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How to tell the difference between Minoan and Mycenaean art in 5 minutes
How to tell the difference between Minoan and Mycenaean art in 5 minutes

The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations flourished in Crete and mainland Greece during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, and Homer immortalized them in his two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. There is a certain similarity between them due to the fact that the Mycenaeans adopted many Minoan cultures. However, their lifestyle, society and beliefs were completely different, and this is evident in their art. The main differences in the art of the two civilizations are discussed later in the article.

Wall murals

Minoan ladies in a blue fresco from the Palace of Knossos. \ Photo:

Both civilizations decorated their palaces and other structures with frescoes using lime plaster and bright colors. The only differences are their iconographic elements. The Minoans relied heavily on religious iconography to depict their gods and especially goddesses. Processions and sacred rituals such as bull jumping are also common motives. Minoan iconography strongly reflects their social matriarchal structure - images of women dominate their visual arts, and feminine symbolism is present in almost every depiction.

Fresco: Dance in the sacred grove of Knossos. \ Photo:

Experts on the Greek Bronze Age often argue that Mycenaean murals, while viewed as a continuation of the Minoan ones, do differ. The influence of the Minoans can be clearly seen in female images and general style. However, the Mycenaeans were somewhat more simplistic in their depictions. They preferred symmetry and geometric motifs, in contrast to the Minoans, who did not like to leave empty, unadorned spaces. Human figures are stylistic in Mycenaean wall paintings, and men are more common.

Fresco with a Mycenaean shield, Mycenae, Mark Cartwright, 2017. \ Photo:

Another important difference is the hunting and war scenes, which are often found in Mycenaean art. Unlike the Minoans, known for their peaceful thalassocracy, Mycenaean society was oriented towards war and expansion, and this manifested itself in their art.

Palace architecture

The maze-like layout of the Minoan palace at Knossos. \ Photo:

Both civilizations are famous for the construction of complex palaces, and archaeological evidence confirms that they were administrative, residential and religious centers.

Again, the Mycenaeans borrowed many of the architectural features from the Minoans, but adapted them to the beliefs and requirements of their society. The most famous and largest Minoan piece of architecture is the palace at Knossos, the mythological home of King Minos. The central place in the palace is occupied by a large courtyard, from which rooms, halls and small chambers diverge in all directions. Historians believe that the palace's labyrinth-like structural complexity likely inspired the myth of the Minotaur and the labyrinth.

Possible reconstruction of the Minoan labyrinth. \ Photo:

The Minoans decorated their palaces with wall paintings and used bright colors to paint the columns, balustrades, and pediments that occupied several floors of the palace. The frescoes are mostly religious in nature, although many depict natural scenes such as marine life, mythological animals, and flowers.

North entrance of the Palace of Knossos, 2018. \ Photo:

The Mycenaean palaces, like their visual arts, reflect the militaristic character of their civilization, which Homer so wonderfully described in the Iliad. The best preserved palaces are in Pylos and Tiryns. The difference from the Minoan style is very clear. Mycenaean palaces are actually citadels built on a hill and fortified. The Minoans, who settled on the island and focused on trade, not expansion, did not need defensive structures.

Plan of the Mycenaean Palace of Nestor in Pylos. \ Photo:

The warlike Mycenaeans had to surround their palaces with massive walls, also known as Cyclopean. They got their name from the mythological Cyclops, one-eyed giants who, according to myths, were the only creatures strong enough to build such colossal walls. The most recognizable example of Cyclopean construction is the Lion's Gate at Mycenae.

Throne room with a fresco of a Griffin from the Palace of Knossos, Crete. \ Photo:

The center of the Mycenaean palace was not a courtyard like the Minoans, but the megaron, a large rectangular hall used for court ceremonies and public or religious events. The additional rooms are mostly square and the layout is very geometric, indicating a planned construction.

Reconstruction of the Mycenaean megaron. \ Photo:

The layout of the Minoan palaces shows many annexes, so it seems that they built additional rooms when the need arose. The Mycenaeans also adorned their palaces, but their murals depict scenes of war and hunting, strong warriors in chariots and battle. They also loved geometric patterns and vibrant colors.

