Notebook, 1993-

Walberg, Gisela. Tradition and Innovation. Essays in Minoan Art. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern. 1986.

II Representational Motifs
in Minoan Pottery
and Seals Notes -- Abbreviations

[The culture was divided by Sir Arthur Evans into three periods that include the whole of the Bronze Age; Early Minoan [c. 3000 B.C.-2200 B.C.], Middle Minoan [c. 2200 B.C.-1500 B.C.], and Late Minoan [c. 1500 B.C.-1000 B.C.][Harris, William H., and Judith S. Levey, eds. The New Columbia Encyclopedia. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1975.]

The majority of the Early and Middle Minoan vase motifs and a great number of Early and Middle Minoan seal motifs are abstract, such as circles, spirals, radiating and whirling motifs, petaloid loops and various band types. A smaller group consists of representational motifs. Among these early pottery motifs, tradition and innovation are especially noticeable.

These motifs are generally thought to have developed gradually from abstract to more naturalistic. Theories concerning the origin and nature of this process have been presented by several different scholars. In 1907, E. Hall observed that "naturalistic designs do not necessarily begin as a realistic reproduction of a particular natural object but as an arrangement of lines which suggest rather than picture natural forms"1 and in 1933, N. Aberg in his Chronologie described how Middle Minoan painting is "abstracted to" flower motifs and how sometimes real, representational flowers develop out of abstract motifs.2 Some years later, in 1941, A. Furumark published an analysis of Aegean art in which he distinguished between two types of representational motifs in Minoan art, especially vase-painting: "pictorial" and "pictorialized" The term "pictorial"is used for a kind of motif which is primarily representational and "essentially naturalistic", a motif in which the content of the representation is the main thing, [p. 6] which in Early and Middle Minoan art means a figure of basic linear type [Fig. 1]. The term "pictorialized" stands for a more complicated phenomenon. According to Furumark, "pictorialized" motifs are created through an association in the artist's mind between an abstract motif and some physical object. The motif is then completed to represent the object by the addition of appropriate details which accentuate the similarity between the motif and the object.3 A pair of antithetic J-spirals may, for instance, remind the artist of a floral motif, and he may then proceed to add elements representing leaves, buds, etc. [Fig. 2]. The originally abstract motif is thus "pictorialized" and made to represent an object, a human figure, an animal or a plant. According to Furumark, "pictorial" and "pictorialized" motifs have a totally different origin. The "pictorialized" motif is seen as mainly decorative and the association with physical objects as accidental, while the other, the "pictorial" type, is narrative.4 But is the difference between the two types of motifs as strong as Furumark has suggested, and can representational Minoan motifs be divided so categorically? "Pictorialized" motifs, or motifs based on originally abstract forms, may have been preferred to "pictorial" motifs because they are more adaptable to Minoan composition.5 A feeling for the ornamental and for basic abstract forms in physical objects may have led the Minoans to choose the "pictorialized" type of motif even for narrative and representational purposes. The interest in and perception of abstract forms in human beings, animals and plants is very noticeable in [p. 7] Minoan art, but is by no means an exclusively Minoan feature. R. Carpenter has, for instance, pointed out how a feeling for abstract form and structure is present in Classical Greek sculpture and has drawn attention to the balance between abstract form and naturalism in works like the kneeling Heracles from the Aigina pediment.6 Even though these works are narrative and represent human figures engaged in different activities, the abstract design in them is clearly visible.

