The primitive aspects of Minoan artistic convention - article ; n°1 ; vol.11, pg 21-27


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Bulletin de correspondance hellénique. Supplément - Année 1985 - Volume 11 - Numéro 1 - Pages 21-27
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Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Sinclair Hood
The primitive aspects of Minoan artistic convention
In: Bulletin de correspondance hellénique. Supplément 11, 1985. pp. 21-27.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Hood Sinclair. The primitive aspects of Minoan artistic convention. In: Bulletin de correspondance hellénique. Supplément 11,
1985. pp. 21-27.
One clue to the unique character of the Minoan civilisation of Bronze Age Crète
is its conservatism. Many of the traits peculiar to the Minoan civilisation appear
to be survivais of primitive features that had once been shared with the inhabitants
of other parts of the Near East, but which passed out of fashion or were abandoned
there while they lingered in Crète.1
One possible example of such a survival may be illustrated by the type of dress
worn by Cretan men in the earlier part of the Bronze Age, as seen for instance on
figurines left by votaries in peak sanctuaries like Petsofas.2 A similar type of dress
appears on Predynastic figurines in Egypt, and the Minoan cod-piece may simply
reflect the survival in Crète of a fashion that was once gênerai throughout a wide
région of the Near East including Egypt and adjacent areas such as Syria and
In the field of religion the évident prédominance of a female deity and the hints
of the existence of matriarchal customs in social life may similarly reflect a state
of things that had prevailed in much earlier times throughout the Near East but
continued later in Crète. The unpleasant practices which the excavations of John
Sakellarakis and Peter Warren appear to suggest— human sacrifice and the slaughter
and eating of children in a ritual context— are perhaps other aspects of a primeval
tradition that lingered in Crète into a mature phase of the Bronze Age there.
The circular tombs which flourished during the early part of the Bronze Age
in some areas of Crète could be another legacy of this spirit of conservatism. This
is on the assumption that such tombs are derived from primitive circular houses of the
type found in various régions of the Near East, including Palestine and Cyprus,
in the earliest times. The Cretan circular tombs of the Early Bronze Age may be
merely houses of this primitive type retained for the dead long after the living had
abandoned them in favour of ones of more flexible plan with rectangular rooms.
Following this line of thought I believe that one of the most striking aspects
of Minoan art, and a key to its originality, is the way in which it retained primitive
(1) Cf. S. Hood, The Minoans (1971), p. 31.
(2) E.g. C. Zervos, L'Art de la Crète (1956), p. 192f., flgs. 232-233.
(3) As suggested in S. Hood, The Minoans (1971), p. 31. 22 Sinclair hood [BCH Suppl XI
conventions into an âge when they had long been abandoned in other parts of the
civilised world of the Near East.4
The most décisive and important of thèse primitive features which were retained
by Minoan artists— and by Cycladic and Mycenaean ones following in their steps —
was the liberty to dispense with a ground-line for figures of men and animais when
it suited them. Many of the figures in the Thera wall-paintings of the 16th century
B.C. are represented 'in the air' without their feet resting on ground-lines.5 The
same is still true in the case of the much later of the 13th century B.C.
in the Palace of Nestor at Pylos on the Greek mainland.6 Even when a convenient
ground-line was readily available the artist might choose to ignore it.7
The animais and other figures depicted in the great cave-sanctuaries of the
Upper Palaeolithic in France and Spain were set in a comparable manner without
ground-lines on the rocky walls and ceilings. I hâve not corne across any examples
of artificial ground-lines on which figures stand in Palaeolithic cave art, although
it is true that in some instances natural lines in the rock seem to hâve been deliber-
ately adopted as ground-lines for the figures.8 A lack of artificial ground-lines
is also a feature of the later rock-shelter art of Spain and Portugal. It is interesting
that an absence of for the figures similarly appears to be a feature of the
art of Çatal Huyuk assignable to the Early Neolithic of Anatolia.9
In Egyptian art from the time of the Old Kingdom onwards a ground-line
on which figures could stand was de rigueur. But it was not always so in Egypt.
