Minoan Civilization and the Birth of European Art

Interesting things happened in Europe long before the Greeks and the Romans. Prior to 5000 BC the inhabitants of the Lower Danube Valley and the Balkan foothills farmed, built sizable towns and mastered large-scale copper smelting. At its peak by 4500 BC, says Professor David W. Anthony, “Old Europe was among the most sophisticated and technologically advanced places in the world.” Admiring their colorful ceramics, a specialist in Egyptian archaeology remarked that at such an early time “Egyptians were certainly not making pottery like this.” The Spondylus shell from the Aegean Sea was a special item of trade in the region.

Over a wide area of what is now Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, people settled into villages of single- and multiroom houses crowded inside palisades. In 1972 Bulgarian archaeologists discovered 310 graves dated to before 4000 BC, some of them containing numerous pieces of gold ornaments. In fact, Varna in eastern Bulgaria is the oldest cemetery yet found in the world where humans were buried with golden ornaments. The arrival of peoples from the Ukraine and the steppes north of the Black Sea, possibly including the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European, may have contributed to the final collapse of this culture after 3500 BC.

As Philip L. Kohl shows in The Making of Bronze Age Eurasia, the cemeteries of southeast Europe are exceptionally rich in archaeological materials from the sixth- and fifth-millennia, arguably more complete than in any other area of the world. Significant settlements emerged in fifth millennium BC, with roots back to the Neolithic era before 5000 BC. Some of these were extremely large, inhabited before the Sumerian city-states and sometimes larger than the latter in overall size, yet there is little evidence for specialization or internal social differentiation in the form of political hierarchies. In short, these were not “cities,” merely large settlements, and Kohl points out that we should be careful with applying the term “civilization” to them. They had apparently not achieved literacy, and while a few of these societies may have approached the threshold to state organization they never crossed it.

Although the Incas in South America are sometimes described as a “civilization without writing,” most historians are reluctant to use that term for non-literate cultures. If we limit ourselves to urban, literate cultures then the first true European civilization we possess evidence of appeared on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean more than four thousand years ago. The erection of the first palace-centers and the appearance of large towns took place there around 2200-2000 BC. The peak of their civilization came between 2000-1600 BC. The inhabitants created a sophisticated, thriving society with royal courts, large-scale architecture, cities and towns, and above all magnificent works of art. Their earliest writing system, pictographic or hieroglyphic, appeared before 2000 BC. By the 1700s they had adopted another kind of script, Linear A, which so far remains undeciphered. A third script called Linear B was adopted from the 1400s BC by the invading Mycenaean Greeks.

If the stories about the famous Trojan War reflect inflated memories of a real event, which remains unproven, then it likely happened shortly after 1200 BC. According to legend, it started when the beautiful Helen of Troy was abducted by Paris, son of the Trojan king. The war lasted a decade with a fruitless siege of Troy until the Greeks pretended to withdraw and left behind a large wooden horse with warriors concealed inside, a “Trojan horse.” It was adopted as a victory trophy by the celebrating Trojans, but warriors crept out of it at night and opened the gates, leading to the fall of the city. Achilles was the greatest warrior of the Trojan War until he was killed by a poisoned arrow shot into his heel. One of the tales of his childhood relates that he was once dipped in the waters of the River Styx, which in Greek mythology formed the boundary between the living and the Underworld (Hades). Because of this he became invulnerable except for the heel by which he was held, his only weak point.

The German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) read stories of these events in the Iliad. This strongly inspired him in his quest for the historical Troy, which he was convinced existed. He shocked the scholarly world by actually uncovering the ruins of Troy in northwest Asia Minor in 1870. Don Nardo tells the tale in his book The Minoans:

“Soon afterward he brought to light the mighty citadel of Mycenae (on the Greek mainland), another city mentioned in the folklore of the Age of Heroes. Scholars and archaeologists, who before Schliemann’s achievements had assumed the Greek myths had no basis in fact, now began scrambling to mount new expeditions to find legendary cities and palaces. It was this wave of enthusiasm that Evans rode to his historic discovery of the palace-center at Knossos in 1900. The structures and artifacts he found, along with those excavated later by others in Crete and nearby islands, showed that a splendid civilization once existed in the area. Though exaggerated and distorted, the old legends had indeed been based in fact. Scholars determined that the Minoans had exerted a strong influence on the mainland Mycenaeans and that the latter had eventually invaded Crete, facts that roughly correlated with events in the myths. In the space of only one generation, Evans and other researchers opened a new chapter in Greek and Western history, one that is still being written. It is perhaps appropriate to call it Chapter 1 since it describes Europe’s first advanced cultures.”

