Pre-Hellenic Art I: The Minoan (Cretan) Civilization

Cypriot terracotta figurine representing a “mother goddess”, symbol of fertility.

Until recently little was known about the origins of Greek art: the stone age in Greece was unknown and only large stone walls were preserved, these stone walls were named Cyclopean or Pelasgian constructions because the ancient Greeks said they were the work of the first settlers of their country whom they called Pelasgians.  Only some naked female idols carved in stone were found with relative abundance in the Aegean islands, all from the Neolithic period.

Cretan civilization refers to the primitive period of continental Greece that in modern times was designated as “pre-Hellenic”.  According to the ancient chronicles, the origin of this civilization is placed before the regular development of Greek civilization, which did not begin to manifest until the tenth century BC.  Aegean culture corresponded to a group of civilizations of the Bronze Age that developed in Greece and around the Aegean sea (Crete, the Cyclades, and mainland Greece), and whose most splendid development as a civilization took place on the island of Crete.  We now know more in detail the historical chronology of the Cretan civilization which began in the Neolithic period, around 3500 BC, and that scholars initially called Minoan with reference to the mythical figure of the king Minos who reigned on the island of Crete.  Later, after proving the links that that civilization had with the original that flourished in Mycenae, a more appropriate name was given to this Minoan civilization and now it is known as Creto-Mycenaean.

Based on the art that originated and developed in Crete, now the generally accepted chronology for this insular culture comprises the following periods: pre-palatial, which comprises an entirely Neolithic civilization (around 2500 BC) and lasted until about the year 2000 BC; protopalatial or period of the great palaces (especially important in Phaestos and Knossos) which ran from 2000 to 1700 BC year in which those buildings were destroyed by a seismic catastrophe; neopalatial or period of the second palaces, from 1700 to 1400 BC, a period of intense reconstruction and cultural peak with traces of other destruction caused by fire, and finally postpalatial, decadent, between 1400 and 1100 BC.

Ruins of Hagia Triada in the island of Crete (Greece).
Ruins of the palace of Phaestos in Crete (Greece).









Minoan civilization was the first fully European ancient culture and until the XVIth century BC Greece and the islands were subjected to the kings of Crete.  It was mainly a maritime culture which spread its cultural influence to Cyprus and the Syrian coast, influenced Phoenician art, and thanks to the old-established trade relations with the Egyptian Empire it managed to bring in the land of the pharaohs its artistic works while the Minoans received artistic Egyptian influence such as small scarab-theme objects.  Minoan civilization was politically based in the existence of small monarchist domains and during the period of its national predominance (between 1700 and 1400 BC) must have acquired the form of a unitary monarchy with capital at Knossos whose palace conserve its best artistic examples.  Other important architectural remains are in Gournia, the palace of Mallia, and Hagia Triada.  These remains of villages or residences were built near the sea -as befitted to the character of maritime power that Crete had- resting on high locations in order to dominate the coast view or to stay away from the dangers posed by a possible invasion.  The palaces of Knossos and Phaestos were the two major architectural achievements of the Minoan civilization.

Reconstruction of the palace of Knossos in the island of Crete (Greece).

Both buildings imply on their groundplans a concern to follow an axial axis and were, even during their first post-Neolithic stages, buildings whose design completely omitted a symmetrical criterion when referring to the spatial location of their rooms.  Knossos was a great monumental building lacking (as well as Phaestos Palace) forts or any kind of military defense.  Built with well squared stones, the Palace of Knossos frequently shows in its chairs representations of the symbol of the double ax and it is possible that its construction was presided by not only the idea of building a palace, but to consecrate it to a divinity (probably female) related to that symbolic weapon.  Thus the name that ancient mythology gave to this building labyrinth would come from labrix or ax.  The palace also included a room with a marble throne which may have given rise to the legend of Minos as an implacable judge.

View of the Palace of Knossos, and to the right the emblem of King Minos which has been given several meanings: the mythical horns of the Minotaur a solar and male deity, the horns of the crescent moon a feminine divinity, or the Double Axe horizontally split .
Aerial view of the Palace of Knossos in Crete (Greece).
The throne room at the palace of Knossos.
View of the jar storage room at Knossos, located on the west wall of the palace.
The hypostyle hall of the palace of Knossos.

