The Aegean refers to the Aegean Sea, the northern portion of the Mediterranean between Greece and Turkey and extending south to the island of Crete. In art history this designation refers to the era of the Bronze Age, the 3rd and 2nd millennium B.C.E. This era encompasses three different but inter-related cultures:
Relative to many ancient cultures, those of the Aegean were only recently discovered, at the end of the 19th century. The Classical Greeks and Romans never faded from memory but the Mycenaeans and Minoans were largely forgotten, except in myth; it is the people and places of Bronze Age Crete and Greece featured in the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer.
The prehistoric Aegean was the first truly international age, and much of the art shows influence across cultures: Minoan wall painting owes much to Egyptian art; late Bronze Age Cypriot pottery imitates Mycenaean pieces. Today, the sites and art of the Minoans and Mycenaeans are some of the most popular of the ancient world.
The Cyclades are a group of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea that encircle the island of Delos. The islands were known for their white marble, mined during the Greek Bronze Age and throughout Classical history.
Their geographical location placed them, like the island of Crete, in the center of trade between Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Near East. The indigenous civilization on the Cyclades reached its high point during the Bronze Age. The islands were later occupied by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and later the Greeks.
Cycladic art is best known for its small-scale, marble figurines. From the late fourth millennium BCE to the early second millennium BCE, Cycladic sculptures went through a series of stylistic shifts, with their bodily forms varying from geometric to organic. The purpose of these figurines is unknown, although all that have been discovered were located in graves. While it is clear that they were regularly used in funerary practices, their precise function remains a mystery.
Some are found in graves completely intact, others are found broken into pieces, others show signs of being used during the lifetime of the deceased, but some graves do not contain the figurines. Furthermore, the figurines were buried equally between men and women. The male and female forms do not seem to be identified with a specific gender during burial. These figures are based in simple geometric shapes.
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In these small figurines, artists paid careful attention to line, form, and composition. The abstract female figures all follow the same mold. Each is a carved statuette of a nude woman with her arms crossed over her abdomen. The bodies are roughly triangular and the feet are kept together. The head of the women is an inverted triangle with a rounded chin and the nose of the figurine protrudes from the center. Each figure has modeled breasts, and incised lines draw attention to the pubic region with a triangle. The swollen bellies on some figurines might indicate pregnancy or symbolic fertility. The incised lines also provide small details, such as toes on the feet, and to delineate the arms from each other and the stomach. Their flat back and inability to stand on their carved feet suggest that these figures were meant to lie down. While today they are featureless and remain the stark white of the marble, traces of paint allow us to know that they were once colored. Paint would have been applied on the face to demarcate the eyes, mouth, and hair. Dots were used to decorate the figures with bracelets and necklaces.
Male figures are also found in Cycladic grave sites. These figures differ from the females, as the male typically sits on a chair and plays a musical instrument, such as the pipes or a harp. Harp players, like the one in above, play the frame harp, a Near Eastern ancestor of the modern harp. The figures, their chairs, and instruments are all carved into elegant, cylindrical shapes. Like the female figures, the shape of the male figure is reliant on geometric shapes and flat planes. The incised lines provide details (such as toes), and paint added distinctive features to the now-blank faces. While reclining female and seated male figurines are the most common Cycladic sculptures discovered, other forms were produced, such as animals and abstracted humanoid forms. Examples include the terracotta figurines of bovine animals (possibly oxen or bulls) that date to 2200–2000 BCE, and small, flat sculptures that resemble female figures shaped like violins; these date to the Grotta–Pelos culture, also known as Early Cycladic I (c. 3300–2700 BCE). Like other Cycladic sculptures discovered to date, the purposes of these figurines remain unknown.
Let's look at one of these figures in greater detail.
One of the most important aspects of Minoan culture was its ceramics. Pottery today may not seem particularly interesting or important, but in the second millennium B.C.E., it was a high art form and its manufacture was often closely associated with centers of power. Much like the production of porcelain for European royal houses in the 18th century, the production of pottery on Crete tells us about elite tastes, how the powerful met and shared meals, and with whom they traded.
This vase, found at Palaikastro, a wealthy site on the far eastern coast of Crete, is the perfect example of elite Minoan ceramic manufacture. It is 27 cm (about 10.5 inches) high, wheel-made, hand-painted, and meant to hold a valuable liquid—perhaps oil of some kind. Its shape is somewhat unusual, constructed by slipping together, while still leather hard (clay that is not quite dry), two shallow plates which had been made on a fast spinning potter’s wheel and with highly refined clay. The circular bases of these shallow plates are still visible in the center of both sides of the flask. A spout and stirrup-style handles (which would allow the user to carefully control the flow of the liquid out of the container) were added by hand, as well as a base, to facilitate the standing upright of the vessel.
Lastly, the Marine Style decoration would have been added. Using dark slip on the surface of the clay, the Minoan painter of this vessel filled the center with a charming octopus, swimming diagonally, with tentacles extended out to the full perimeter of the flask and wide eyes that stare out at the viewer with an almost cartoon-like friendliness. Around this creature’s limbs we find sea urchins, coral, and triton shells; no empty space is left unfilled, lending a sense of writhing energy to the overall composition.
Marine-Style pottery, of which this vessel is a prime example, is regarded as the pinnacle of Minoan palatial pottery production, specifically of the LM I period (around 1400 B.C.E.). Those who believe “hands” (that is, specific artists) can be identified in the painting of Bronze Age pottery have identified this vessel as the work of the Marine Style Master, who worked at the site of Palaikastro. The era of Marine Style pottery coincided with a period during which the Minoans’ trade networks spanned widely across the Mediterranean, from Crete to Cyprus, the Levant, mainland Greece, and Egypt. Some have connected this seafaring skill to the popularity of Marine Style pottery. The style was imitated by potters on the Greek mainland as well as the islands of Melos, and Aegina, but none could match the charm and grace of the Minoan inventors of the style.
Apart from ceramics, a limited number of other works survive from this puzzling civilization. One of these is the famous "Bull-leaping Fresco" from the palace of Knossos. Since only fragments of the original survive, modern art historians have pieced them together to reconstruct the likely original image and style. The resulting image invites speculation about what role this image held during this period and what sort of activity this image depicts.
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