Lion's Gate, the main entrance to the citadel at Mycenae. \ Photo:

Burial tombs

Minoan Tholos in Mesar, Crete. \ Photo:

Both the Minoans and Mycenaeans buried their dead in circular structures known as tholos. Historians still debate whether the Mycenaeans adopted the Tholos style from the Minoans or not, but the similarities indicate that there was some kind of continuity. However, there are many differences between the two.

The Minoans built their tholos above the ground, with small doors and round tombs. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that the Minoans buried all the inhabitants of their settlements in these tombs. The communal status of the Minoan tholos explains the simplicity of the architectural style and the lack of ornamentation.

Entrance to the treasury of Atreus, Mycenae. \ Photo:

The Mycenaean tholos, on the other hand, were much larger and underground. They were usually built in hills, with an entrance called dromos and a monumental doorway. Some of their tholos consisted of a pair of rooms with a central burial chamber that was circular or rectangular.

The main difference between the two types of theology lies in its purpose. The Mycenaeans have preserved monumental tombs for rulers and prominent personalities. This explains their monumentality, in contrast to the more simplistic style of the Minoan tolos, intended for everyone.

Interior decoration of the treasury of Atreus, Mycenae. \ Photo:

The most famous Mycenaean tholos is the Treasury of Atreus in Mycenae, richly decorated with reliefs, columns and decorative stones such as green alabaster. These rich decorations, along with precious burial gifts, prompted Heinrich Schliemann, the chief archaeologist of Mycenae, to declare this tomb the Tomb of Agamemnon. However, modern research has confirmed that the person buried in this tomb was several hundred years ahead of both Agamemnon and Atreus.

Ceramics and metal products

Minoan octopus jar, Knossos. \ Photo:

Both civilizations have richly decorated their ceramic and metal vessels, but the iconography, again, is quite distinctive. Like their murals, Minoan vessels are slightly more decorative. They especially liked ceramics with a light background, on which they painted living figures of people or animals (often sea creatures) in some bright or contrasting color.

Mycenaean jar with an octopus. \ Photo:

The Mycenaeans preferred dark colors in their pottery, and their motifs were much simpler, sometimes almost abstract. The similarity to geometric designs is again evident in their ceramics, which they often adorned with triangles, circles and convolutions. However, despite their more simplistic approach to decor, Mycenaean pottery is of a much higher quality. They used cleaner clay and fired the vessels at higher temperatures.

Pendant Minoan Animal Master, Kotomi Yamamura, 2012. \ Photo:

The only area where the skill of the Mycenaeans has surpassed that of the Minoans is metalworking.However, the Minoans were adept at making metal, especially when it came to jewelry. Their highly developed trade allowed them to import gold, and they perfected the faience technique of adding tiny beads of gold to the surface of an object.

Death Mask of Agamemnon, National Archaeological Museum, Athens. \ Photo:

The Mycenaeans are renowned for making golden death masks and mastering the ink technique, in which they mixed two types of metal to create contrast on an object. The famous Agamemnon mask is a great example of the use of thin gold sheets and embossing or embossing of the motif.

Clay figurines

Mycenaean female figurines. \ Photo:

The Minoans are famous for their statuettes of female goddesses, of which the Serpent Goddess is probably the most recognizable. The figurines of their goddesses emphasized feminine attributes, and they usually created them from faience, painting them in bright colors.

Figurine of the Minoan Snake Goddess, Knossos. \ Photo:

Mycenaean clay figurines, on the other hand, are very stylized. They appear to have inherited a Minoan resemblance to female figures, which is why depictions of fertility goddesses are the most common archaeological find when it comes to sculptural work. Despite their somewhat poor performance, these figurines played a significant role in the Mycenaean religion, as archaeologists unearthed more than five hundred figurines from various locations.

So both civilizations somehow played their role, leaving behind an indelible mark in the history of art and not only.

Continuing the topic, read also about what is the art of the Ottoman Empire and what is its main secret.

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