The difference between "pictorial" and "pictorialized" motifs in Minoan vase-painting lies in the fact that the "pictorialized" motifs are composed from various abstract elements belonging to the vase-painter's standard stock, whereas "pictorial" motifs consist of elements not found in the normal ceramic repertory, but the aim of the artist was probably the same, whether he used the one type of motif or the other, except for some initial experimentation and playing with forms in the Early Minoan III phase:7 to represent concrete figures and scenes. The choice between a "pictorial" and a "pictorialized" motif was one of vocabulary or means of expression. Minoan paintings and glyptics do not copy natural forms - whether the motifs are "pictorial" or "pictorialized" - and it is in my opinion wrong to speak as Furumark did of "essentially naturalistic" motifs in the case of the "pictorial" type. In "pictorial" as well as "pictorialized" motifs, there are combinations of abstract elements which are used as symbols for different parts of the figures. "Pictorial" motifs often consist of triangles representing the chest of human beings, circles representing heads and rectangles representing the bodies of animals, etc. [Figs. i, 3, 4], and they do not come closer to nature than "pictorialized" [p. 8] motifs. The real difference lies in the fact that the "pictorialized" motifs are chosen for, and conditioned by, the form of the object on which they appear, as for instance the vase on which they are painted; they form part of the composition as a whole, whereas the "pictorial" motifs are independent of the composition and could be transferred from one object to another, even if the shape of these objects is totally different. They would look the same on a flat surface as on a curved three-dimensional object [Fig. 4].8 [p. 9]

In many "pictorialized" motifs, certain combinations of elements from the abstract ceramic repertory tend to reappear regularly, and some of these combinations become after a time fixed symbols for various plants, animal figures, etc. Antithetic J-spirals and their derivatives are, for example, regularly combined in pairs to represent plants, such as grass, lilies and palm-trees [Fig. 5 a-g]. The additional details determine which kind of plant they are meant to represent. These details may consist of dentate bands, petaloid loops or bands of repeated circles. The petaloid loops are often combined with circles into flower motifs and with vertical or oblique lines into twigs growing out from the side of the plant [Fig. 6]. Groups of radiating lines [usually three] [p. 10] are used as a basic design for crocuses and lilies, and several J-spirals combined into whirls become cuttlefish motifs, argonauts [Fig. 7 a-b], etc. Many of these motifs survive in Late Minoan and Mycenaean decoration, and some representational Mycenaean motifs betray their abstract Middle Minoan origin quite clearly [Fig. 8 a-b]. Among these motifs are the lily motif [ MP, mot. 9], the iris [MP, mot. 10A], the papyrus [MP, mot. 11], the sacral ivy [MP, mot. 12], the palm [MP, mot. 14-15], the grass or reed motif [MP, mot. 16], the cuttlefish [MP, mot. 21] and the argonaut [MP, mot. 22]. It is less obvious in the Mycenaean flower motif [ MP, mot. 18] and the multiple stem motif [MP, mot. 19], but it is nevertheless possible to trace the development of these motifs back to Late Minoan motifs which ultimately go back to abstract Middle Minoan ones.9 When a late Minoan or Mycenaean painter wanted to represent any of these plants or animals, there was thus a set of ready-made combinations of originally abstract elements to choose from, which could easily be adapted to the composition.

It would be wrong to see "pictorialized" motifs as the result of playful doodling and "pictorial" motifs as the result of a more sober attitude towards representation. "Pictorialized" motifs are, as will be shown below, p. 18, chosen for representations with a clearly serious [p. 11] religious content, and the choice of them and their arrangement is obviously deliberate and well planned.10 At the same time, there are "pictorial" motifs which are less carefully executed and arranged. The choice between "pictorial" and "pictorialized" motifs for a representation has thus nothing to do with the content, and the two types of motifs seem also from this point of view to be interchangeable.

