knossos bull fresco

The famous relief fresco of a charging bull, from the North Bastion at the Palace of Knossos

The largest of the Greek Islands, Crete, has been on our list of destinations since 2013. The island is famous for reams of reasons, such as its long and turbulent history; its beautiful and diverse landscapes, ranging from fine beaches via fertile plains to rugged mountains; its picturesque mountain villages and lovely Venetian port towns; its agricultural wealth and the excellent cuisine arising from that; its lively musical tradition; its hospitable inhabitants – and, of course, its archaeology.

During the Bronze Age, Crete was home to the alluring and mysterious culture we call Minoan, which thrived during the second millennium BC. At the time, the island was part of a network of civilisations in and around the Eastern Mediterranean, maintaining contacts, both in terms of trade and of culture, with the Cycladic islands and the Greek mainland, but also further afield with Egypt, Cyprus and the Middle East.

The partially reconstructed North Bastion at the great palace of Knossos

The partially reconstructed North Bastion at the great palace of Knossos

For a little more than a hundred years, archaeologists in Crete have been discovering the remains of that great Minoan civilisation, and they continue to do so. One of the greatest privileges in my life has been the occasional involvement in that process of discovery. There is much that the Minoans have left behind: towns, great mansions we call “villas”, sanctuaries in caves and on mountain peaks, and the famous so-called “palaces”, large buildings that appear to have combined functions of administration, storage, craft production, religion and – perhaps – the residence of rulers or potentates. The Minoan sites are fascinating in themselves for sure, but the experience of visiting them is greatly enhanced by the fact that they are embedded in the manifold extraordinarily beautiful landscapes that characterise the island.

The beautiful pottery of the Minoans is one of many expressions of their great creativity

The beautiful pottery of the Minoans is one of many expressions of their great creativity

Beyond the sites themselves, Minoan civilisation is fascinating for many reasons. The Minoans appear to have created the first form of writing in Europe (especially the still undeciphered Linear A script); they clearly set up a fairly sophisticated political, administrative and economic system; they maintained a largely mysterious set of religious beliefs and practices – and most importantly, they were immensely creative!

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Minoan material culture are its fine creations in various arts and crafts, usually summarised by the term “Minoan Art”. These include some of the finest painted pottery ever made by human hands, small sculpture in clay, bone or stone, seals of stone or metal, astonishingly beautiful and ornate stone vessels, very intricate jewellery and so on, all on show in Crete’s archaeological museums.

The famous "Lily Prince" from Knossos has become an icon of Minoan art. Unfortunately, this striking figure is a misunderstanding, an amalgamate put together from parts of a fresco that depicted at least two young men and a sphinx.

The famous “Lily Prince” from Knossos has become an icon of Minoan art. Unfortunately, this striking figure is a misunderstanding, an amalgamate put together from parts of a fresco that depicted at least two young men and a sphinx.

One of the most famous and most impressive expressions of Minoan creativity are the astonishing Minoan frescoes or wall paintings. Since their first discovery in the course of Arthur Evans’ excavations at the Palace of Knossos in the early 20th century, Minoan fresco paintings have been disseminated worldwide as the most visible and most appreciable face of Minoan art, multiply copied in souvenirs and replicas, and even in the logo of one of Greece’s major ferryboat operators.

The reality is, as usually, more complicated. Minoan frescoes are striking and important for sure, but we do  not as yet understand their development well, and they are not exactly typical of Minoan culture. Although they appear to have occurred in a variety of high-status sites across the island, the vast majority of the frescoes so far discovered is from the Palace of Knossos; the other palaces have yielded very few or none. Thus, we should see them as a rare and refined phenomenon, a product of exceptional character that was seen and meant to be seen as unusual and special even then. Additionally, all the frescoes we know from Crete by now belong to the Second Palace Period, after 1700 BC, i.e. the phase when all major sites had been rebuilt in the aftermath of a still poorly-understood disaster. It seems likely that the vast majority of the surviving frescoes are from the 15th century BC and later. That means we cannot now tell whether fresco painting is part and parcel of Minoan culture as established around 2000 BC, or whether it represents a later adoption.

boxing boys fresco akrotiri

Not quite Minoan: the “Boxing Boys” fresco from Akrotiri on Santorini, ca. 1600 BC, now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

The celebrated (and truly wonderful) frescoes from Akrotiri on Santorini in the Cyclades, which are often and falsely described as Minoan, are in their entirety demonstrably older than all or most of the known Cretan examples, as Akrotiri was destroyed and preserved by a volcanic eruption around 1600 BC (you can see the Santorini frescoes for yourself on our Cruising to the Cyclades and Exploring Athens tours). Additionally, there is an ongoing archaeological dispute about the dating of various elements of that superbly complex structure that is Knossos, leaving much of its elaborate fresco decoration in a chronological limbo somewhere between the 15th and the 13th century BC, thus making it harder to interpret its content and context. Etsi einai i zoi, as we say in Greek, or c’est la vie in English (please don’t criticise me, I’m not a native speaker).

Whatever their history, the Minoan frescoes are stunning. The ongoing renovation of the National Archaeological Museum at Iraklio (Heraklion, the capital of Crete) has entailed a thorough cleaning and rearrangement of the major frescoes, which were put back on exhibit after several years of closure a little more than a year ago. The new fresco gallery is simply amazing and displays this extraordinary material to its full potential.

The wonderful lily fresco from the Minoan Villa at Amnisos

The wonderful lily fresco from the Minoan Villa at Amnisos

The Minoan wall paintings are true frescoes, i.e, painted on fresh and wet plaster, unlike the Egyptian wall paintings that may well be part of their ancestry (they were applied to dry plaster, which is why they cannot be called frescoes). They are striking and bold in their use of usually unshaded colours, and they use more colours than most contemporaneous art in Egypt and the Middle East. We cannot distinguish individual artists, but we do see several distinctive styles and techniques, including three-dimensional relief frescoes and the intricate miniature frescoes used to display complex mass scenes.

Overall, the frescoes appear to depict “genre” scenes, stylised and generalised images of what must have been common pictorial motifs, mostly connected to the prevailing Minoan ideology and religion. It has been suggested that some paintings show specific events or occasions, but we cannot quite tell whether that really is the case. The variety of motifs depicted includes processions, landscapes, urban scenes, animals, marine life and plants. They are windows into the past, giving us direct access to how the Minoans saw their world. The Minoan frescoes have played a major role, and continue to do so, in the various attempts to understand, interpret and reconstruct Minoan beliefs and society, but they are vague or mysterious enough to make that game an eternal one, to keep the discourse on the Minoans lively, controversial and active.

Also famous, the "Dolphin Fresco", probably from a floor in the residential part of Knossos

Also famous, the “Dolphin Fresco”, probably from a floor in the residential part of Knossos

Taking off my archaeologist’s hat, as one should now and then, the Minoan frescoes are plainly astonishingly beautiful, delightful in their boldness and not least in their mystery. Minoan frescoes are one of the earliest instances of elaborate two-dimensional art in Europe, and much as we should approach them with scholarly concerns and contextual questions, we should also appreciate them for their sheer beauty.

You can join us in doing just that, sharing our love for the extraordinary representation of human creativity that the Minoan frescoes are, but also having them explained according to current research, on our Exploring Crete tour in April/May. On that tour, they figure alongside the sites, landscapes, museums, and the cuisine of the island, Please join us for the ultimate experience of Crete!

For more frescoes, have a look at our gallery below:

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