Florence C. Smith Nicholls
Approximately 1600BC: a volcano on the island of Thera in the Aegean sea erupted, destroying the Cycladic civilisation there. Often referred to as the “Bronze Age Pompeii,” the settlement known as Akrotiri was caught up in this cataclysmic event. Ironically, it was the anaerobic conditions caused by pumice and other volcanic debris smothering the town which preserved it for present study. Thera, one in a chain of Cycladic islands, may be just one sickle moon-shaped, seemingly insignificant land mass, but it also provides some of the best examples of Aegean Prehistoric Art.
To conceptualise ‘art’ is never a straight-forward process-in this case I’m specifically referring to wall frescoes in houses, the subject matter of which is hardly transparent in nature. Loaded with ambiguous imagery, the Theran frescoes have been the subject of protracted academic debate since they were first discovered in the 1970s. In order to avoid surfeiting on rhetoric, I will instead approach the subject of Aegean Bronze Age art through a case study of one particular Theran fresco: ‘The Mistress of the Animals.’
It is necessary first to contextualise Thera further both geographically and culturally. The island is often considered to have been linked at least to a certain extent with the Minoan civilisation on Crete, not least because their weight system, syllabic script and similar fresco artwork have been found on the island. However, it is difficult to equate Minoan civilisation, which is known mostly from ‘palatial’ excavations, with the settlement at Akrotiri, the status of which is currently undecided.
Conscious of the inevitably limited analysis and artificial nature of such a pursuit, my study of an individual fresco will hopefully elucidate some of the major themes and issues surrounding the interpretation of Aegean Bronze Age fresco artwork. Theoretically speaking, trying to understand any piece of ancient art is always fraught with issues of imposing anachronistic values onto an image, or assuming that ‘art imitates life.’ Thus, this piece will be highly speculative and should be read as such.
‘The Mistress of the Animals’ fresco, or ‘Saffron-gathering’ fresco, as it is often referred to, is located within a building known as ‘Xeste 3’ on Akrotiri. The function of the structure itself has not been conclusively determined, though there are suggestions it perhaps performed a ritual or cult function. In the eastern-most section of Xeste 3 there is a ‘lustral basin:’ a square room at a lower level to other rooms surrounding it. Arthur Evans, the original excavator of Knossos on Crete, believed these features to be indicative of purification rituals. However, Evan’s traditional theories have been called into question frequently over the last few decades, and a case in point is that the lustral basin in this building does not have a waterproof floor. The fact that no cooking pots, but small jars containing remnants of food were found in the building, is perhaps stronger evidence of communal activity in a structure which was not residentially occupied.
A short description is necessary: ‘The Mistress of the Animals’ fresco shows a female figure, seated on a platform, being offered crocus flowers by a blue monkey in front of her, and being pawed by a griffin behind her. Behind the monkey a young girl or woman holds a basket; she is involved in crocus gathering. The first, and most obvious point which can be made from the fresco is that a clear differentiation is being made between the central, seated female figure and everything else, animal or human, in the scene. Being positioned at the highest point, one would assume she is being designated as symbolically superior. Furthermore, she wears more elaborate clothes and jewellery than the other female figure in the picture. The next step is to identify her: is she a leader, a priestess, a goddess? Nanno Marinatos, the daughter of Spyridon Marinatos who originally excavated Thera, maintains: “That this figure is a goddess is a sure thing.” However, the only evidence she cites for this are the observations detailed above. The nature of leadership, as well as religious leadership, is one of the most contentious subjects in Aegean archaeology. No definitive images of leaders have yet been discovered. Though it is difficult to ascertain the reason for the seated woman’s differentiation, an exploration of possible interpretations of the three other figures in the scene may at least introduce further possible theories.