The floor plan of the second palace of Knossos is a labyrinth of corridors and enclosed spaces, which makes it hard to navigate within its numerous chambers and rooms.  Some of these rooms are located in a dominant position: after passing through a gate or propylaea they can be reached by a beautiful staircase located in one of the angles and decorated with short columns.  These rooms are arranged around a large courtyard of about 50 meters long.  There is a long corridor (which has been called The hall of Processions because of a painting depicting a parade whose remains are still visible) and a throne room (as in Phaestos) with a majestic stone chair placed in a prominent place while beautiful frescoes depicting plants and elegantly outlined seated lions adorned the walls.  This room opens onto a lobby leading into the courtyard and on the opposite side, through a real loophole of other passages, it is the thalamus of the Queen also decorated with paintings and with an adjacent bathroom.  In the lower level there is also another large corridor containing large jars arranged in rows which suggests it must have been a food storage.  The palace also had a pavilion as a gazebo equipped with small columns or pillars.  The Minoan pillar consisted of a short column with its shaft put upside down, that is, with the widest part in the top and crowned by a capital composed of a narrow ring and a circular molding.  The Minoan column was constructed using the trunk of a cypress tree, and while the shafts of most Greek columns were smaller at the top and wider at the bottom to create the illusion of greater height, the Minoan columns are thinner at the bottom and wider at the top, a result of inverting the cypress trunk to prevent sprouting once put in place.  This little column must also had the value of a religious symbol.  As we will see, the relief that still exists in the Lion Gate at Mycenae‘s walls shows that this particular symbol was also part of the Mycenaean civilization.  This sort of pillar of undoubted Cretan origin had a high symbolic meaning when the Achaeans (one of the four major tribes into which the peoples of Classical Greece were divided) had seized Crete. Both emblems, the pillar and the double ax, are represented repeatedly in Minoan frescoes; the double ax appears in many vessels accompanied by floral ornaments and was also repeatedly depicted on top of pedestals.

Minoan columns at the palace of Knossos.

In Crete there have been found some figurines in terracotta and in finely carved ivory making reference to a cult practiced by young priestesses perhaps in relation to some underground divinity.  These figurines reproduce slender girls with eyes wide open wearing miters and with serpents entwined in their hands.  Such young girls wear very tight flared skirts and a kind of open jacket which shows their nude breasts.  Other national rite of Minoan Crete that was repeatedly represented in murals involved a daring acrobatic exercise known as “bull leaping”.  For Greeks the Minotaur was already a human monster with a bull’s head: Minos and the bull had been amalgamated into one personality.  It is currently believed that Minos was a generic name, a title as it was Pharaoh for the Egyptians; in fact Minos is the Cretan word for “king”.  Other several sculptures and frescoes have survived depicting Theseus often as a young boy boxing or jumping.  They have very tight waists and lithe and slender bodies that seem built just of nerves and tendons.  It is possible that the preference Greeks gave always to the infantry was a strategy inherited from Minoan times.  The Greek hoplite (citizens-soldiers of ancient Greece) barefoot and naked managed to replace the military image of the Persians covered with leather and metal.

The cult of the Mother Goddess in Crete was linked to the serpent, magical animal with phallic symbolism. These priestesses in clay (Museum of Herakleion) are represented with snakes around their arms and holding them with their hands. These figures are no more than 25 cm high.


The “Bull leaping” fresco from the palace of Knossos (Museum of Herakleion).
Fresco of “Children boxing” from Akrotiri, Thera, 16th century BC. (Island of Santorini, Greece).
The “Parisienne”, fresco from the palace of Knossos (Museum of Herakleion).

Sports were a religious element of the Minoan culture and this fact is confirmed in the floor plan of Cretan palaces.  All services were located in buildings around a huge rectangular courtyard which must served for holidays or bull leaping ceremonies because it included monumental stands for spectators.  In the frescoes of Knossos we see the spectators of the preference seats composed exclusively of girls elegantly dressed with small jackets and showing their nude breasts.  At the top stands spectators of darker skin -which meant they were composed only by men- were sitting.