There are, however, also motifs which seem to have been elaborated and transformed into a representation of an object along the lines described by Furumark [see above, p. 7]. In classical and Post-Kamares pottery, there are, for example, often rosettes and other details added to abstract motifs like spirals [cf. WM 7(i)13, 5(iii)14 and Fig. 9]. The additions give a plant-like character to the motifs without actually turning them into representations of plants. The difference between these motifs and those which are chosen from the beginning to represent a certain type of figure or plant is therefore actually greater than the difference between "pictorial" motifs and "pictorialized" motifs of the representational type. If one wants to divide Minoan representational motifs into different categories, these elaborated motifs should definitely be classed as a third category together with the "pictoria" and the primarily representational "pictorialized" ones. Any attempt to find good examples of this third category will, however, show that the border between the elaborated motifs and the "pictorialized" motifs of representational type is sometimes unclear, and in other cases one may question whether they are representational or not. A Classical Kamares motif [WM 10 (v) 1) consists, for example, of a [p. 14] disc with a reserved double-axe motif, framed on each side by rosettes [Fig. 10]. Are these rosettes meant to be marguerites to which they have some similarity, or are they just meant to be abstract framing motifs? Another Kamares motif [WM 10(v)4] consists of a diamond, to which four rosettes have been added [Fig. 11]. The addition of the rosettes has turned the diamond into a radiating motif which encloses part of the body of the vessel on which it appears. Was the enclosing effect the main purpose of the rosettes? The similarity to marquerites is obvious, and it is impossible to decide whether the motif should be classed as representational or abstract. Its flower-like character is obvious, but it does, of course, not represent a real flower.11 It is, however, also possible that either alternative was specifically intended. There may have been a deliberate attempt to leave some ambiguity and room for imagination. Minoan art has an almost Victorian fascination with ambiguity and with initiations of other materials than those of which objects actually are made. And these imitations are not always of the kind which attempts to make cheap material look like something more expensive, as for example, when clay is made to look like metal. There are also examples of the opposite, as when stone vases take over ceramic forms.12 The idea seems to have [p. 15] been to create different possibilities of perception and of interpretation rather than actual imitation.

To sum up, "pictorial" and "pictorialized" motifs are thus used in the same way and for the same purposes, and there is not development from abstract motifs to more naturalistic ones or from "pictorialized" to "pictorial". "Pictorialized" motifs are formed from standard combinations of abstract elements and are handed down with various changes to the end of the Bronze Age. In addition to these representational motifs, there are also motifs consisting of elaborations of abstract motifs, which sometimes have a representational character but are essentially, and probably intentionally, ambiguous.

Minoan seal motifs are, like the pottery motifs, often thought to have developed gradually from abstract to more naturalistic. The development is, however, much more complicated, and the relation between abstract and representational motifs, as well as between inherited formulas and innovations, is in many cases the same as in pottery decoration. Some years ago, V. Kenna tried to classify seals of the so-called talismanic type - a class of seals which to an unusually high degree is characterized by variation and innovation - and to analyse the change of form and content in some of these deals.13 He distinguished five different categories or types of change: Fragmentation, Abstraction, Combination, Transformation and Metamorphoses . Some of these categories correspond closely to processes which can also be identified in the pottery decoration, while others are exclusively found in glyptics.

Fragmentation [the splitting up of motifs], which is frequent in various seal motifs, also appears in Minoan pottery, especially in abstract EM III pottery and is particularly frequent in spirals which are dissolved in various ways. The disintegrated elements are either used as independent motifs or in combination with other elements, so that new motifs are created.14

Abstraction, by which Kenna meant "a movement away from verisimilitude, a concern with the basic structure of a form, a dispensing [p. 16] with details ."15 cannot, on the other hand, be demonstrated in Minoan vase-painting before LM II [see below, p. 21]. There are very few representational motifs in Early and Middle Minoan pottery, and the tendency is towards "pictorialization" and not in the opposite direction. The use of abstract elements like petaloid loops and J-spirals for representational motifs such as human figures, animals and plants [see below, p. 18] could, of course, from one point of view be described as the result of abstraction. It is definitely the result of the perception of abstract forms in nature. But this is not the abstraction of a previously existing, or "naturalistic" motif, as in the case of the seal motifs discussed by Kenna, but a new combination of abstract elements to represent a natural object.

By Combination, Kenna meant the juxtaposition of motifs which may also appear alone on other seals.16 Such combinations often appear in talismanic stones but are rare in Early and Middle Minoan pottery decoration. In the talismanic seals there are combinations in which both motifs seem to have the same importance and take up the same amount of space. In combinations of different ceramic motifs, there is usually a main motif and the others are necessary features. The combination of different abstract elements into new motifs is, of course, something quite different.

