APPROACHES - Tradition and Innovation
Walberg, Gisela. Tradition and Innovation. Essays in Minoan Art. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern. 1986.
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NOTE: The following concepts of perspective are addressed throughout this chapter: Relationship between different specific points - Map-like picture - Cavalier Perspective - Overlap - Egyptian - Conventions for moving and standing figures - Overlap - Moving figures usually overlap each other horizontally and, from the Middle Kingdom onwards, still-standing figures overlap each other vertically - Parallel lines. A group of marching or dancing human figures is drawn with one figure in full profile and the remainder indicated by parallel lines behind this figure - Superimposed rows. A group of standing figures is drawn with the outlines of heads in vertical superimposed rows - Radiate in all directions - Three-quarter views. Occasional experiments limited to individual figures - First indications of landscape appear in MM II sealings - Theran Frescoes. Definitions of space in Landscapes - Distribution of figures at different levels - Size. Diminishing . . . - Intuitive perspective - Concentric composition / Enclosing composition - rocks often project from the sides and even from above, and plants sometimes seem to grow downwards. The rocks and plants give the composition a frame and also serve to define the space around the figures. The spectator is supposed to imagine himself in the centre of the scene and to orient himself with the help of rocks and stones surrounding the picture, and he is then supposed to transform the scene and add an illusion of space to the picture himself - Encompassing ground line. The frame around the figures on the Etruscan mirrors is usually formed by a continuation of the ground line, which is drawn up so that it meets in full circle above the heads of the figures in the composition - Stylized atmosphere. When this phenomenon appears in Etruscan underworld scenes, it is often interpreted as mist or clouds, but it also appears in other scenes. It consists of parallel strokes, wavy lines or quirks, which appear in the same position as the "encompassng ground line". The effect is the same as [p. 127] that of the rocks and plants in Minoan art - a frame is created for the figures and the space around them is defined - Perspective rendering. Zakros rhyton.
T E X T:
It is a well-known fact that figures and objects in representations such as reliefs and paintings are rendered without foreshortening and without three-quarter views before the fifth century, when Greek artists took the first steps towards the development of a linear perspective.1 It is also a well-known fact that the "true", central perspective was not developed until the Italian Renaissance. Before the fifth century B.C., parts of figures and objects which would not be visible at the same time are normally reproduced together in the same picture.
H. Schäfer has shown how a sense of space is gradually developed in Egyptian art.2 Predynastic paintings show no relationship between the figures at all, and their arrangement seems to have no particular logic.3 Later, in the Old Kingdom, there are representations which seem to be based on the artist's personal experience of the relationship between different specific points. The result is a map-like picture with details, such as houses and tents shown in profile and the surrounding landscape seen from above. The normal Egyptian way of indicating spatial relations is to arrange the figures in tiers, on clearly indicated ground lines, and the same device is used in the wall-paintings from the palace at Mari in northern Syria.4 In Middle Kingdom hunting scenes, the tiers are sometimes abandoned and replaced by wavy lines which give a more "naturalistic" impression, because they suggest hills and rocks, and also permit the figures to move somewhat more freely.5 In representations without tiers, figures which are further up are meant to be further away. As in the map-like picture from the Old Kingdom, the landscape surrounding the figures is seen from above, while the figures are seen in profile. Similar representations are also later found in Assyrian reliefs.6 The term "Cavalier Perspective" is often used for this device of placing figures which are really behind one another at superimposed levels, although it literally means the viewpoint of a man on horseback, which is not the same as the view-point in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian pictures. The history of the term and its use were discussed by W. S. Smith some time ago.7 Egyptian art also developed conventions for moving and standing figures. Moving figures usually overlap each other horizontally and, from the Middle Kingdom onwards, still-standing figures overlap each other vertically.8 A group of marching or dancing human figures is drawn with one figure in full profile and the remainder indicated by parallel lines behind this figure, and a group of standing figures is drawn with the outlines of heads in vertical superimposed rows.9 The problem of indicating that figures are surrounded by trees and bushes is solved in several different ways in Egyptian art. One way is to avoid overlapping and to show the figures as if they were standing in front of the trees. This device is often resorted to in Old Kingdom reliefs, where we find hunters among papyrus shown as if they were standing in front of a wall of vegetation.10 Another device is to lay the trees out flat horizontally and vertically, so that they radiate in all directions. Such arrangements appear in early representations, such as a picture from [p. 117] Hierakonpolis of gazelles caught in a trap.11 The trap is shown in the middle and the animals are shown in profile around it, radiating in different directions. The same method is also used, as SchÉfer has indicated, in New Kingdom representations of gardens with ponds [Fig. 142]. A rare 18th Dynasty device is to show the pond in "cavalier perspective" and to let the trees start from beneath the pond and to cross over it [Fig. 143].12 Sporadically Egyptian drawings of individual figures show some attempts at three-quarter views, but according to Schäfer, these are only occasional experiments, and it is doubtful whether the artist wanted to create an illusion of space, since these attempts are limited to individual figures. W. Wolf is of the same opinion.13
