Ancient Greek Art
A thriving seafaring civilization, the Minoans populated the island of Crete between the 27th and the 15th
centuries B.C.E. Excavations of Minoan palaces have revealed the rich artistic tradition of these ancient
people. Categorized by 20th century archaeologist Arthur Evans into three distinct periods, the Early,
Middle and Late Minoan, much of what is known of Minoan culture can be found in their ceramics,
frescoes, stone carving and metalwork.
The Minoans utilized terracotta clay to produce both ceramic pottery and sculpture. Minoan potters
produced everything from jars and pots to small figurines depicting female deities. Early Minoan pottery
was typically hand-shaped with burnished or incised geometric designs. The introduction of the potter’s
wheel gave way to symmetrical vessels during the Middle and Late Minoan periods. These vessels were
generally decorated with dark-on-light painted motifs, often depicting freeform marine creatures, such as
fish and octopus.
Other vivid examples of Ancient Greek Minoan art are the frescoes found on excavated palace walls.
Minoan painters utilized the wet type of fresco painting in which pigments were applied directly to wet
plaster, binding the pigments to the wall, rather than simply painted atop dry plaster. Due to the fast drying
time of plaster, these frescoes were executed quickly with fluid brushstrokes and graceful curving lines,
producing dynamic movement of the figures and landscapes. Pigments used for fresco during this time
included saffron, iron ore and indigo.
Minoan Queens Fresco
Discovered at the palace at Knossos, this fresco typifies the bold contrast of colors, fluid brushstrokes and
dynamic movement of Minoan painting. Although similar to the side-view and forward-facing-eye figures
of Egypt, the graceful, curving lines of the hair, arms and hands distinguishes Minoan artists from their
neighbors to the south.
Another form of the Ancient Greek art of the Minoan people was stone carving, utilized for both decorative
and practical purposes. The Minoans used soft stones, such as serpentine, steatite and soapstone, to create
vases, bowls and stone seals. Used to denote ownership or provenance, stone seals were small discs of stone
with carved insignias or other identifying marks, representing a particular person or house in a time in
which literacy was not widespread.
Stone Seals photo by Andree Stephan
Much like signet rings, Minoan stone carvers created stone seals to create marks of identification or
ownership. The seals represented a specific person or house, and could be pressed into wax or drying
pottery. Common characters were derived from nature, such as the flying fish on the lower left.
Articles of jewelry
found in Minoan palatial excavations, as well as depictions of Minoan women in
frescoes wearing jewelry, point to the fact that in addition to pottery, stone carving and painting, Minoan
artists were also skilled metallurgists. Both gold and jewelry-making techniques were imported from trade
outposts, such as Egypt, Syria and mainland Greece. Minoan artists produced small gold pendants, rings
and ornaments, often depicting naturalistic figures of birds, insects, lions and bulls.
“Bees of Malia” photo by Wolfgang Sauber
This pendant depicting two hornets carrying a honeycomb shows the naturalistic motifs common to Middle
and Late Minoan art. The fine gold beading detail, called granulation, on the hornets’ abdomens and
outlining the hanging discs demonstrates the sophistication of Minoan metallurgy.