (cc-at-nc-nd)

photo by Mary Harrsch (cc-at-nc-sa)

photo by Templar1307 (cc-at-nc-nd)

Minoan-influence Mycenaean pottery

photo by vicguinda (cc-at-nc-sa)

More information on Cretan and Mycenaean Ceramics

Vocabulary

schematic

fresco

labyrinth

labrys

libation

megaron

naos (cella)