Notebook, 1993-


[From: Doumas, Christos, Prof. of Archaeology at the Univ. of Athens, Director of Excavations at Akrotiri. Santorini, A Guide to the Island and Its Archaeological Treasures. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 1995.]

Introduction - Geography and Geology - Historical Outline - Archaeological Research - Archaeological Sites - Pottery - Wall Paintings

Santorini [Wall Painting]

Akrotiri's most significant contribution to our knowledge of the prehistoric Aegean and Europe in general is its monumental graphic art. The wall-paintings of Thera constitute the earliest examples of large-scale painting in Greece and enrich inestimably the history of European art. Their technique is not that of fresco, for which reason it is not correct to use this term. It seems that the artist began painting when the plaster was still quite fresh on the walls. He did not, however, take care to maintain this wet condition. So the wall gradually dried and the painting was finally made on an entirely dry surface. This is why the colour often flakes if the modern technician does not manage to fix it with chemicals. Wherever the painting was made on a wet surface the colour has seeped in and does not flake.

The plaster on the wall destined to be painted was rubbed whilst still wet, so that its surface became smooth for the artist's paint brush. This smoothing seems to have been effected using special sea pebbles. Hundreds of these pebbles with one or two flat surfaces from the rubbing have been found amidst the ruins of Akrotiri. The colours which the prehistoric Theran artists used were red, black, yellow, blue and cream. The latter was usually used as a background. With these colours the artist painted diverse surfaces both in shape and dimensions.

One of the principal characteristics of the art of Akrotiri is that the artists had complete command of the space in which he moved unhesitatingly. He infallibly selected a subject suitable for filling the surface offered by the arrangement of the area. Door and window jambs, small surfaces of wall between two such openings, zones which are of necessity created for the opening of cupboards or windows and finally large expanses of wall, always bear the composition best suited to their shape and size. A representation of a pithos plant pot with lily adorned the jambs of the window in the West House. Again in the West House, a door jamb was apparently decorated by the so-called "Young Priestess." The narrow surface between the window and the NE corner of Room 5 in the same house was occupied by the famous "Fisherman" while another similar painting was depicted in a corresponding position diagonally opposite. Such a surface - between the two doors - was covered by the wall painting of the "Boxing Children" in the upper storey of Room B1. In Room 5 of the West House the narrow strip of wall under the windows was painted as an imitation marble dado whilst the zone high above the windows was decorated with the "Frieze of Miniatures". The "Frieze with the Monkeys" from Xesté 3 must have been a similar case. But the artists of Akrotiri were not afraid to paint whole blank walls. The grand composition with the Monkeys was discovered in Room B6, while three of the four walls of Room ®2 were completely covered with the wall-painting of the "Lilies". From the homonyous house came the wall-paintings of the "Ladies". Finally, from Xesté 3 comes an enormous composition of "Women Gathering Crocuses". [end of p. 34]

Even though the character of the wall-paintings from Thera is Minoan, there is an apparent independence of the artist from the conventions of Cretan art. Freedom in conception, freedom in design, freedom in composition, freedom in movement are the characteristics of the Theran wall-paintings. Men, animals, plants are rendered with such conviction that it borders on naturalism. Purely decorative subjects rival the pictorial scenes in variety and perfection. These too were employed to cover all kinds of surfaces. Rosettes, often combined with rhomboid motifs were also painted on large surfaces, as is the case in Xesté 3. The ivy branch is an ideal motif for framing the "Antelopes" from Room B1. The "starry sky" harmoniously covers the ladies from the "Room of the Ladies". In Room 5 of the West House the "Marble" dado underneath the windows is a well-chosen architectural element. The pithoi plant pots on the jambs of the window and the "cabins" on the walls of Room 4, again in the West House, are examples of the inventive imagination of the artists.