“Women and men attending a public spectacle”, fresco at the palace of Knossos.
“Ladies in Blue”, fresco of the palace of Knossos (Museum of Herakleion, Crete).

Representations of male figures were not as abundant as that of women although one of the most beautiful frescoes of Knossos features a male figure. It’s called the Fresco of the Prince, it represents the slender figure of a young beardless man wearing a panache on his head and walking on a red background.


Prince-Priest of Knossos (Museum of Herakleion), fresco of the palace of Knossos. This man crowned with feathers walks over a field of lilies on a reddish background.
Detail of the famous “Cup-bearers Fresco” from the palace of Knossos (Museum of Herakleion).
Decorative frieze, fresco at the palace of Knossos.
Kamares-style pottery (Museum of Herakleion), on a black background, white, bright red and sienna colors combine forming spirals.

The glyptic, the small sculpture, and the mural painting were very important in the Minoan art.  The murals were painted in pure colors: blue, white, red, yellow.  The ceramic production was also very important.  The ancient ceramic from Kamares (between 1800 and 1700 BC), also abundant in Phaestos, includes great variety of forms: pitchers, concave dishes, crater* shaped vessels, amphorae*…, all of them decorated with rich curvilinear designs that developed into spirals painted in white-on-black background with some hints of vivid hues.  From the second palace of Knossos (1700-1400 BC) came other type of pottery more classic in style, usually formed by precious vases and amphorae with small handles.  Their painted decoration is usually of vegetable or marine themes on white or lighter backgrounds.  No less important is the so called Gournia ceramic with globular forms and skillful painting of marine animals, mainly octopus, sometimes in combination with algae branches.


Three examples of typical Gournia pottery decorated with octopuses, squids, and other sea animals.

The Minoan art is characteristic for its common representation of animals, particularly marine creatures.  Minoan artists expressed their predilection for fish, algae, snails, and dolphins.  Behind the throne of Minos in the Palace of Knossos there are seals, the Cretan symbol of power because the seal feeding on fish was seen as the king of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Other times the allusion to the power of Minos was represented by the octopus. But alongside these allusions to Minos’ power, glasses, ceramic plates, and frescoes represented simple stems, flowers, and domestic animals.

Griffin fresco at the throne room of the palace of Knossos.
Landscape with swallows also known as “Spring Fresco” from Akrotiri, Thera (Cyclades), Greece, ca. 1650-1625 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens).
The earliest period of Minoan painting was inspired solely by nature with no intervention of the human figure. This appreciation of nature is a purely Cretan contribution, and from this island spread to the rest of Mediterranean cultures. An example of this trend is the “Dolphin Fresco” from the bathroom of Knossos (Herakleion Museum).

The maritime empire of Crete was replaced by a hegemony of the kings of Mycenae coming from mainland Greece.  The decline in the importance of Crete in pre-Hellenic society and its fusion to the kings of mainland Greece must have begun about 1400 BC.  Indeed this date is attributed to the destruction and burning of the second palace of Knossos.  That was how Greek peoples managed to seize Crete about 1500 or 1450 BC.  Such peoples, influenced by the culture of Crete and Peloponnese, developed a fairly uniform cultural and artistic style that in mainland Greece persisted until a new Greek invasion which occurred around the year 1100.  Thus, Minoan and Mycenaean art amalgamate around 1500 or shortly thereafter and this fact was proven by a purely cultural fact: the discovery of a kind of “fusion” between Cretan and Mycenaean writings by the archaeologist Arthur John Evans (creator of classical archeology) who found countless clay tablets during his excavations at Knossos.

The bull was a sacred animal in Crete. This Rhyton in the shape of a bull’s head, from Knossos, ca. 1500–1450 BC (Museum of Herakleion) was used in religious ceremonies. The gold made-horns served as a handle for the libation ritual.


    * Amphorae: Very large ceramic recipients with two handles and a long narrow neck.





* Crater: A type of large capacity ceramic pot destined to contain a mixture of water and wine.