Arthur Evans (1851-1941) from Britain, a more careful archaeologist than the enthusiastic, but often rough Schliemann, found that the ruin of Knossos reminded him of the Labyrinth of King Minos and consequently dubbed the civilization “Minoan.” Minos, according to a Greek myth from a much later date, lived at Knossos and married Pasiphae, daughter of the Sun. Her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur, devoured sacrificial youth sent as tribute to Crete from mainland Greece at the heart of the Labyrinth until he was killed by the Greek hero Theseus. We do not know whether Minos was an historical person. Minoan towns had elaborate piped drains and sewers. As historian J. M. Roberts states in The New Penguin History of the World:

“This was technical achievement of a high order; early in the sequence of palaces at Knossos the bathing and lavatory provision is one a scale unsurpassed before Roman times. Other cultural achievement was less practical, though artistic rather than intellectual; Minoans seem to have taken their mathematics from Egypt and left it at that. Their religion went under with them, apparently leaving nothing to the future, but the Minoans had an important contribution to make to the style of another civilization on the Greek mainland. Art embodied Minoan civilization at its highest and remains its most spectacular legacy. Its genius was pictorial and reached a climax in palace frescoes of startling liveliness and movement. Here is a really originally style, influential across the seas, in Egypt and in Greece….the appearance of bulls’ horns in many places and of frescoes of these noble beasts is suggestive if it is linked to later Greek legend (Minos’s mother, Europa, had been seduced be Zeus in the shape of a bull; his wife Pasiphae enjoyed a monstrous coition with a bull from which was born the half-bull, half-man Minotaur), and to the obscure but obviously important rites of bull-leaping.”

Crete was always to remain at the back of the Greek mind as a lost golden age. At some point between 1600 and 1500 BC the volcano on the island of Thera (Santorini) had a huge eruption, one of the most massive in recorded history, which greatly affected nearby areas. It has been speculated whether this event inspired Plato’s story of the lost civilization of Atlantis. This alone did not end the Minoan civilization, but natural disasters may have weakened it so that it was more easily invaded and dominated by people from the mainland.

According to author Don Nardo: “Perhaps in about 1250 B.C. or somewhat later, an alliance of Mycenaean kings, aided by contingents from Minoan Crete and other Aegean islands the Mycenaeans controlled, sacked Troy, giving rise to the famous legend. Not long after this event (if indeed it occurred) – in about 1200 B.C. or shortly thereafter – disaster once more struck the Aegean region. That cultural sphere, as well as many parts of the Near East, underwent a period of unexpected and unprecedented upheaval.”

The causes of this turbulence in the entire eastern Mediterranean are a hotly debated topic among historians. Advances in metallurgy and iron weaponry probably contributed, but many factors may have been involved. After this prolonged period, often dubbed the Greek Dark Ages, writing re-emerged among the Greeks via the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians, very different from the cumbersome Linear B script inspired by the older Minoan writing system. The most complete poetic works from the Greek archaic period are the Iliad and the Odyssey, traditionally ascribed to Homer, and the Theogony and Work and Days, assigned to Hesiod, maybe shortly after 700 BC. In the eyes of Jonathan M. Hall in A History of the Archaic Greek World there is “a growing view among scholars that the Homeric and Hesiod poems date to the first half of the seventh century but no universal agreement has been reached.”

