Aegean Sculpture

Introduction

Table Summary

Summary of Aegean Sculpture
Pre-Palace age
ca. 3000-2000 BC
Palace age
ca. 2000-1400 BC
Mycenaean age
ca. 1400-1200 BC
small-scale Cycladic idols figurines, vessels, seals, goldwork continuation of Minoan forms, phi/psi/tau figurines
large-scale Lion Gate

General Features

The Aegean age (ca. 3000-1200 BC) featured three major cultures: Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean. The Minoan and Mycenaean cultures (which were much larger than the Cycladic culture) are responsible for most Aegean artistic production. The chief exception lies in the Pre-Palace age (ca. 3000-2000 BC), during which the Cycladians were the most accomplished sculptors of the Aegean.

All Aegean cultures worked mainly in small sculpture (e.g. figurines, vessels). Large-scale sculpture (e.g. statues, architectural sculpture) only became common in Europe under the ancient Greeks, who drew inspiration from the great sculpted works of Egypt and Mesopotamia.H114-15

Main Article

Pre-Palace Age

ca. 3000-2000 BC

The foremost Aegean sculptures of the Pre-Palace age are the marble Cycladic idols: stylized figures (see Realism vs. Stylization) whose faces are blank except for narrow triangular noses. Thousands of these sculptures have been discovered throughout the Cycladic Islands, often in graves. Most are individuals in a crossed-arm position, though some are engaged in activity, and some are group sculptures. The smooth contours and simple geometry of these figures are uncannily reminiscent of modern art.

Typical Cycladic Idol
Cycladic Idol
Cycladic Idol

Palace Age

ca. 2000-1400 BC

Minoan art gradually took form throughout the Pre-Palace age, then flourished during the Palace age. The Minoans sculpted in clay, bronze, ivory, and stone. They produced many figurines, both human and animal; bulls and bull-jumpers were particular favourites.

The largest surviving works of Minoan sculpture are a number of vessels, some carved in relief, others sculpted into figures (often a bull's head). At the small end of the scale, the Minoans are renowned for their delicately engraved stone seals, as well as fine goldwork.1,3

Minoan Human Figures
Minoan Animal Figures
Minoan Animal Figures
Minoan Bronze Bull
Minoan Bronze Bull-jumper
Minoan Stone Vessel Carved in Relief
Minoan Stone Vessel Carved in Relief
Minoan Bull's-head Clay Vessel
Minoan Bull's-head Stone Vessel
Minoan Sculpted Clay Vessels
Minoan Stone Seal
Minoan Stone Seal
Minoan Stone Seal
Minoan Goldwork
Minoan Goldwork
Minoan Goldwork
Minoan Goldwork

In the world of visual art, the term major arts is often used to denote large-scale architecture, painting, and sculpture; all other forms of visual art (including metalwork) are known as minor arts. Essential Humanities rarely discusses the minor arts directly, as they have generally followed the aesthetic lead of the major arts. In some periods, however, one (or more) of the major arts is absent.

In the history of Western art, large-scale sculpture is only missing from two periods: the Aegean age and the early medieval period. In both cases, this causes metalwork to become unusually prominent.

Mycenaean Age

ca. 1400-1200 BC

Most innovation in Aegean art was achieved by the Minoans. The Mycenaeans, known more as cultural adopters than innovators, embraced Minoan culture as the foundation of their own. Consequently, the style and forms of Mycenaean sculpture are largely similar to those of the Minoans.

As noted earlier, monumental sculpture was rare among the Aegean cultures. The most famous surviving example is the Lion Gate, a pair of carved lions that crown one of the entrances to Mycenae, the greatest city of the Mycenaean civilization.

The most distinctive Mycenaean sculptures are likely the phi, psi, and tau figurines. Each figurine is named for its pose. Thus, the pose of the phi figurine resembles the Greek letter Φ; the psi figurine, Ψ; and the tau figurine, Τ.

Lion Gate
Two Phi Figurines Supporting a Tau Figurine
Psi Figurine
Clay Figurines
Stone Bulls-head Vessel
Clay Bulls-head Vessel
Goldwork
Goldwork
1 - "Western sculpture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
2 - "Cycladic culture", Encarta 2004.
3 - "Aegean civilization", Encarta 2004.