Ground-lines are entirely lacking for instance in the paintings which graced the walls
of Predynastic Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis.10 Tomb 100 was probably a royal
sepulchre in which one of the Predynastic kings of this région of Egypt was buried.11
Ground-lines are still only employed in a partial and haphazard manner on the
carved slate palettes of late and earliest Dynastie times. For example,
there are no ground-lines for the figures on the Two Gazelles palette;12 but on that
of Narmer, dating from about the time of the beginning of the First Dynasty, ground-
lines are much in évidence.13
Not many remains of large-scale early painting hâve survived to us elsewhere
in the Near East. But a fragmentary wall-painting at Teleilat Ghassul in Palestine,
contemporary perhaps with an early phase of the Predynastic period in Egypt,
shows a ground-line on which the feet of several figures or their footstools are rest-
(4) Cf. S. Hood, Arts (1978), p. 235.
(5) E.g. the warriors and animais above them in the Miniature Frieze from the West House, Thera VI,
Colour Plate 7 (right).
(6) E.g. M. L. Lang, PN II (1969), Nos. 5 H 5, 16 H 43, 21 H 48, 28 H 64, 12 C 43.
(7) E.g. Thera IV, Colour Plate D.
(8) Several examples in Lascaux, e.g. the 'Unicorn' and 'Chinese' horse (F. Windels, The Lascaux Cave
Paintings [1949], p. 52f.).
(9) J. Mellaart, Çatal Huyuk (1967), passim.
(10) J. E. Quibell and F. W. Green, Hierakonpolis Part II (1902), p. 20-22, pi. LXXV-LXXVIII.
For the date of the tomb, see H. Case and J. C. Payne, Journal of Egyplian Archaeology 48 (1962), p. 5-18;
J. C. Payne, ibid. 49 (1973), p. 31-35. I am grateful to Dr. Alessandra Nibbi for thèse références.
(11) See Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 48 (1962), p. 17f.; ibid. 59 (1973), p. 34.
(12) W. M. F. Pétrie, Cérémonial Slale Palettes (1953), pi. E.
ing.14 A smaller figure, however, to their left is depicted as if floating in the air
above the ground-line; and in gênerai what has survived of wall décoration from
Teleilat Ghassul appears to hâve been slapped on to a background in the casual and
unorganised fashion characteristic of the earlier paintings of Çatal Hiiyuk and the
Iberian rock-shelters.
The wall-paintings of Tel Uqair in Mesopotamia are considerably later than those
of Teleilat Ghassul and are assigned to the Uruk period.15 There is some use of
ground-lines in them; but the léopard which flanks the altar stairs is resting in the
air, as are the figures in the Warka stèle dates from this or from the succeeding
Jemdet Nasr period.16 The stèle is as innocent of ground-lines as are many
of the roughly contemporary slate relief palettes of Egypt.
Ground-lines were evidently standard, however, in Mesopotamia by the time
of the Stèle of the Vultures (stèle of Ur Nammu) dating from the time of the First
Dynasty of Ur.17 The ground-line hère is partly composed of the bodies of fallen
enemies on top of which the men of Ur are trampling their way to victory. Compare
the rather later stèle of Naram Sin of the Dynasty of Akkad.18 Ground-lines appear
to be présent everywhere in the wall-paintings at Mari assigned to the time of
Hammurabi or not much earlier.19
A second primitive feature of Minoan art, which is to some extent connected
with this liberty to dispense with ground-lines, is freedom from the necessity of a rigid
or formai scheme of composition. Cretan artists, and Mycenaean ones after them,
were quite capable of devising formai compositions, or ones of a heraldic nature
with symmetrically arranged pairs of animais, when it suited them. But, like
the Mesolithic artists and those of Çatal Hiiyuk after them, they felt able to dispense
with anything of the kind when they wished. Scènes in their paintings were normally
unrestrained by vertical boundary lines, and might go round the corners of rooms,
as in the case of the Thera Monkey Fresco.20 Vertical borders for scènes in paintings,
as found on the Knossos Taureador Fresco, were exceptional.21
A third primitive feature of Minoan art, which is also connected with the liberty
to dispense with ground-lines, is the convention of the Flying Gallop for running
animais together with the related of the Knielauf run for human figures.
