What is Art For? Part 8

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 4: The Mediterranean Bronze Age

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art, in ‘What is Art For?’ Part 8.

A cat chases a goose beside a winding stream in – for the first time in European art – a vibrant landscape. Of course it’s not like a Renaissance landscape: animals and plants are shown in profile, but the stream is portrayed as on a map, viewed from above. Minoan fresco from Akrotiri, on Thera (now Santorini). Ca. 1600 BC.

Left: A fisherman carries his catch towards an altar in the corner of the room.  Right: Blue monkeys leap among honeycomb rocks, pursued by a dog. Details from Akrotiri frescoes.

I always feel happy when I look at Minoan art. It has a real sense of fun. There was never anything like it before, and there won’t be anything like it again until the rise of Etruscan civilization, eight hundred years later. Minoan art seems to celebrate life with a genuine love of humanity and nature. It’s like a vital breath of fresh air – in contrast to the stilted and static art of the first civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. To my mind, the achievements of Minoan artists, in the context of their times, are as impressive as those of the Italian Renaissance, and might have been of greater historical importance had their civilization not been colonized by grim Greeks from Mycenae. 

That is the great tragedy of early European civilizations – to put it in very crude terms – societies that enjoy life get snuffed out by societies that don’t. First the Minoans succumbed to the Mycenaeans, then the Etruscans to the Romans. The Etruscans were flourishing over two hundred years before “the Great Awakening” (to borrow a phrase from Ernst Gombrich) in Classical Greece. But in its turn, Greece too was vanquished by Rome. At least the Romans (despite a professed disdain for the frivolity of art) had the sense to collect what they could not create, and because Roman demand for Greek art greatly exceeded the supply, made marble copies on a near industrial scale. In fact most of the Greek art known to us today is in the form of Roman copies.

Of course Mycenae and Rome collapsed in their turn, but not for the same reason. Whilst the ultimate fate of the Mycenaeans is hotly debated, I suspect it was similar to the decline of Rome. There were threats and invasions from outside, but Rome was ultimately destroyed from within. Carl Jung suggested that Romans were infected by endemic depression contracted from its teeming slave population. The populace sought escape from their ennui by the increasingly bloody Roman Games. The common people were oppressed by increasingly brutal taxation, whilst the elite became ever more corrupt and decadent. Envy created by the power structure led to civil conflicts, and emperors were regularly murdered, often by their own Praetorian Guard. Ultimately, Rome was destroyed by the miseries it created.

There were three major Aegean cultures in the Bronze Age. First the Cycladic, from the Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age; then, in the Middle Bronze Age, the Minoans, builders of splendid palaces and cities; then the warrior Mycenaeans in the Later Bronze Age, who learned to read and write from the Minoans. Just as the Romans copied Greek art, so the Mycenaeans copied Minoan art, and employed Minoan artists.

Cycladic Art

Cycladic culture was not “civilized” in the sense of having cities. These were small scattered societies living on the islands of the Cyclades (the name means “Around Delos” – Delos being a tiny island that has been sacred from the Neolithic to historic times). They were farmers and fishermen, who apparently excelled at spearing Tuna from their tiny boats. Cycladic art mostly consists of highly abstract figures carved from marble with stone tools and polished with an abrasive. Most of these were produced during the Grotta-Pelos and Keros-Syros cultures. The figures seem to have been popular all around the Aegean, for we find them in Crete and mainland Greece, where Helladic art was much influenced by them. 

Grotta-Pelos figures with phallic heads. Early Cycladic I (3300–2700 BC).

Grotta-Pelos figures retain the phallic or pillar-like heads typical of the eastern Neolithic and, like them, are probably female. Most of the later Keros-Syros figures are clearly female, sometimes pregnant, with arms folded across their chests. They are mostly small, but a few are near life-size. It appears that many were intended as grave goods, but unfortunately they became popular with collectors in the 1950s because of their perceived similarity to “modern art”, such as the work of Jean Arp and Constantin Brâncuși. Many famous artists even imitated them, including Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Alberto Giacometti, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore.

Enthusiastic collectors might have been disappointed to learn that the pure white figures they admired were originally painted in bright colours. Details that were not carved, such as eyes and mouths, were, at least in some cases,  painted on. Some were decorated with patterns of dots or zigzags. The collecting trade led to rampant looting (and prolific forging) of Cycladic sculpture and a major loss to archaeological research. 