No extensive literature or descriptive writings have survived from this Cretan culture, and there are those who believe it never existed. Since their language is undeciphered it is theoretically possible that there is a Minoan Aristotle or Archimedes hidden away in their records, but from what we do know about them there is little to indicate this. The Minoans were apparently not brilliant mathematicians or natural philosophers like the Greeks were centuries later, but they were great artists who impressed some of their contemporaries.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the body must be preserved if the soul is to live on in the beyond. Their style comprised a set of strict laws. Art served a religious function, as representations were thought to substitute eternally for what was portrayed. In the course of three thousand years their art therefore changed very little. There was only one major exception and that was the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten in the fourteenth century BC. This more dynamic style is still discernible in objects found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, possibly a son of Akhenaten. The eminent E.H. Gombrich explains in The Story of Art:

“It is not impossible that this reform of the art in the Eighteenth Dynasty was made easier for the king because he could point to foreign works that were much less strict and rigid than the Egyptian products. On an island overseas, in Crete, there dwelt a gifted people whose artists delighted in the representation of swift movement. When the palace of their king at Knossos was excavated at the end of the nineteenth century, people could hardly believe that such a free and graceful style could have been developed in the second millennium before our era. Works in this style were also found on the Greek mainland.”

The first European civilization thus spread artistic impulses abroad. It was not to be the last. Greek artists studied and imitated Egyptian art, but they experimented more and decided to look for themselves to reproduce what people actually saw with their own eyes, instead of following any traditional, ready-made formula. This Great Awakening of art to freedom took place in the hundred years between, roughly, 520 and 420 BC, in Greek city-states such as Athens where the philosopher Socrates challenged our ideas about the world. “It was here, above all, that the greatest and most astonishing revolution in the whole history of art bore fruit....The great revolution of Greek art, the discovery of natural forms and of foreshortening, happened at the time which is altogether the most amazing period of human history.”

Something as seemingly simple as foreshortening, ways of distorting the painted image or carved relief so that the result looks more like it would have in real life, constituted a revolution. On a vase, a Greek artist showed the front of five toes, which we recognize as a human foot. Nothing like this was ever created in Egyptian or Mesopotamian art or in virtually any other artistic tradition worldwide. Artistic realism was a European invention.

Linear perspective in the narrow sense probably wasn’t developed until the Italian Renaissance two thousand years later, but we know that ancient Greek painters were as skilled as the sculptors. Sadly, their works usually haven’t survived, but a few of them were copied elsewhere. The beautiful Alexander Mosaic or The Battle of Issus, made around 100 BC out of a couple of million tiny mosaic tiles and now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, shows a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. It was found during the 1831 excavations in the lava-buried Roman town of Pompeii, Italy. It is a copy of a famous Hellenistic painting executed just before 300 BC.

Wall painting was a major part of the decoration of a Roman house. The walls could also be decorated with marble revetment, thin panels of marble of various colors mortared to the wall. Floors were decorated, often with cut marble or with tessellated mosaics. Mosaic decoration was not restricted to the floors of Roman houses. Ceiling and wall mosaics, often of glass, were sometimes employed, and sculptures and bronze statues were displayed throughout the house. Although the Alexander Mosaic most likely is inferior to the original, it proves that Greek artists were quite adept at using light and shadow patterns to give a lifelike impression.

This art, after Alexander’s huge conquests spread Greek cultural impulses deep into Asia, had a major influence on the evolution of the emerging Buddhist art. In the centuries after Christ, Hellenistic art displaced the arts of many Oriental kingdoms. As Gombrich says, “Even in far-distant India, the Roman way of telling a story, and of glorifying a hero, was adopted by artists who set themselves the task of illustrating the story of a peaceful conquest, the story of the Buddha. The art of sculpture had flourished in India long before the Hellenistic influence reached the country; but it was in the frontier region of Gandhara that the figure of Buddha was first shown in the reliefs which became the model for later Buddhist art….Greek and Roman art, which had taught men to visualize gods and heroes in beautiful form, also helped the Indians to create an image of their saviour. The beautiful head of the Buddha, with its expression of deep repose, was also made in this frontier region of Gandhara.”

In An Introduction to Buddhism, Peter Harvey claims that “Buddha-images seem to have been first produced within the empire of Kaniska I, which was in the region of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-west India. This occurred at about the same time in Gandhara, a western region in which the images were influenced by Hellenistic Greek art, and in the Indian city of Mathura.