A version of the Flying Gallop for animais is found as early as the Upper Palaeolithic,
although it does not appear to be common then;22 but in a developed form it is characte
ristic of the later rock-shelter art of Iberia. The Knielauf pose for running human
figures is attested at Çatal Hûyuk.23 The earliest évidence for the Knielauf pose
(14) A. Mallon, R. Kôeppel, R. Neuville, Teileilâl Ghassul I (1934), p. 130f., pi. 66.
(15) S. Lloyd and F. Safar, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2 (1943), p. 131-158, pi. X-XII.
(16) Ibid., pi. X, bottom. A. Moortgat, The Art of Ancient Mesopotamia (1969), pi. 14.
(17)pi. 118-121, esp. pi. 119.
(18) Ibid., pi. 155-156.
(19) A. Parrot, Mari II, Le Palais 2, Peintures murales (1958), passim.
(20) Thera V, pi. D.
(21) PM III, p. 213, fig. 144.
(22) E.g. the wild boar from Altamira, reproduced in A. Leroi-Gourhan, The Art of Prehistoric Man
(1968), pi. 117.
(23) J. Mellaart, Çatal Hùyùk (1967), Colour Plate XIII. 24 SINCLAIR HOOD [BCH Suppl XI
so far in Crète dates from Late Minoan 1 Β in the early 15th century B.C. when
goat-headed monsters on seal impressions from Zakro are seen running in this
manner.24 The Flying Gallop, however, is found in Crète as early as the time of the
Phaistos deposit of seal impressions assignable to Middle Minoan II c. 1700 B.C.
or earlier.25
Neither the Flying Gallop nor the Knielauf convention for running can easily
be combined with the use of ground-lines. The Egyptians in fact in Dynastie
times showed people running by setting their legs wide apart with both feet firmly
planted on the ground.26 The Flying Gallop only became popular in Egyptian art
at a relatively late period, and then no doubt under influence from the Aegean;27
the New Kingdom convention for showing a chariot horse with forelegs raised and
hind legs on the ground may be an adaptation of the Flying Gallop.28
We now come to some other primitive features of Minoan art which are not
obviously connected with freedom from the limitations imposed by the use of a
ground-line like those so far considered.
One of thèse is the représentation of human figures in wall-paintings without
outlines round them. In Egyptian painting of the Dynastie period human figures
seem to be invariably depicted with visible outlines in a différent shade of colour,
although at times such outlines may be very discrète and difficult to detect in repro
ductions. In Mesopotamian painting to judge from what survives at Mari, datable
c. 1800 B.C. or not much earlier, the outlines round figures are aggressively prominent,
as they tend to be on the more or less contemporary paintings on the walls of Middle
Kingdom tombs at Béni Hasan in Egypt. In the Aegean by contrast even life-size
or nearly life-size figures are often depicted without any outlines at ail.29 Human
figures in Iberian rock-shelters and in the Early Neolithic seulement of Çatal Hiiyuk
were similarly painted without outlines.
A fifth primitive feature of Minoan and later Aegean painting related to this
last is the rendering of the human figure as an uniform flat surface without any
attempt to show contours or muscles by lines or shading. An apparently unique
exception once again is provided by the Knossos Taureador Fresco where some of the
figures hâve internai markings.30 The lack of internai markings is in fact a
convention which also seems to hâve been retained in Egyptian painting as far as
the human figure was concerned. But the Egyptian artist could depict an animal
like the favourite dog in the Tomb of Nebamun at Thebes dated c. 1475 B.C. with
an array of carefully drawn internai lines showing joints and muscles.31 In
Mesopotamia, to judge from Mari, internai markings of a highly stylised kind were
normal. ^
(24) JHS 22 (1902), p. 80, flg. 12, No. 34.
(25) AnnScAtene 35-36 (N. S. 19-20) (1957-58), p. 116, flg. 298, Tipo 233.