How are the problems of suggesting depth and spatial relations solved in Minoan and other Aegean art? Can any development be traced and, if so, does the Minoan development correspond to the Egyptian development outlined above:? Can any Egyptian or Oriental influence be distinguished or is it an independent Minoan and Aegean development? [p. 118]
Unfortunately very few landscapes and other settings have been preserved in Minoan art. Most frescoes, as for example, the Sacred Grove and Dance Fresco from Knossos, are too fragmentary or too heavily restored to permit any conclusion. In other Minoan arts, the representation of the setting is often very cursory. The first indications of landscape appear in MM II sealings from the sealing deposit at Phaistos, as for instance, Fig. 43b [CMS II5 270 and CMS II 5 276]. The setting consists of rocks, which form a ground line, and sometimes also of plants, which appear below as well as above the main figure. The plants above the figure may indicate that the "cavalier perspective" is employed here, but the plants may also be used just to indicate that the figure is moving outdoors in a rocky landscape where plants are growing, and no spatial relation may have been intended at all. This may also be the case with more elaborate settings in Late Minoan and Mycenaean seals.
One of the few well preserved and elaborate Minoan landscapes is found on the Zakros Rhyton, where it surrounds a small sanctuary [Fig. 144]. A reconstruction of the building and its relation to the surrounding landscape has recently been published by J. Shaw.14 According [p. 119] to Shaw, the sanctuary consists of a forecourt, surrounded by walls and containing three altars, of which one is placed on a flight of steps leading up to a shallow tripartite building. The entrance is at a right angle to the building and has overlapping walls. Shaw's reconstruction is based on comparisons with other more fragmentary representations of sanctuaries and on the archaeological remains of shrines at Knossos and Vathypettro. Overlapping crags and walls indicate that the landscape is a steeply sloping hillside. The representation of the landscape is "correct" and conforms to the rules of modern central perspective. This seems, however, to be an accidental coincidence because a landscape rendered in "cavallier perspective" is the same as a hillside represented according to modern rules of perspective. In the "cavalier perspective", the landscape is "turned up" towards the near plane so that the figures and the objects which are meant to be behind each other can become visible and so that their spatial relations can be clarified. To a modern eye, not used to the conventions of ancient art, such "turned up" landscapes will seem to represent hillslopes rather than a landscape extending behind the figures in the near plane.
Similar representations of the landscapes can also be found among the Thera frescoes. The fresco from the southern wall of room 5 in the West House of Akrortiri shows a number of ships on their way across the sea from one town to another [Fig. 145].15 The towns are represented as built on hillslopes very much like the sanctuary on the Zakros rhyton. The ships and the sea between them are shown in "cavalier perspective" with the ships surrounded above and below by dolphins. The dolphins make it clear that the sea is meant to extend behind the ships. In the fresco from the eastern wall of the same room [Fig. 146], palms are shown as growing in front of a river by letting their trunks start from beneath the river and cross over it as in a few 18th Dynasty drawings [Fig. 143, see above, pp. 118f]. Is this an independent Theran invention, does it come from Crete or has it been taken over from Egypt? In view of the rarity of such Egyptian drawings, the first two alternatives may seem more likely, but the Thera frescoes also show other features that can be paralleled in Egyptian art, and it is possible that there is some connexion. [p. 120]
Groups of figures in Minoan and Aegean representations are often represented without overlapping, ether sideways or vertically, which, as we have seen above [p. 117], is the normal Egyptian device from the Middle Kingdom onwards. The spatial relationship between the individual figures of a group in Minoan art is indicated by the distribution of figures at different levels, as for instance on the gold ring from Isopata [Fig. 147], 16 and also in the Sacred Grove and Dance Fresco from Knossos [Fig. 148].17 The arrangement has some parallels in Egyptian hunting scenes,18 and it is also reminiscent of the arrangement of the figures on the calyx-crater by the Niobid painter in the Louvre from ca. 450 B.C. [which, in turn, is derived from monumental wall-painting] where, however, overlapping and projecting rocks contribute to a [p. 123] realistic impression and indicate the relations between the figures even more clearly than the overlapping rocks and walls clarify the spatial relationship in Jakros Rhyton.19 Between the figures on the Isopata ring, which represent dancing women, some floral motifs are interspersed, and the size of three of these motifs is smaller than that of a