Griffins are often associated with indications of centralised power in the Bronze Age Aegean. The most well-known example of this is the fresco with two griffins flanking the ‘throne’ discovered at Knossos. As this particular fresco is much later than the one in question, no direct link can be made, but it is also true that there are numerous other representations of woman associated with griffins, including a gold finger ring from Phourni, Archanes dating to 1600-1500BC. This particular example is also concomitant to elite status-such an item will have been prestigious. Of course, the griffin is a mythological creature and its inclusion in the fresco is arguably indicative of the seated woman having a preternatural power. Speculation aside, it is also important to note that griffins can be classed as part of the corpus of Near Eastern iconography. In Egypt, the griffin first appears in Middle Kingdom artwork, and is elaborated in the New Kingdom with a solar disc on its head. The inclusion of a griffin in this fresco highlights questions of possible Near- Eastern affinities and the possibility that the seated figure draws her power from this.
The blue monkey also has exotic connotations. Obviously monkeys are not indigenous to the Aegean, so it could be surmised that contact must have been maintained with the Near East in order for Cycladic artists to have had any conception of what they looked like-whether in a direct trade in animals or through the diffusion of Near Eastern art. The blue colour of the monkey likely suggests a highly idealised and possibly symbolically significant manifestation of this creature. Certainly, its representation is anthropomorphic. Blue monkeys also appear in the House of the Frescoes at Knossos, which could suggest a common Aegean artistic koine of imagery.
Lastly, the other female figure needs to be considered. She is often assumed to be more juvenile than the main female figure because of her hairstyle. Scholarship on this subject has often referred to the Egyptian practise of designating age according to a partial shaving of the head: the young girl appears to only have a short pony tail and closely shorn hair. Within the context of the other frescoes in Xeste 3, this observation makes more sense. The building contains numerous frescoes of woman with various hairstyles evocative of Egyptian equivalents, either involved in crocus-gathering or other inexplicable activities. The general atmosphere of these frescoes is one of exclusively female activity (though it should be remembered there are also representations of males in the building). Did Cycladic and Minoan society reserve a special place for certain women, perhaps in a ritual context? Women, specifically young women are very prominent in the Xeste 3 frescoes, but that’s all that can be confidently asserted.
An overall synthesis of all the aspects of the “Mistress of the Animals” fresco must be attempted. Themes of Near Eastern influence, female power and the blending of the natural and preternatural world have reoccurred in this discussion. The main point I wish to make is that the fresco can be interpreted along two lines: either in terms of contrasts or a continuum. It could be said that the pre-eminence of the enthroned woman is demonstrated through the contrast between her and all the other figures in the fresco, between woman/ goddess and animal, between woman/goddess and young girl. Marinatos’ analysis is strongly along these lines: “The goddess is symbolically separated because her animal attendants are exotic and one is fabulous.” I would disagree: the positioning of the figures could actually suggest a continuum of relations. The griffin and monkey do indeed both appear part-way up the tri-partite platform the woman sits on. The monkey acts as mediator in offering to the elite, and the griffin is able to touch her. The girl however, is completely separate. Perhaps this is the strongest evidence for the divine status of the seated woman. Yet, instead of construing status from a power over animals and beasts, it could be said that the seated figure is dependent upon these flanking creatures in order to appear superior. In his “Enquiry into Living Creatures” Aristotle spoke of a “continuum between the animal and human worlds” in which humans were the “most complete.” Of course, referencing Aristotle in relation to Bronze Age artwork is completely anachronistic, but I mention him to further conceptualise a theoretical reading of the “Mistress of the Animals” fresco. Dichotomies can be constructed from the imagery, but I wish to suggest a more inclusive perspective, whereby all the elements of the composition, whether divine, fantastical, human or animal, operate on an inter-related continuum which should not be read in terms of straight-forward hierarchies. The fresco as a whole depicts a group invested in the activity of saffron-gathering; whether mortal, human or not, they are all inter-dependent.
Cartledge,P. 2002.The Greeks A Portrait of Self & Others
Marinatos,N. 1984. Art and Religion in Thera Recontructing a Bronze Age Society
Marinatos, N. 2010. Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess A Near Eastern Koine