By 2000 BC, Cycladic art was being displaced by the rising influence of Minoan Crete.

Keros-Syros “folded arms figures”. Early Cycladic II (2800-2300 BC).

The Minoans

The Minoans created the first true civilization in Europe. From their origins on the island of Crete they became wealthy and powerful, not by warfare, but by trade. Theirs was a Middle Bronze Age seafaring nation, with lucrative exchange relations right across the Mediterranean, from Anatolia to Iberia, to all the Greek islands and mainland Greece, and from ancient Egypt to Canaan (in present day Israel). Their colonies may have been relatively independent, willingly accepting Minoan dominance which brought prosperity to all.


Because the Minoans wrote their language in a script called “Linear A”, which has never been deciphered, we know little about their society beyond what can be inferred from their art, archaeological excavations, and dubious depictions by foreigners. We do not even know what the Minoans called themselves – the name “Minoan” was coined by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, based on the Greek legend of King Minos, whose wife had an illicit affair with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull. The King’s engineer, Daedelus, devised the famous Labyrinth at Knossos in which the Minotaur could be contained. Minos, because the Athenians killed his son, took revenge by exacting tribute from Athens – seven youths and seven maidens every year, to be devoured by the Minotaur.

This ended when Theseus killed the Minotaur, and fled from Crete with the King’s beautiful daughter Ariadne (whom he then, in cavalier Greek fashion, left to die on Naxos, whence she was rescued and married by Dionysus – a much more interesting husband).

The palace of Knossos, Crete, capital of the Minoan civilization and legendary home of the Minotaur. Restored north entrance with a painted relief of a charging bull. The pillars are cypress trunks, inverted to prevent them from sprouting. The vast palace complex, in places perhaps four stories tall, had around 1300 rooms, a theatre, and many light wells and courtyards so that all rooms were well lit. The entire complex covered six acres (24,000 m2).

Minoan wealth was built on sea power. The miniature Flotilla Fresco, in Akrotiri, shows seven galleys, a sail boat, and a dinghy between two sea ports. Two boats are already docked at the destination port. This combination of seascape, landscape, and townscape is another first in the known history of art. The whole fresco is almost 4 m long and 44 cm tall, and ran along the epikranitis course – that is, the top level of the wall, above the doors and windows in the room. The wall below has two fishermen frescoes – one of them illustrated above.

One of the major Minoan cities was Akrotiri, on the island of Thera (now called Santorini). There were probably other important cities on that island, but somewhere between 1621 and 1525 BC one of the biggest explosions in human history ripped the centre out of the island. All that remains is a broken ring of islands surrounding the caldera – the original magma chamber of the volcano – now filled with sea water. What remained of the island was buried under a 60 meter (200 ft) thick layer of ash and pumice. But, unlike Pompeii, no bodies have been found. It seems the volcano gave the inhabitants a few months warning with a minor eruption, and the populace was successfully evacuated.

The effects of this vast eruption can be traced all across the northern hemisphere. The north coast of Crete, 148 km (92 miles) away, was devastated by tsunamis 35 to 150 m (115 to 492 ft) high. Subsequent earthquakes caused further damage. This apocalyptic event may have been the origin of Plato’s account of Atlantis, where a civilization of “great and marvellous power” was engulfed by the sea.

Minoan civilization lasted almost 2000 years. It survived the volcanic disaster, continuing to thrive for at least a century, but did not survive conquest by Mycenaean Greeks. The destruction of Akrotiri, however, had – from our point of view – one happy consequence. The art was remarkably well preserved. Whilst the Minoan capital at Knossos had a wealth of fine frescoes, these were badly damaged and have been extensively “restored”, some from just a few fragments of coloured plaster. These “restorations” lack the richness of detail and lively decoration found in Akrotiri, and so most of the art I show here is from that city.

Delicately drawn maidens gather saffron in a rocky field of crocuses. The girl on the left uses a saffron crocus to heal her bleeding foot. Fresco from Akrotiri.

Minoan art is revolutionary. In their frescoes and other artworks, Minoans were the first to depict almost everything around them – people and everyday life; animals, plants, fruits and flowers; exuberant landscapes and panoramic seascapes. These artists were not so much concerned with precise realism than with bold curving lines, carefree drawing, rhythmic forms, and vibrant colours. They seem to have broken free from the constraints that, for twelve thousand years, had suppressed the confident and apparently effortless art of the Ice Age (Part 5). But this new art was much different from everything before it. Perhaps its greatest accomplishment was its harmonious fusion of the two kinds of art I have mentioned in child development and in human evolution – (1) aesthetic patterns of form and colour, and (2) representations of human and natural realities. It’s a happy combination.

