Aegean Painting


Table Summary

Summary of Aegean Painting
Palace age
ca. 2000-1400 BC
Mycenaean age
ca. 1400-1200 BC
pottery decoration Kamares style > marine style palace style, pictorial style
murals Knossos Palace, Akrotiri houses various Mycenaean settlements

General Features

Aegean painting survives in two main forms: pottery decoration and murals.1

A mural is a painting upon an architectural surface (usually a wall). Murals are delicate works: over decades and centuries, paint tends to fade, and walls tend to crumble. Only a small fraction of murals have survived from ancient or medieval times.7

Fortunately, pottery decoration survives in much greater abundance. While pottery is easily shattered, the resulting fragments are highly resistant to crumbling, allowing them to be neatly reassembled millennia later. Moreover, painted pottery decoration is typically executed while the clay is still wet; thus, the pottery and its decoration are baked ("fired") together, rendering the paint extremely durable.3

While examples of Aegean painting (in the form of pottery decoration) do survive from the Pre-Palace age (the first period of Aegean history; see History of Greek Europe), these are relatively crude. Aegean art truly began to flourish in the Palace age, during which the Minoans produced many fine works of pottery and wall painting. Both art forms continued to thrive under the Mycenaeans.

Main Article

Palace Age

ca. 2000-1400 BC

The Pre-Palace age (ca. 3000-2000 BC) was the formative period of Minoan culture, including Minoan art. This period sowed the seeds of the Palace age (ca. 2000-1400 BC), the great age of mature Minoan civilization.

Minoan pottery decoration can be divided into two phases.

During the first phase (early Palace age), the leading type of Minoan pottery painting was the Kamares style, which features geometric patterns consisting largely of curves and spirals. The Kamares style is a light-on-dark aesthetic: decoration is executed in light colours (mainly red and white) on a black background. Occasionally, heavily stylized renderings of plant or marine life were added to the geometric patterns (see Realism vs. Stylization).3,4

Kamares Style Dish
Kamares Style Jar
Kamares Style Vessel
Kamares Style Vessel
Kamares Style Vessel (rendering of a fish)

The second phase (late Palace age) was dominated by the marine style, which features images of sea life. (A second, less prominent style was the floral style, which features images of plants.) These styles contrast sharply with Kamares pottery in two ways. Firstly, compared to the rigid geometric forms of the Kamares style, the marine and floral styles are executed in a much looser, more natural manner. Secondly, the marine and floral styles both feature dark-on-light decoration.3

Marine Style Jar
Marine Style Jar
Marine Style Jar
Floral Style Jar

The Palace age also witnessed the flourishing of Minoan wall painting, which has survived chiefly at two settlements: Knossos and Akrotiri. The murals of Knossos (the largest Minoan city) are found in the city's palace. Akrotiri is a Minoan settlement on one of the Cycladic Islands; the murals of this site are found in various large houses.

The subjects of Minoan wall painting include nature, everyday life, and religious ceremonies. Scenes are often framed or embellished with geometric elements. Colouring is generally quite vibrant and flat, as opposed to realistically coloured and shaded.3

Griffin Mural (Knossos)
Dolphin Mural (Knossos)
Bull-leaper Mural (Knossos)
'Prince of the Lilies' Mural (Knossos)
Fisherman Mural (Akrotiri)
Monkey Mural (Akrotiri)
Papyrus Mural (Akrotiri)
Landscape Mural (Akrotiri)

The "landscape mural" included in the above gallery is the world's oldest known landscape painting.H106 In a landscape painting, nature is the primary subject; figures (people or animals) are secondary or absent.

Mycenaean Age

ca. 1400-1200 BC

When a new culture emerges in the shadow of a mighty, well-developed culture, the former typically borrows heavily from the latter. The Romans, for instance, borrowed much from Greek culture, such that Roman culture features a Greek foundation. Similarly, Minoan culture served as the foundation of Mycenaean culture, which came to dominate the Aegean world for the period ca. 1400-1200 BC.

The story of Aegean art is primarily the story of Minoan art; Mycenaean art is, for the most part, clearly based on Minoan models. The style of Mycenaean wall painting, for instance, is quite similar to Minoan work. The few surviving Mycenaean murals have been discovered at various Mycenaean settlements.

Mycenaean Mural
Mycenaean Mural
Mycenaean Mural
Mycenaean Mural

In the medium of pottery decoration, two distinctly Mycenaean styles emerged: the palace style and the (less common) pictorial style.10

The palace style simply takes the Minoan marine style (or, less frequently, the floral style) and renders it in a stiffer, more geometric manner, even to the point where only pure geometric decoration remains.3,5 (See jar, jar, jar, jar.)

The pictorial style depicts a row of humans or animals advancing around the circumference of a vessel. As in the palace style, figures are rendered in a stiff, stylized manner. (See vase, jar, jar, jar.)

Palace Style Jar
Palace Style Jar
Palace Style Jar
Pictorial Style Jar
Pictorial Style Jar
1 - "Aegean Civilization: Painting and Sculpture", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
2 - "Aegean Civilization: Aegean Art and Architecture", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
3 - "Western Painting", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
4 - "Kamares Ware", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
5 - "Pottery » Bronze Age » Western pottery", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
6 - "Greek Art and Architecture: Vase Painting", Encarta. Accessed April 2009.
7 - "Western Painting: Western Dark Ages and medieval Christendom » Dark Ages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
8 - "Painting", World Book Encyclopedia. Accessed November 2009.
9 - "Thera", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 2009.
10 - "Jug with a Man and a Bull", Getty Museum. Accessed November 2009.