Metamorphosis in Kenna's terminology stands for the change of the content of the motifs as a result of combination. Two elements may be combined and so closely integrated that they become a representation of something else. Kenna mentioned as an example an amygdaloid of talismanic type in which a "cantharus" and a "crustacean body" are combined to make a new motif.17 Changes and adaptations for a new purpose are frequent in pottery decoration, although of a somewhat different kind. Petaloid loops - a favourite Classical Kamares motif - are, for instance, sometimes combined with a horizontal line and repeated to form a foliate band.18 In the well-known pithos with a fish-motif from Phaistos [WM 25 (v) 5], a petaloid loop [p. 17] forms a net [Fig. 12], and on two other vases with a religious motif from Phaistos, petaloid loops are used to represent the bodies of women [WM 25 (vi) 1-3, Fig. 13]. Antithetic J-spirals can, as we have seen, be used for the stalks and buds of lilies as well as for the tentacles of an octopus [Fig. 14, see above, p. 11 and Kamares, pp. 66-67]. But the difference between the change of content in these vase motifs and the change of content in the motifs of the talismanic seals is that the seal motifs change from representing one object to a totally different one, whereas the "pictorialized" pottery motif comes from a stock of abstract varieties which can be used for the representation of different objects.

Transformation seems to be used by Kenna for partly the same phenomenon as Metamorphosis: the use of a motif to represent a new and different object. Kenna mentioned instances where a bird becomes [p. 18] a fish or horns of consecration become leafy boughs or a mask.19 Thus while parts of the same process were presented by Kenna as different categories or processes, and while his terminology is somewhat confusing and not used in a consistent way, there is no doubt that he has drawn attention to interesting phenomena in Minoan art, some of which are characteristic of seals only and some of which are also found in pottery decoration. The elements of the talismanic seal motifs which he has analyzed seems to be constantly changing and to a large extent interchangeable, whereas the pottery motifs, as we have seen, tend to appear in fixed combinations and can also be used alone as main and accessory motifs.

Whereas the interpretation of the pottery motifs presents no problems, the talismanic seal motifs evidently have a symbolic content which is not always possible to identify. Evans gave descriptive names to some of the seal motifs: rustic shrine, vessel, etc.20 An A. Onassoglou has established groups and tried to identify the symbols on the basis of combinations of motifs,21 but in many cases the idea behind the combinations remains obscure. It will probably never be possible to establish their meaning with certainty. The development of the motifs and combinations is also difficult to follow. W. Shiering has shown that talismanic seal motifs, as well as some Late Minoan and Mycenaean pottery motifs, seem able to move in two directions: from abstract to representational and from representational to abstract. He used the terms "noch nicht benennbar" [not yet representational] and "nicht mehr benennbar" [no longer representational].22 To the first type would belong, for instance, an antithetic J-spiral which has the potential of becoming a lily motif, and to the second type a lily which has become so abstract that it is no longer recognizable as a lily. The latter type is, as Shiering pointed out, frequent in Mycenaean pottery decoration. Some Palace Style motifs, which have representational [p. 19] floral predecessors in Post-Karmares pottery and which are stylized and "depictorialized" in LM II [Fig. 15], could be added to Schiering's Mycenaean examples. Post-Kamares floral motifs which were once recognizable as palms and lilies are in many cases turned into motifs which still retain a general floral character [Fig. 16], but are mainly decorative and cannot be connected with any kind of natural plant. P. Yule has also stressed that many seal motifs which are earlier than those of the talismanic seals move not only from representational to abstract but also vice versa.23 [p. 21]

The Development of Representational Motifs
Since a great number of seals come from unknown or unstratified contexts and the ceramic sequence can be established with greater certainty, a combined survey of the development of representational motifs in pottery and seals may give a better idea of the origin and early development of Minoan representative art than a study of each category separately.

