Ægean Fresco Paintings

By: Dr. Eleanor E. Rambo

Originally Published in 1920

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The Ægeans made one very important contribution to the development of technique in art in their invention of fresco painting. Their houses were built of rubble and stone, plastered inside and outside for protection against the weather. The plaster used inside was soon displaced by stucco, and this stucco was decorated with simple colors. The earliest colors seem to have been red, yellow and black. Green and blue were imported from Egypt; the first real green is found at Tiryns. The colors were laid directly on the wet stucco, a process which must have demanded great rapidity on the part of the artist, and which undoubtedly accounts for the sketchy appearance of some of the paintings. The earliest form of wall decoration must have been simple lines of color on the painted surface of the wall. This sort of decoration would soon develop friezes or dadoes of solid color upon which various objects and scenes would be painted, the colors of the figures being superimposed on the color of the dado. All the reproductions of frescoes from Knossos show figures painted over a ground of at least two colors. Traces of the persistence of the tradition may be seen in the frescoes from Tiryns, where the figures move along the upper edge of an elaborate border or dado.

Reproductions of a number of frescoes from Knossos, Tiryns and elsewhere are hung on the walls at the west end of the room at the right of the main stairs. The originals, which are now in the Museums at Candia and Athens, were painted at different times in the period from 1500 to 1200 B.C., the series showing a decline toward the end.

The paintings from the palace at Knossos represented here were painted about 1500 B.C. Of them, the most famous is the figure of the cup bearer (No. 3), from the wall by the side entrance of the palace. It represents a man, one of a procession, carrying an enormous “filler” vase, of the type represented by the Boxer vase (reproduced in case IV in alcove C. No. 15). The man is nude, except for an elaborately patterned loin cloth. He has an arm band on his upper arm, and on his wrist a seal stone such as Cretan peasants dig up occasionally today and wear as a charm. He has very pinched waist, apparently a characteristic of this people, and his profile is of especial beauty, quite distinct from the Hellenic type.

A similar procession of pitcher bearers is represented by the two figures in No. I.

The most interesting fresco is doubtless that of the bull grapplers (No. 2). It shows a bull charging; over his back vaults a youth; before the bull stands a girl with outstretched arms, waiting to grasp the horns of the rushing animal; and behind it a second girl with uplifted hands waits to catch the acrobat as he alights. As in Egyptian painting, the flesh of women is represented as white, while that of men is brown. Bull baiting in Spain in modern times seems to be the last survival of such a prehistoric custom. The picture has an added value in explaining the origin of the Athenian legend of Theseus and the youths and maidens sent to Crete, victims to the Minotaur, the bull of Minos. These young people were, in short, toreadors, recruited by the Cretans from subject nations, and trained to bait and fight the bull until they were killed, just as later in Rome, gladiators were gathered from out the sturdiest of war captives, and sent into the arena to amuse the brutal populace. To the Ægeans the bull seems to have been a sacred animal. It is frequently represented in their art. On the second frieze of the Boxer vase is a bull leaping scene and on the famous Vaphio cups (reproduced in case II, No. 17) is shown the manner of trapping wild bulls. A painted stucco relief of a bull’s head from Knossos (No. 6) is one of the most spirited representations of the animal ever made. The bull’s head inspired also one of the Ægean vase forms—the rhyton. Two such vases, one of gold from Mycenae and one of steatite with gilded horns from the little palace at Knossos, have been found, restored and reproduced (Nos. 2 and 3 on the walls of alcove C).

The Ægean passion for marine forms is clearly shown in the fish frescoes, one of dolphins (No. 4) from the “Queen’s megaron” or apartments at Knossos, and one of flying fish (No. 18) from Phylakopi, on the island of Melos.

Three additional frescoes from Knossos are of especial interest. A costume for women is illustrated in No. 8. No. 7, the miniature fresco, is interesting for its attempt at crowding figures as well as for the hints of Ægean architecture. For technique, No. 5, the so-called portrait of a chieftain, is of especial value. Like the head of the bull, No. 6, the figure is modeled in low relief and then painted.

The rest of the frescoes are from Tiryns, on the mainland of Greece, and are later in date and generally less well done. Some of them show pleasing patterns (Nos. 10, 11, 12), and one (No. 13), the lady with the jewel box, gives a fairly complete idea of the dress of women of the age. There are several fragmentary groups of figures which seem to have constituted originally a boar hunt. Probably this was the prehistoric prototype of the Calydonian Boar Hunt. We see the hunters with their spears (Nos. 9 and 15), the hound in leash (No. 16), the great lords starting off in their chariot (No. 14) and the “kill” (No. 17).

All these frescoes, no matter what their provenance, seem to have been painted by Cretan artists. Crete was the artistic center, and from Crete went forth artists and craftsmen far and wide to decorate the palaces of the lords of other lands. When the various Ægean settlements were destroyed by invaders, in the sack of the palace the plaster naturally was knocked off the walls. Much of it was ground into dust, but here and there by a miracle a bit was saved, buried deep under soft and protecting rubbish. From these bits, unearthed after many centuries, slowly and laboriously scholars build up the lost frescoes. From the size and condition of No. 12 in case IV, a reproduction of a bit of painted plaster just as it was picked up, one may well imagine how this work is done.

Cite This Article

Rambo, Dr. Eleanor E.. "Ægean Fresco Paintings." The Museum Journal XI, no. 2 (June, 1920): 38-40. Accessed June 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/808/

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