(26) H. Schàfer, Principles of Egyptian Art (translated and edited by John Baines) (1974), p. 16, pi. 30.
l27) W. Stevenson Smith, Interconnections in the Ancient Near East (1965), p. 26, 77, 155.
(28) Ibid., p. 27.
(29) E.g. the Thera Boxers and Fishermen, Thera IV, Colour Plate E; Thera VI, Colour Plate 6.
(30) E.g. PM III, Colour Plate XXI opposite p. 216.
(31) Nina M. Davies, Ancient Egyptian Paintings I (1936), pi. XV.
(32) E.g. A. Parrot, Mari II, Le Palais 2, Peintures murales (1958), flgs. 25, 26, 72-74, 77; pi. VI, XVII,
A sixth feature which may reflect the continuance of a primitive tradition in
Minoan art and the subséquent art of the Aegean area is the use of white paint for
the flesh of women contrasting with a deep red for that of men. The Ayia Triadha
sarcophagus illustrâtes this convention well; it is datable c. 1400 B.C. or later, after
the Mycenaean conquest of Crète, but the convention is attested earlier there and
elsewhere in the Aegean. There is some évidence that the same convention of using
white to indicate the flesh of women was followed at Çatal Huyuk, although James
Mellaart notes that women were also upon occasion painted red there and suggests
the possibility that white paint was intended to represent clothing rather than skin
colour.33 At least one figure, however, which appears to be female on a wall at
Çatal Hiiyuk is entirely white.34 Men at Çatal Huyuk are regularly painted
brown as later in Crète.35
In the world of the mature Bronze Age in the Near East this use of white paint
for the flesh of women seems to be something peculiar to Crète in the first instance
and eventually to the Aegean area as a whole. The Egyptians also distinguished
the skin colour of men from that of women, but only by making slight différences
in the shades of brown used for them. Moreover Egyptian artists were by no means
always consistent, and upon occasion rendered men in light brown and women in
dark brown. In Mesopotamia, to judge from the paintings at Mari, the same dark
brown colour was used both for the flesh of women and goddesses and for that of
gods and men. Thus in the painting in the Audience Chamber at Mari the goddess
Ishtar and the company of gods and goddesses round her ail hâve flesh painted the
same dark brown colour.36
A seventh and last feature of Minoan art which may be a survival from much
earlier times is the use of plaster relief combined with painting. Painted reliefs
of clay or plaster abound at Çatal Hiiyuk; 37 but as far as 1 hâve been able to discover
they hâve not yet come to light in Egypt or Mesopotamia, although stone reliefs
occur in both régions from Predynastic times onwards.
Fritz Schachermeyr in particular has emphasised that Minoan art shows a
distinct affînity with that of Éarly Neolithic Çatal Huyuk and with that of the more
remote Mesolithic as known to us from the paintings in Iberian rock-shelters. But
he has felt a diffîculty about seeing a direct connection in view of the very considérable
gap in time and in the absence of any obvious intermediary links between the
Mesolithic and earliest Neolithic of the Mediterranean area on the one hand and the
mature Bronze Age of Crète on the other.38
It is now clear, however, from discoveries at Phaistos that plaster on Cretan
walls and floors was being decorated with designs in paint before the end of the
(33) J. Mellaart, Çatal Hûyùk (1967), p. 150f.
(34) Ibid., pi. 53.
(35)p. 150.
(36) A. Parrot, Mari II, Le Palais 2, Peintures murales (1958), Colour Plate L·.
(37) E.g. J. Mellaart, Çatal Hûyùk (1967), Colour Plate VIL
(38) F. Schachermeyr, "Die Szenenkomposition der minoischen Bildkunst und ihre Bedeutung fur die
Beurteilung der altkretischen Kultur", KretChron 15-16 (1961-62) I, p. 177-185. Sinclair hood [BCH Suppl XI 26
Middle Minoan I period.39 There is also one small fragment of decorated plaster
which appears to corne from a safe context of the Final Neolithic at Phaistos.40
This Final Neolithic fragment has remains of a géométrie design in red on a white
ground, and suggests a comparison with some of the décorative patterns on walls
at Çatal Huyuk.41
The évidence from Myrtos-Fournou Korifî is ambiguous, but it does not absolu tely
preclude the existence of décorative wall plaster in Early Minoan II there. Mark
Cameron notes that while "only a red or brownish red paint is certainly attested"...