Representational pottery motifs do not seem to appear before EM III. No earlier examples which can be classed with certainty as representational have yet been found in any part of Crete. P. Warren suggested that the decoration of an EM IIB jug from Myrtos may represent a distaff spool [Fig. 17],24 but the motif consists of entirely abstract elements, and no details have been added which indicate that the motif is "pictorialized". There are no Em II pottery motifs which can be shown to be "pictorialized". A seated male figure on a seal from Mochlos seems actually to be the first representational figure in [p. 21] Minoan art [Fig. 18].25 The seal is dated on stratigraphic evidence to EM II. Other seals with representational figures can only be given an EM II-MM IA date.26 Many of these motifs seem rather late in comparison with pottery motifs and correspond more closely to Pre-Kamares or phase 1 than to EM III pottery motifs. Representational motifs may, however, have begun earlier in glyptics than in ceramics. [p. 23] and they are also much more frequent in glyptics. All belong to Furumark's "pictorial" type and are of basically linear character.

In pottery decoration representational motifs are first found in the East Cretan EM III white-on-dark ware. Many of them come from the North Trench at Gournia, but some have also been found at Malia and Palaikastro [cf. WPM 24 (x) 1-9]. WPM 24 (x) 1 from Gournia consists of a cross-hatched triangle with a reserved circular area. By the addition of two curved lines representing horns, the triangle has been turned into a reclining goat [Fig. 19]. Another motif {WPM 24 (x) 2] from Gournia [Fig. 20] consists of a spiral link which has been detached from the spiral, cross-hatched, and turned into a standing goat by the addition of a curved line representing horns and two straight lines ending in dots, representing hoofs. In some cases, as for instance in Fig. 21 a-b [WPM 24 (x) 4 and 24 (x) 6 from Gournia and Palaikastro, crossing semicircular lines have been used to represent goats. Short vertical lines have been added, and the triangles formed by the addition of these lines, as well as the area where the circles intersect, have been cross-hatched to suggest the front, middle [p. 24] part and hind quarters of the animal. A curved line and a dot represent horns and an eye. A more elaborate goat motif comes from Malia [WPM 24 (x) 8]. It is formed by the link between two large disc spirals and has been turned into a reclining goat by the addition of a triangle for the head, another triangle for the neck and long curved lines for horns. Fig. 22 [WPM 24 {x] 9] from Palaikastro is an unusual animal motif which consists of a triangle for the head and two oblique lines for legs. The head is formed by an irregular circle provided with two irregular projections [= horns?]. There are also examples of floral motifs in EM III, as for instance, Fig. 23 [WPM 24 [iii] 1] from Malia, which consists of a circle and a wavy and a straight line. These representational EM III motifs are thus "pictorialized" motifs, made from elements borrowed from the abstract repertory. Much of the material is fragmentary, but to judge from what is preserved, these motifs are elaborations of details of motifs [cf. above, p. 14] rather than combinations of abstract elements chosen mainly for the purpose of representation. The difference between them and the early seal motifs is, consequently, considerable.

In MM IA or the ceramic Pre-Kamares/phase 1, the first "pictorial" motifs are found on pottery. One is painted on a cup from Palaikastro [Fig. 1, WPM 25:1], and the other is incised on a jug from Malia, Fig. 24 [WPM 25:2]. They probably both show men; women in contemporary seals wear long skirts [cf. Fig. 34]. The torso of the man painted on the cup from Palaikastro is represented by a triangle while the head consists of a circle on a short stem. The arms are [p. 25] formed by vertical lines ending in short horizontal lines, which are not quite on a level with each other - a feature which may suggest that the artist meant to represent the man as walking to the left. The different levels of the feet may, however, also be the result of chance or lack of accuracy. The figure is thus painted according to the rules of Geradvorstelligkeit27 or according to the Egyptian conventions for the representation of human beings, animals and objects. The incised man on the jug from Malia has a more detailed head. The face consists of a circle with dots and lines for eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth. Short radiating lines suggest hair. The body is triangular and the lower part is cross-hatched, possibly to represent a loin-cloth. Opposite curving lines suggest strong, muscular legs. They are turned out to the left and the right from both sides of the "loin-cloth".

In provincial Middle Minoan pottery of phase 1, there are also "pictorialized" floral motifs. They usually consist of groups of dots and short radiating lines, representing buds and stalks [cf. Fig. 25, WPM 24 (vi) 15].


[Walberg, Gisela. Tradition and Innovation. Essays in Minoan Art. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern. 1986.]



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