motif further down. There is also a human figure of very small size in the upper left corner. Does this mean that the artist tried to suggest space with the help of gradual diminishing size and attempted to experiment with an optical phenomenon? This is not very likely in view of the fact that the largest female figures is placed in the centre and higher up than some figures of smaller size. The reason why one of the flower motifs in the lower part of the picture is larger than those further up may be that there is more space to fill up below. The scene on the ring should probably be interpreted as seen mainly in "cavalier perspective". A small figure in the upper left corner was certainly meant to be seen as further away than the figures at lower levels and not as flying above the other figures. Its small size may be due to lack of space but may also be an example of what Immerwahr has called 'intuitive perspective'.20 The fragments of the Sacred Grove and Dance Fresco from Knossos are large enough to show that a group of women is arranged at different levels in the same way as the women on the Isopata ring and suggests that the whole fresco was painted in "cavalier perspective". Here we also find a parallel to the Middle Kingdom Egyptian device of vertical overlapping in the fragments showing a crowd of spectators.21
In Minoan glyptics, overlapping first appears in the MM II phase, as for instance on Fig 1409 [HM 169a, cf. Yule, Early Cretan Seals, Pl. 2, mot. I B 47], which shows a human figure kneeling in front of a bull. It is also comparatively frequent on MM III seals. In Yule, [pl. 124] Early Cretan Seals, mot. 1B: 54, there is a dog in front of a male figure in the same position and in Knossos L 49, the head of a sea monster overlaps a ship. A similar arrangement is also found in the Antelope Fresco from Thera.22
In his study of divine epiphany and cult images in Minoan art, Matz suggested that the spectator is meant to place himself in the [p. 125] middle of the picture.23 The meaning of this statement is, as Schiering has pointed out, not immediately clear.24 Schiering has suggested the following interpretation of the statement: the spectator is supposed to imagine himself in the centre of the scene and to orient himself with the help of rocks and stones surrounding the picture, and he is then supposed to transform the scene and add an illusion of space to the picture himself. Matz seems, however, simply to have referred to a well-known feature in Minoan art, which has been called "concentric composition" by Smith25 and "umschliessende Bildform" [enclosing composition] by Schiering.26 In Minoan landscape representation, rocks often project from the sides and even from above, and plants sometimes seem to grow downwards. The rocks and plants give the composition a frame and also serve to define the space around the figures. If any depth is indicated in the picture, it is usually shown in a shallow "cavalier perspective".27 One of the earliest examples of this "enclosing" or "concentric" composition is found in the Saffron Gatherer Fresco from Knossos [Fig. 76] - even if this fresco is later than Evans assumed [see above, pp. 60, 62]. It can also be found in the Cat Fresco [Frontispiece] from Hagia Triada. Rocks are also arranged in a similar fashion above the dolphins on the burial jar from Pachyammos, Fig. 79 [see above, P. 64] and serve to make a more rounded composition out of the swimming dolphins and to adapt it to the convex surface of the vase. The Flying Fish Fresco from Phylakopi [Fig. 111] seems at first to be similar to the representation of the sea in the Thera Fresco from the southern wall of room 5 in the West House [Fig. 145]. It can be interpreted as a small gulf surrounded by rocks with fish seen from above in "cavalier perspective". Schiering has, however, suggested that a profile view may have been intended [p. 126] and has interpreted the fresco as a concentric composition without any indication of depth.28 This interpretation can also be supported by the fact that the flying fish are arranged in whirling groups like two-dimensional pottery motifs, and no space is necessary behind them. Like the "cavalier perspective" the "enclosing" of "concentric" composition is not an exclusively Minoan feature. Parallels can be found in art from other periods and other parts of the world. N. de Grummond has recently pointed out that there are several parallels in Etruscan mirrors.29 De Grummond uses the term "encompassing ground line". The frame around the figures on the Etruscan mirrors is usually formed by a continuation of the ground line, which is drawn up so that it meets in full circle above the heads of the figures in the composition.30 De Grummond has also drawn attention to another convention in Etruscan art, which corresponds closely to another Minoan device, which she calls "stylized atmosphere".31 When this phenomenon appears in Etruscan underworld scenes, it is often interpreted as mist or clouds, but it also appears in other scenes. It consists of parallel strokes, wavy lines or quirks, which appear in the same position as the "encompassing ground line". The effect is the same as [p. 127] that of the rocks and plants in Minoan art - a frame is created for the figures and the space around them is defined. A close Minoan parallel to the Etruscan "stylized" atmosphere is found in a seal motif with a goddess riding a dragon over something billowing which is usually interpreted as clouds or waves [Fig. 150].32 In the Thera frescoes, "stylized atmosphere" is used to frame motifs like the antelope group in the Antelope Fresco and the Boxing Children.33 Also the much later Lyre Player from Pylos is, as de Grummond has pointed out, surrounded by "Stylized atmosphere". De Grummond raises the question of a possible connexion between the use of these devices in Aegean and Etruscan art and concludes that both cultures had a similar conception of nature and a similar approach. [p. 128]
