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Reconstructing Minoan Art: Don't bet your religion on it

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

As we develop a spiritual practice in Modern Minoan Paganism, one of the sources we look to for inspiration is ancient Minoan art. After all, we have dozens of beautiful frescoes that tell us so much about the world of Bronze Age Crete. Or do they? It turns out, an awful lot of what we think we know is guesswork, often of the worst kind.

That beautiful image at the top of this post is the Prince of the Lilies fresco from Knossos. It's one of my favorite pieces of Minoan art. In fact, it's what inspired me to create The Minoan Tarot. Sir Arthur Evans pointed to it as evidence that there was, indeed, a king ruling at Knossos in Minoan times. But that picture up top is a reconstruction, an artist's rendering of what the original might have looked like, and many people consider it to be totally inaccurate. Let's have a look at the original as it's displayed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum:

 

Prince of the Lilies fresco from Knossos

 

As you can see, the majority of the original work is missing. But what's more concerning is that the skin on the original figure isn't the reddish-tan that the Minoans used to depict men, but is very clearly the white that Minoan artists used to depict women. So this isn't a prince at all, and probably not a princess either. In fact, the only instance we have in Minoan art of a woman wearing the loincloth-and-codpiece garment that this figure is wearing is in the Bull Leaper fresco: the female bull-leapers. (I'll get to that fresco in just a minute.)

So this is probably a female bull-leaper, not a male prince. And you'll note that there aren't any lilies at all in the original. Émile Gilliéron, the talented artist who did the fresco reconstructions for Sir Arthur Evans (and who apparently forged some "ancient Minoan" art and jewelry as well) simply added them because he wanted to. And that awesome hat? It may not even belong to the human figure at all. The only other creature in Minoan art that wears that kind of headdress is a griffin, not a human being.

Here's the thing: These frescoes weren't found in place on the walls of the Minoan-era buildings. They were found in pieces, in heaps on the floor, where they had fallen ages ago. The archaeologists had to separate the bits and clean them carefully, doing their best to save as much as they could. Then they had to guess how they went back together. But we don't have any full frescoes from Minoan Crete, just fragments, half or less of each original fresco. In some cases, all we have is a few pieces out of a large original.

That's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that's missing more than half the pieces, when you don't have the box so you have no idea what the picture is supposed to be.

Back to the Bull Leaper fresco I mentioned above. It's also a very famous work of Minoan art:

 

Bull Leaper fresco from Knossos

 

If you look closely, you can see that we have far less than half of the original fresco - the rest is a best guess reconstruction. In fact, almost none of the lower border remains, and a fair portion of the bull is missing. It's fairly obvious where the human figures overlap with the bull, so we've probably got that part right, but as for the rest of it? Just a best guess.

Here's one case where a best guess went badly wrong. This piece was originally called the Blue Boy fresco. It's from Knossos:

 

Blue Boy fresco from Knossos

 

It turns out, that's a monkey, not a boy (note the fragmentary tail above and to the right of the figure). But the original reconstruction ignored that bit. This is one of the more glaring (and infamous) errors in Minoan fresco reconstruction, which is why it's a really bad idea to base major theories on any of them.

One other issue with the fresco reconstruction - and the reconstruction of the temple complex building at Knossos, for that matter - is the color palette. These frescoes are 3500 to 4000 years old. The color has faded a bit from the original, as you might expect. The originals were probably much brighter, possibly almost "cartoon bright" by our modern standards.

But all these reconstructions were done during the early decades of the 20th century, when Art Deco was all the rage. Yep, that's an Art Deco color palette you see in the frescoes, as well as on the columns and windowsills at Knossos. Probably not the way the originals looked, if we're really honest.

So we can certainly take inspiration from Minoan art. I know I do, both for my own art and for my spiritual practice. But we need to hold our interpretations with a loose hand and be ready to revise them when new information comes to light.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; my most recent work is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Teresa Byrne
    Teresa Byrne Friday, 22 September 2017

    Thank you for this honest look at Minoan art. There is so much misinformation out there which is extremely frustrating.

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