Through the vehicle of Buddhist art, Greco-Buddhist impulses spread to the distant lands of East Asia. During the early Tang Dynasty, Buddhism reached the height of its influence in China, where Buddhist monks contributed substantially to the development of the first printed books. Japan was then in its formative stages as a nation and adopted many ideas from neighboring Korea and China. The first Japanese capital, Nara, was modelled after Xi’an in China. The capital was thereafter moved to Kyoto in AD 794, where it remained until it was again moved to Edo (Tokyo) in 1868. Here is a quote from Gardner’s Art Through the Ages:

“The Japanese dependence on China during the seventh and eighth centuries is not confined to sculpture and painting. Buddhist architecture adhered so closely to Chinese models that the lost Tang style can be reconstructed from such temple complexes as the Hōryū-ji or the Todai-ji, which still stand in Japan. The Kondo (Golden Hall) of the Hōryū-ji, which dates from shortly after 670, is one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world. Although periodically repaired and somewhat altered (the covered porch was added in the eighth century; the upper railing, in the seventeenth), the structure retains the light and buoyant quality characteristic of the style of the Northern and Southern Song dynasties in China. A rather unusual feature of this building is the entasis of its wooden columns. The appearance of this feature here is said to be due to Greek influence, as third-hand knowledge of it may have reached Japan, along with Buddhism, from India by way of China. Although seemingly more appropriate to elastic wood than to brittle stone, entasis was a short-lived feature that soon disappeared again from Japanese architecture.”

Greek artistic impulses were, admittedly, minor and of limited duration there, but the fact that such impulses, however faint, can be detected in the Pacific Ocean this early is remarkable.

Western culture is the only culture in the history of mankind to develop realistic, faithful depictions of beings and matter in our paintings and sculptures, rather than merely stylized depictions, creating ways to depict three-dimensional subjects in a two-dimensional format. A similar perspective was lacking in all other types of early art, be that Chinese or Japanese, Indian, Mesoamerican, African or Middle Eastern. Could this conceivably be because the Western man has perceived space and spatial relationships in a different way than others?

Some of the oldest, if not the oldest, works of art clearly identifiable as human and animal figures were created in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic, from ca. 40,000-10,000 BC. They include the Venus of Hohle Fels from Baden-Württemberg in Germany, which is almost 40,000 years old, cave paintings in Altamira in Spain or in Vila Nova de Foz Côa in Portugal, located in the famous Alto Douro wine region, not to mention Chauvet and Lascaux in France. The painted walls of Lascaux are among the most impressive artistic creations of the Paleolithic era. A few of these drawings show traces of techniques similar to perspective.

A case can be made for the claim that the creation of unusually lifelike art for its time has been the hallmark of European civilization since its inception more than 4,000 years ago. This does not mean that artistic realism has been equally prominent in all places or at all times; it was not important following the collapse of Minoan civilization, just like it was not important during the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Greco-Roman civilization. However, in all periods of great cultural dynamism, from Minoan civilization at its peak via Classical Greece to Renaissance Italy as well as Germany, France, Spain and the Low Countries, artistic realism has been a distinguishing trait of European culture. This constitutes perhaps the single most important thread of continuity in European culture, arguably stretching as far back as the Paleolithic era. This begs the following question: Does this have a genetic basis? Did European man view the world differently from his neighbors, perhaps even quite literally?

Several potentially serious objections can be raised to this hypothesis. The first one is that it is not at all certain that the genetic profile of the Minoans on Crete four millennia ago was comparable to that of Italian Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, Masaccio or Raphael, not to mention painters north of the Alps like Rembrandt, Jan van Eyck, Vermeer or Albrecht Dürer. Europe is a big place after all. For that matter, it is not at all certain that the people who inhabit Crete today are quite like the Minoans. Four thousand years is a long time. This objection becomes even more serious if we consider Paleolithic art. Just to name one example, geneticists believe that not a single human being on Earth had either blond hair or blue eyes when the Lascaux cave paintings were created. Obviously, these are just among the most visible mutations, but it is likely that there were other evolutionary traits which affected mentality, too, especially since the rise of agriculture and associated diets happened after this.

These are weighty arguments that cannot be easily dismissed. Nevertheless, the incredibly rich history of Western art suggests that the hypothesis deserves serious consideration.