Minoan and Mycenaean Greek Painting
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Bronze Age Greek Painting

dolphins knossos
Dolphin fresco, Knossos, Crete

May 2016 - Although people in Northern Europe were doing cave paintings tens of thousands of years earlier, the first paintings from Greece are not until the Late Bronze Age, about 1700 BC. They come from the island of Crete, where the Minoans lived.

three women with long black curls

Minoan people created these paintings as wall decorations in the palaces of the Minoan kings and queens. When they plastered the walls, they brushed paint onto the wet plaster, so that the paint soaked into the plaster as it dried: that's called a fresco painting ("fresco" means "fresh".

Like the earlier cave painters further north, the Minoans were very interested in nature, and loved to paint life-like plants and animals. These three people - probably slaves - are bull-dancing, which seems to have been a popular kind of gymnastics in ancient Crete - maybe a competition, or maybe like gladiatorial games.

woman with long hair
Mycenaean woman (from Mycenae, ca. 1400 BC)
dogs attacking a boar
Boar hunt from Tiryns (ca. 1300 BC)

Across the Aegean Sea in mainland Greece, the Mycenaean Greeks were happy at first just to copy Minoan painting, but soon they changed the style to suit themselves. Mycenaean paintings were also fresco paintings on the walls of their palaces, but they are stiffer and more formal than Minoan paintings. Mycenaean artists were more interested in people and horses and less interested in nature. When there are animals, they're working with humans: here hunting dogs attack a wild boar. You might say that the Mycenaean style is a mixture of the natural European style with the more formal, stiffer West Asian style.

Learn by doing: Greek gold bowl
More about Greek painting

Bibliography and further reading about Bronze Age Greek painting:

greek art

Ancient Greek Art, by Susie Hodge (1998)- easy reading.

Minoan and Mycenaean Art, by Reynold Higgins (2nd revised edition 1997) The standard book for college students.

Aegean Art and Architecture (Oxford History of Art), by Donald Preziosi, Louise A. Hitchcock (2000)

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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