Swallows court and dance – or fight! – over a fanciful floral landscape. Believed to be the first depiction of a purely natural scene in the history of European art. Two details from the “Spring Fresco” in Akrotiri.

Equally remarkable are the subjects they did not portray. Conspicuously absent are scenes of warfare, so characteristic of early civilizations. It is also striking that Minoan cities and palaces lacked defensive walls, and no weapons have been found before the arrival of Greek colonists. There are no triumphal monuments, no images of kings and queens, and no apparent gods. There are many “goddess” images, though most of them are very small, and it is usually difficult to tell whether a figure is a goddess, a priestess, or an ordinary supplicant. Archaeologists have interpreted specific figures as a mountain goddess, a dove goddess, a poppy goddess, a snake goddess, a goddess of animals, and a goddess of childbirth. All these “goddesses” might be different aspects of a single deity. 

Particularly famous are two “snake goddess” figurines, and a possible third, fashioned in faience – a paste made of crushed quartz which, when fired, gives a glazed finish with bright colours and a lustrous sheen. There is one later bronze and some votive figures which appear to have similar features. This “goddess” has Syrian parallels and may be a precursor to Athena Parthenos (“Virgin Athena”, after whom the Parthenon is named), also associated with snakes. In many parts of the world the snake is associated with healing, renewal, and immortality, because of its apparent ability to rejuvenate itself by shedding its skin. The staff of Asclepius, god of healing in classical Greece and Rome, has a snake twined around it; whilst the winged caduceus of Hermes, with two entwined snakes, remains an emblem of medicine to this day.

“Snake Goddess” figurines from Knossos, c. 1600 BC, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete

Archaeologists were initially unwilling to decide whether Minoan religion was monotheistic – worshiping a single Great Mother. Monotheism seems unlikely in a Bronze Age society and most scholars now think there must have been gods, though there is no unequivocal evidence of this. Akhenaten became Pharaoh of Egypt during the Bronze Age, around 1353 or 1351 BC, coinciding with the tail end of Minoan civilization. He founded what is regarded as the first monotheistic religion – devoted to the sun-god Aten – banning the worship of all other gods, and demolishing their temples. His motives were probably political. By establishing himself as the only mouthpiece of the only god, he consolidated his power, and ensured that revenue streams to other temples were redirected to himself and his queen. 

Sigmund Freud theorised that Moses was not the son of a Hebrew mother, but was actually an Egyptian and a devotee of Aten, shocked by the way monotheism was rejected by Egyptians so soon after Akhenaten’s death. The teachings of Moses, especially the first two of the Ten Commandments, are remarkably similar to the rulings of Akhenaten. The possible dating of the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt does not rule out the possibility that Akhenaten planted the seed of the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Ladies with bare breasts and elaborate hair adornments. “Restored” late Minoan fresco, Knossos, 1400-1100 BC.

The predominance of potential goddess images in Minoan art, together with the way women are so frequently portrayed, has led some scholars to believe that Minoan society was matriarchal. Again this seems unlikely in a Bronze Age culture centred on the vast palace complex of Knossos – which in itself implies hierarchy. On the other hand, there are no signs of the misogyny and inequity of Greece and Rome, and none of the erotica that typifies such societies – notably the Roman brothel murals and homosexual scenes on Greek drinking cups. There is no evidence of slavery, except in the Linear B scripts, written by Greeks who ruled Crete at the tail end of Minoan culture. At the height of Minoan prosperity, the homes of wealthier citizens had many of the same amenities found in the palace of Knossos – such as under-floor heating, hot and cold running water, and flushing toilets. 

High born Minoan ladies wore beads in their hair and elaborate dresses with flounced sleeves, long, often multi-layered skirts, and fitted bodices which frequently exposed the breasts or even the entire front down to the navel. Some figures in the art are entirely naked. Yet despite this liberal attitude to bare flesh, there are few depictions of pregnancy and none of birth, breast feeding, or sexual intercourse. Apparently the Minoans had their own strict standards of propriety, however different from ours.

Whilst the Minotaur is legendary, bulls do feature prominently in Minoan art. In this famous bull-vaulting fresco the figure on the left, perhaps one of a group who would control or cushion the bull’s horns, and the catcher on the right, are female (based on Minoan colour conventions). Knossos, ca. 1450-1400 BC.