"other colours derived from earth pigments, possibly including yellow ochres, may
hâve been used occasionally"; and he later suggests the possibility "that some
elementary artistic ornamentation may hâve been attempted, by contrasting painted
with unpainted areas".42 Painted relief plaster may hâve existed at Knossos by
Middle Minoan II to judge from a fragment from the fill of a drain south of the Royal
Road there.43
It is worth bearing in mind in considering such questions how very little is known
as yet about early wall-paintings in Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia, where the
conditions for their survival are infînitely more favourable than they are in Crète.
It should also be remembered that the early paintings of Anatolia were totally
unknown before the spectacular discoveries made by James Mellaart at Çatal Hiiyuk.
The évidence from Phaistos suggests that it was already the practice to decorate
walls in Crète with painted designs before the end of the Neolithic there. It is indeed
tempting to consider whether the custom of painting designs on walls might not hâve
been introduced to Crète by the first Neolithic settlers back in the 7th or 6th mill-
ennium B.C. In the light of the discoveries at Çatal Hiiyiik one may well ask:
Why not? Pourquoi pas?
Sinclair Hood.
N. Marinatos demande à S. Hood de préciser sa définition du terme « primitif » et
s'interroge sur la signification culturelle des conventions artistiques.
S. Hood précise que le terme « primitif » est utilisé dans un sens surtout temporel
(== « primeval»). Le fait pour l'art minoen de ne pas avoir adopté certaines conventions,
comme la ligne de sol, qui existait en Egypte, constituait une sorte de recul, mais dont les
Minoens ont su tirer un remarquable parti artistique.
Ghr. Doumas fait remarquer que l'absence de ligne de sol se retrouve dans la céramique
du Gycladique Moyen, comme dans le style de Fikellura à Rhodes.
(39) E.g. fragments of wall plaster from a deposit of Phase I in Vano LXII, and the decorated floor of
the same date in room LIV, Festàs I, p. 106f., flg. 142, and p. 85f., pi. LXXXV a).
(40) L. Vagnetti, AnnScAlene 50-51 (N. S. 34-35) (1972-73) [1975], p. 95 and 117, flg. 133:6.
(41) E.g. J. Mellaart, Çalal Huyuk (1967), Colour Plate VII.
(42) M. A. S. Cameron, in P. Warren, Myrlos (1972), p. 305-309, esp. p. 306 and 308.
(43) B. Kaiser, Uniersuchungen (1976), p. 286, RR 7, from Royal Road: South, Ε 36Α, which wae
apparently a pure deposit of Middle Minoan II. PRIMITIVE MINOAN ARTISTIC CONVENTION 27 1985]
L. Morgan souligne que certaines conventions (absence de ligne de sol, de trait de contour,
association peinture-relief) peuvent aider à distinguer l'art minoen de l'art mycénien.
P. Warren observe que de la communication de S. Hood ressort l'idée que les Minoens
ont dû reprendre et conserver des éléments antérieurs appartenant à une communauté
anatolienne et proche-orientale. Il se demande si un tel lien avec les formes orientales a bien
S. Hood insiste sur les relations qui ont existé, dès l'époque néolithique, entre la Crète
et l'Anatolie, et note par ailleurs que la tendance à maintenir d'anciennes traditions est un
phénomène répandu dans l'histoire des sociétés humaines.
0. Pelon observe que les jalons intermédiaires manquent entre l'art de Çatal Huyiik
et celui de la Crète. D'autre part les conventions picturales (couleur blanche pour les femmes,
brune pour les hommes) ne sont pas aussi absolues à Çatal Huyiik qu'en Crète.
1. Pini précise qu'une ligne de sol est assez souvent marquée en Crète sur les sceaux à
partir du MM II, et très fréquente ensuite sur le Continent pour structurer la composition.