In some Aegean works of art, there is a question whether a formation above a figure or a group of figures should be interpreted as a cloud or a rock. In some cases, the formations are variegated and clearly represent rocks, but there has been some discussion about the interpretation of certain formations above the bulls on the Vapheio cups [Fig. 151 a-b]. Davis34 and Schiering35 take them to be clouds, and there are indeed some Aegean representations where a sky is clearly intended to be seen above the figures. In die Zakros Rhyton [Fig. 152], there is a bird with extended wings on one of the horns of consecration of the sanctuary, and this bird may be a symbol of the [p. 129] sky as well as of the holiness of the sanctuary.36 We may therefore assume that sky and clouds are sometimes to be expected in Aegean art above the figures. In other cases, however, the formations may be filling or framing devices used in the same way as the "stylized atmosphere" in Etruscan art and not strictly "naturalistic" clouds. Some formations, however are definitely meant to be rocks.
We have seen above [ p. 117] that individual figures in Egyptian art are usually shown in profile against the "turned up" background in "cavalier perspective". Individual figures in Minoan and Aegean art are also usually shown in profile in fresco paintings, reliefs and seals.37 O. Walter demonstrated in 1935 that the mint plants in one of the Amnisos frescoes were meant to be seen as growing from two basins, of which one is placed inside the other38 - the whole motif is intended to be seen in profile. There is no space further back shown above the basins. Walter did, however, interpret the Lily Fresco [Fig. 77] from the same site in a different way and suggested that, whereas the lilies, of course, are seen in profile, the zigzag bands behind and beside the lilies represent the "turned up" edge of a basin or a flower bed seen in "cavalier perspective". This interpretation was originally suggested by Evans and has also been followed by Marinatos.39 A more likely interpretation has, however, been presented by Schiering.40 He sees the lilies as growing in narrow bed in front of a background formed by a vertical stone wall with a zigzag or stepped decoration, and thus represented in the same way and from the same viewpoint as the mint plants in the other fresco. The stepped pattern may, perhaps, [p. 130] be interpreted as the representation of actual steps seen in profile and as an arrangement of opposite stepped constructions of the type often combined with trees on LM seals. Lilies seem to playa prominent role in Minoan religious contexts,41and the combination of the lilies with so-called stepped altars is therefore not unlikely. Profile views are thus normal also in Minoan art, and the "cavalier perspective" is only used when space and spatial relations behind the figures have to be indicated.
In MM III and LM I representations, some individual figures show attempts at three-quarter views and foreshortening. Shaw has drawn attention to the strange way in which one of the agrimia [the animal to the left] represented on top of the sanctuary on the Zakros rhyton [fig. 152] is holding its head and has suggested that it may be the result of an attempt at a perspective rendering.42 A fish on a seal in the Ashmolean [inv. n o. 1938.973]43 appears to be seen from below in a three-quarter view. The head is very large and the body so short and tapering that it seems to be the result of conscious foreshotening. The body may, however, also have been shortened because of lack of space. The swallows in the Spring fresco from Thera [Fig. 114] provide another example of experimentation with a three-quarter view and possibly intentional foreshortening. In one of the groups, one bird is seen from below, the body is foreshortened and the feet are positioned accordingly.44 In this case, the foreshortening may be the result of the fact that the birds are arranged more or less like a Zweipass [p. 132] motif, and a full view of the birdÍs body would have disturbed the circular, whirling scheme. But we also find that horns of bulls and goats are, for the first time, rendered in an optically "correct" way on MM II seals, as for instance on Fig. 153 [CS 146a] and on CMS VII 42. Many other examples of optically "correct" views of horns could be cited. 45 The sealing Knossos L50 from the Temple Repository shows an attempt to represent a human body in a three-quarter view [Fig. 135]. The shoulders of a striding boxer are seen straight en face and the legs in profile, but the spine and the buttocks are seen in a three-quarter view and form a smoother transition between the torso and the legs than one finds in figures of purely geradvorstellig type [see above, pp. 26, 29, 35]. The body is not shown in an optically ñcorrectî three-quarter view, but represents an attempt at an organically more correct picture. While individual cases of what appears to be experimentation with three-quarter views and foreshortening may be accidental or could be interpreted differently, all the cases taken together seem to indicate that the Minoans in MM III and LM I, as well as the artists on Thera, were consciously experimenting and attempting to solve the problems of representing space and depth in the same way as the Egyptians in the Middle Kingdom [for example the painter of SenbiÍs tomb, see p. 90, n.7] and as the Greeks in the beginning of the 5th century. The attempts, however, remained sporadic as in Egyptian art and never lead to any naturalistic representation of the human body as in Greek art and still less to an optically "correct" representation of spatial depth.