On either side of a doorway in Akrotiri, two adolescent boys boxing on the left have rhythmic outlines similar to the two sprightly gazelles on the right.

Marine themes were popular in Minoan art. This dolphin scene from Akrotiri is similar to but more finely decorated than another (highly restored) at Knossos. Note that the rocks and seaweed of the sea bed are repeated, inverted, at the top of the fresco.

The boy gathering saffron, in this heavily “restored” fresco, was probably a monkey in the original. The work uses the same spatial convention as the Akrotiri dolphins: the crocus field is repeated in the “stalactite” and “stalagmite” positions. Since Minoans did not portray the sky in their landscapes, this allows the artist to animate what would otherwise be a “dead” space. From the palace of Knossos.

The way Minoan artists often represent space on a two-dimensional surface has something in common with the way young children do it. Whilst figures and objects are shown upright, the surroundings are often indicated as if seen from above, as on a map. If children under the age of eight are asked to draw a cube, they will either draw a simple square or an arrangement of squares, because all faces are square. Similarly, a table may be drawn with legs in profile, but the top as an upturned rectangle. They draw what they know rather than what they see.

Does this mean that Minoan artists were “primitive” or “child-like”? Of course not. There are several points to bear in mind here. Firstly, modern people have a concept of “Art” based on centuries of history. Since the Renaissance, European art increasingly developed a kind of optical realism – that is, how things appear to the single eye of an observer. But to the extent that an artist aims to represent three-dimensional things on a two-dimensional surface, the task is to convey this information visually. There are multiple ways of doing that “realistically”. An architect may favour an isotropic projection, in which all lines are drawn to the same scale. An engineer may show how things are assembled in an “exploded” view. A cartographer draws a map. It all depends on what the artist needs to convey.


Although Minoan culture was influenced by Egyptian art, it is highly original. The nearest approach to landscape in Egyptian art is in scenes of hunting and fishing where the aim is to show Man dominating Nature. Minoans portrayed nature as such, virtually inventing the genre de novo. They were free to handle it in whatever way they chose, and what they chose was a lively and vibrant arrangement of colour and form using more than one kind of “realism”. In the dolphin mural above, the sea bed is shown twice, which no child would think of doing – in the “stalagmite” and “stalactite” positions, framing the underwater space. The same convention is apparent in the crocus field below it.

A second and more important point is that it took 40,000 years for European artists to discover perspective and foreshortening. By the age of twelve, most European children today have been taught to use such optical devices, after going through the developmental stages outlined in Part 3. Those stages seem to serve a necessary developmental function.

What has surprised many behavioural scientists is that autistic children with artistic talent – so-called “savants” – like Nadia Chomyn, draw with perspective and foreshortening from the outset. Nadia’s work has been compared with that of Leonardo da Vinci, which to my mind suggests that Renaissance culture was taking a step closer to culturally-induced autism. Curiously, after Nadia received social support, she started to go through the infantile stages outlined in Part 3. Sometimes the two kinds of art appeared in a single picture. Finally she lost all interest in drawing despite all efforts encouraging her to continue.

Drawings by Nadia Chomyn, aged 5, and Leonardo da Vinci, aged 55.

So why is it that autistic children spontaneously achieve what took normal artists millennia to discover? I think the answer is simple. Optical realism – portraying something as it appears to a single eye – is by definition egocentric. Non-autistic people are highly social, or allocentric, whereas autistic people, who cannot cope with social contact, are egocentric. Further, there are two visual streams, or pathways, in the brain. The dorsal stream aids navigation – it maps space in body-centred terms, and so is necessarily egocentric. The ventral stream, on the contrary, is allocentric – it perceives the world in absolute terms, as everyone perceives it. It builds a world model that can be talked about and shared. According to social mirror theory, we are only self-consciously aware of experiences that can be shared. That I think explains why dorsal vision is not self-aware, whilst ventral vision is.

So the majority of people are not spontaneously aware of seeing in perspective, until shown an example; whereas autistic children, who shy away from the social and are not so self-aware in either visual pathway, draw from the egocentric dorsal stream. For the same reason, autistic children are not fooled by optical illusions – the dorsal stream does not impose generalised models on what it sees.

The developmental steps in child art, I believe, are essential to the development of self- and social-awareness. The way children share visual experience through art may even help to make the ventral system fully self-aware.