Even greater and more impressive is the diversity exhibited by the narrative scenes. Such is the artist's predilection for variety that he even makes the landscape narrative through the insertion of some animals. The rocky terrain with lilies is fixed in time by the presence of the swallows flirting and flying in daring formations. There must have been some reason why the Monkeys in Room B6 scrambled hastily upon the rocks. The "Landscape with the River and Subtropical Vegetation" from Room5 of the West House is further enlivened by the presence of wild or mythical beasts. A wild duck flies to the left, while on the right bank of the river, almost in flying gallop, a goat runs to the right. Both seem to have rushed startled from a cluster of palm trees. From the other, the left bank of the river, a griffin flies to the right in flying gallop, while a wild cat stalks the unsuspecting wild ducks sitting on the river's edge. All this movement, all this activity indicates the artist's intention not merely to paint a landscape but a wild landscape, far away, yet full of life. The same ruggedness of nature is to be seen in the landscape above the left city in the "Miniature of the Fleet". In the wood three terrified deer flee the predatory claws of the lion which pursues them.

In the narrow Frieze from Xesté 3 the narrative is even more vivid. In a landscape, again rocky, full of crocuses, swallows fly to their nests bearing food for their chicks who await with open beaks. Blue monkeys complete the scene. These monkeys are not inert; one of them has drawn his sword and holds the scabbard in his left hand. Another monkey clasps a harp and is perhaps the musician of the company.

More narrative, of course, are the scenes in which humans participate. The "Two Fishermen" from the West House proudly display their catch, holding the bunches of fish. The so-called Young Priestess from the same house wears a long, heavy, perhaps woolen, chiton and holds a brazier with glowing charcoal while sprinkling it, more than likely with incense. Perhaps she passed from room to room censing it or perfuming the air of the house. This is why she is depicted on a door jamb. [end of p. 35]

More animated is the movement displayed by the "Boxing Children" from Room B1. Each wears a glove on the right hand and the children are portrayed in a momentary phase of the game. One has already thrust his gloved hand in an attempt to strike his opponent. He in turn avoids the blow by shielding with his bare hand and prepares to strike his own blow with the other.

In the wall-painting of the "Ladies" the scene is not quite so clear since many of the pieces are missing. Certain, however, is the movement of one woman of a somewhat advanced age who stoops slightly to the right and offers both her hands in an attitude which is not comprehensible. Another figure stood in front of the bare-breasted one; unfortunately only a part of her skirt is preserved. A third one, with her breasts covered, is illustrated in an opposite movement towards the left. She also presents her hands but does not stoop like the first. All these figures are drawn beneath an arch which delimits the upper surface of the wall and is filled with stars.

The "Miniatures" from Room 5 of the West House are narrative too. Unfortunately we have only fragments from the frieze of the north wall, and yet in these pieces one can not only observe the technical dexterity of the artist but also his conception of space and the third dimension. In one group of these pieces we have scenes which are enacted at three different levels. On the first level, that nearest the spectator, a rocky seashore is shown and in the sea are three naked men, apparently drowned. At least so their unnatural attitude would suggest. Also in the water are three rectangular shields perhaps one from each drowned man. Only sections of three ships are shown in the pieces which have survived: the stern of one and the prow of the other two. One prow, however, is in a strange position, reinforcing the view that the whole scene illustrates a shipwreck, the victims of which were the three downed warriors. On the second plane of the painting there are warriors who, clutching their oblong shields, long spears and wearing the characteristic Mycenaean helmet of boarÍs tusks, march towards the right. The tasseled end of their scabbard projects beyond the back of their shield. On the third plane, high up, various scenes are taking place. Two shepherds are trying to gather their different coloured sheep and goats into the pen which is depicted as an elliptical fence. Two trees at the entrance to the fold ensured shade for the flock from the summer heat whilst their trunks serve as sturdy gate-posts. Perhaps it is midday and the shepherds are gathering the flocks into the pen to water them. For, next to it, on the left of the entrance is a well whose presence is marked by two upright water pitchers on top of its mouth. Some men are conversing in front of the well while two women who have already filled their pitchers walk away; one has balanced the jug on her head and treads lithely with arms outstretched to keep her balance. The second, [p. 36] who comes from close by steadies the pitcher with her hands while trying to set it on her head. The scene is not very different from what happens today in many mountain villages where the well or water tap is the common meeting place for the villagers. "When you go for water my Malamo, I loiter at the tap . . . " says a folk song which aptly fits this scene at Akrotiri.


[Doumas, Christos, Prof. of Archaeology at the Univ. of Athens, Director of Excavations at Akrotiri. Santorini, A Guide to the Island and Its Archaeological Treasures. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 1995.]

[The image featured above is a Wall Painting from the House of the Ladlies]



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