In MM III/LM I, a transition from light-on-dark decoration to dark-on-light, reminiscent of the transition in the opposite direction from Attic Black-Figure to Red-Figure vase-painting, took place. The white Kamares decoration with red and yellow accents on a dark ground accentuated the shape of the vases and was at the same time totally conditioned by the vessel shape.46 In MM III, the decoration is still predominantly white on a dark ground, but there is less accentuation of vessel shapes, and even though the motifs still have the same basic structure, their role in the composition is both slightly different [p. 133] and more important in relation to the vessel shape. The dark paint introduced in Late Minoan pottery decoration is of a more resistant quality than the white colour, less flaky and often has an attractive reddish tone. This may be reason enough for the change, but it is also tempting to see the change as the result of a new attitude to the vases, to their shape and decoration, and a new perception of space and volume. In the dark-on-light decoration, the motifs appear in silhouette against the light ground and are more dominant than the light Kamares decoration on its dark ground [Figs. 154, 155], and the shape and volume of the vases are, consequently, less accentuated. The importance of the decoration gradually increases in relation to the vase and its shape in MM III,47 and this factor may also have encouraged the change of colour. A dark figure against a light ground seems more "natural" than a light figure against a dark ground, because figures in real life are more often seen in silhouette Against the light than against a dark ground. The new dark colour could also be diluted and thickened according to the painter's wish. W. Noll has observed how this possibility was used on a LM I bridge-spouted jar to create an almost bichrome effect48 [Fig. 156]. The diluted colour has turned red in the [p. 135] reoxidation process, while the thickened colour has remained dark. The decoration of the vase consists of a foliate band; the lower part of the leaves and tips have been painted with thick colour, while the colour of the upper part of the leaves has been diluted. The result is a three-dimensional effect and illusion of corporeality, which can be compared to the early use of diluted glaze in Attic 5th century vase-painting, and also to the attempts at shading in frescoes from Tel el Amarna, such as the well-known one showing the daughters of Akhenaten.49 There are, however, no other Minoan parallels and the shading may have been accidental. If it was a conscious attempt, no more similar attempts were made in such a way that they can be identified with certainty. The reasons for this may be several. In LM IB marine style pottery, the shape of the vase becomes more important again in the composition as a whole, and there is a closer connexion between shape and decoration than in LM IA. In LM II, the pottery motifs are more abstract and ornamental, as we have seen above, p. 36, and have a less representational character.
Minoan art from the beginning of the Middle Minoan period thus goes through a development in the representation of space partly parallel to and even beyond that of Egyptian Middle Kingdom art. Spatial relationship is apparent in Middle Minoan art, and there are no radiating pictures with the figures "turned out" around a central object as the early Egyptian gazelles in the trap [see above, pp. 117f.]. When landscapes first appear in Minoan art, they are either shown in "cavalier perspective" or in "concentric" or "enclosed" compositions. The "cavalier perspective" is paralleled in Egyptian art, but is not very frequent there and may be an independent Minoan invention. The "concentric" or "enclosed" composition is clearly a Minoan device with no contemporary parallels, but with a much later independent parallel in Etruscan art. The experimentation with foreshortening may be the result of influence from Egyptian Middle Kingdom art, but may, like the "cavalier perspective" also have been invented by the Minoans. The fact that these experiments appear at the same time as the change [p. 136] of colour in the vase-painting may suggest that there was some change of perception and that the Minoan artists actually may, at this point, have been on the verge of breaking away from the tradition of "cavalier perspective" and "concentric" or "enclosed" composition. Like the Egyptians, however, they soon reverted to their old and traditional formulas and solutions. In late Minoan frescoes, such as the Camp Stool Fresco [LM II-III], background and surrounding landscapes are avoided altogether, as we have seen above, p. 48, and the background is usually light-coloured and neutral.50 [p. 138]
[Walberg, Gisela. Tradition and Innovation. Essays in Minoan Art. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern. 1986.]
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The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].