Mycenae and the Bronze Age Collapse

Sometime around 1400 BC, Minoan civilization succumbed to Mycenaean domination. This late Bronze Age civilization, between 1650 and 1050 BC, sustained a warrior elite society with rigid hierarchical, political, social and economic systems, centred on Mycenae in the Peloponnese, a rocky peninsula forming the southern tip of Greece between the Aegean and Ionian seas. The peninsula is almost an island, being connected to the mainland by a single isthmus about 5 km (3 miles) wide, near Corinth. The Mycenaean economy depended on slaves captured in battle, and widespread trade around the Mediterranean, where the Mycenaeans established many centres of power like Athens and Tiryns.

After subjugating Crete, they adopted the bureaucratic methods of the Minoans, and developed their syllabic Linear B script from the Minoan Linear A. The Linear B texts have been shown to be written in early Greek, but Linear B remains opaque and no one knows what the indigenous language of the Minoans was like.

Left: Lion Gate, main entrance to the citadel of Mycenae, ca. 1250 BC. The walls of the citadel elsewhere are “Cyclopean” – built from huge polyhedral blocks fitted together – and the squared stones around the gate are equally massive; the architrave over the entrance weighs around 20 tons. The lions’ heads were carved separately and are now lost.  Right: Mycenaean palace mural, 1600-1100 BC.

Mycenaean art, in contrast to the Minoan, was generally as rigid as Mycenaean society – formal, repetitive, and relatively static. A further difference was the frequent depiction of hunting and warfare. Mycenaeans did however admire Minoan art and frequently employed Minoan artists, possibly as slaves. The Mycenaeans were industrious engineers who built impressive fortifications, bridges, and beehive-shaped tombs, mostly in Cyclopean masonry – so called because later generations thought that only giants could have lifted such enormous stones. 

The Greeks never forgot their Mycenaean origins, regarding their Bronze Age past as a glorious age of heroism and conquest. Around 750 BC, hundreds of years after the Bronze Age collapse, Homer wrote his famous epics – the Iliad and Odyssey – about events during and after the legendary Trojan war, in which Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, led the combined Greek forces to recover Helen, his brother’s wife and the most beautiful woman in the world, from Troy, where she had eloped with the Trojan prince Paris. Homer described Mycenae as “rich in gold”, and this was no exaggeration. Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Mycenae in the mid-1870s, believed he had discovered the palace and tomb of King Agamemnon. The extraordinary opulence of the artefacts he found seemed to confirm Homer’s account.

Left: Gold death mask which Heinrich Schliemann believed was that of Agamemnon, though it is now thought to pre-date the Trojan War by 300 years.  Right: A column of Mycenaean warriors, portrayed like identical automata, around a krater – a bowl for mixing wine and water. Ca.1500 BC.

The damascene bronze dagger blade below is a particularly fine example of Mycenaean grave goods showing Minoan influence if not Minoan craftsmanship. The “figure of eight” shields are Minoan, whilst the “tower” shields are Mycenaean. This luxury item may never have been intended for use by the living.

A lion hunt inlayed in gold, silver, and black sulphurated niello alloy, on the bronze blade of a Mycenaean hunting dagger, Circa 16th century BC.

The Bronze Age collapse between 1200 and 1150 BC ended not only the Mycenaean kingdoms but others around the Mediterranean and Middle East, including the Hittite empire in Anatolia and the Levant, the Kassites in Babylonia, and the New Kingdom in Egypt. There was widespread chaos and many cities were violently destroyed or abandoned. The causes are unknown, though structural collapse is likely due to excessive centralization, specialization, top-heavy bureaucratic structure, overpopulation, inequity leading to revolts and defections, and interstate conflict. The period saw the dawn of the Iron Age, and the high cost of weapons in these heavily militarised states may have been unsustainable.

But life went on. Trade links were gradually re-established and there were a number of innovations – a faster potters wheel, invention of the compass to inscribe circles and arcs on pottery, and the steady spread of iron working from its earlier origin in Romania. The following centuries (1100-750 BC) are known as the “Greek Dark Age” because there are no written records. Certainly new, less centralised, societies were emerging in Greece, leading to the Archaic and Classical periods in Greek history. The Greek Archaic period saw the adoption of the first fully phonetic alphabet derived from Phoenician script.


But the dawn of the Iron Age was about to see the rise of another civilization as vivid and creative as the Minoan – the Etruscans.