The large-scale art of the period took the form of wall-paintings, in which Minoan artists expressed a tendency to depict nature and its graphic features. Wall-paintings were of a decorative character and served both architecture and religion, with which they were closely associated. The predominant motifs were decorative, though many were naturalistic or representational.
In contrast with Egyptian frescoes, which narrate historical events and the glorious deeds of rulers, Minoan wall-paintings sing the praises of deified nature. Some depict rituals, cult scenes, sacred contests, processions of priests, bull-leaping, or the capturing of the sacred bull-all rendered in a lively fashion, despite their symmetrical quality. Many of them are miniature paintings. All have survived in only very fragmentary condition.
The preserved wall-paintings do not all belong to the same period of the new palaces, and the assigning of precise dates to them is problematic. Those illustrated here are the best known and date from the second half of the 17th c., the 16th, and the first half of the 15th c. BC (MM IIIB, LM IA and LM IB). One of the earliest is apparently the wall-painting of the bull which adorned the corridor at the north entrance to the palace at Knossos and is now on display in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. The palace of Knossos had an extensive iconographic programme of wall-paintings adorning the palace quarters and the surrounding residences.
The New Palace period , from 1650-1450 BC, was the most brilliant phase of Minoan wall-paintings, though they continue to be found also in the Creto-Mycenaean period (1450-1300 BC) in palaces, megara, villas and the luxury houses of the large centres. Knossos was the artistic centre of the art.
Palaces and houses decorated with wall-paintings are found at Knossos and its harbour at Poros, and at Ayia Triada, Zakros, Malia, Archanes, Galatas, and Kydonia. Megara, villas and luxury houses decorated with paintings are known at Tylisos, Nirou, Amnisos, Pseira, Palaikastro and Prasas. Wall-paintings influenced by the art of Crete have been found outside the island on Milos, Kea, and above all on Thera. Very few paintings have been found in situ. The majority were discovered in fragments that were left on the floor and buried beneath later floors, or in rubbish heaps.
The technique of fresco painting was also applied to cult objects made of plaster, such as double horns of consecration or portable offering-tables (altars), and the unique stone sarcophagus from Ayia Triada.
It is very difficult to restore the wall-paintings, especially the pictorial ones, on the basis of the preserved fragments. The restorations that have been made frequently rely heavily on the imagination, and the resulting scenes are merely indicative and not a successful recreation of the actual paintings. The purely decorative compositions are easier to restore.
The narrative paintings include scenes of the capturing of bulls, bull-leaping, athletic contests, scenes from the public life of the palace, young men with javelins, and ladies of the court.
The religious scenes contain a vast number of figures moving or sitting in sacred areas or the palace and participating in festivals. Others show deities seated on thrones, stools, or rocks, scenes of the welcoming of the deity, the community of the gods, processions of spear-bearers, and griffins flanking a throne.
The naturalistic scenes are drawn from the flora of Crete and the marine world and include dense, lavish, wild or domesticated plant-life (lilies, crocuses, wild roses) populated by animals and birds, wild cats stalking unsuspecting birds, partridges going down to the river, and exotic birds of paradise with colourful feathers. Other scenes depict enchanting royal gardens with exotic animals (monkeys) and birds, and the silent world of deep, with dolphins, fish, flying-fish, octopuses, cuttle-fish, coral, and nautilus argonauts.
The decorative motifs found include rows of rosettes, running spirals, meshes of spirals, complicated plant shoots, and borders of garlands.
The responsibility for the fine quality of the wall-paintings associated with a structure lay with the wall-painter-decorator. The motifs were determined at the orders of the king and the instructions of the architect. Their excellent quality reveals the high level of taste of the period.
The wall-paintings are normally assigned to the following categories on the basis of the position they occupied in the room: friezes, closed compositions, and decorative zones and borders used on ceilings, floors, and pillars. Zones of wall-painting concealed timber frames, adorned the area around doorways, or decorated the top part of walls beneath the ceiling. Ceilings were adorned with networks of spirals retreating to infinity.
The scenes and compositions varied in size. Some compositions formed zones 0.70-0.85 m. high, set at eye level. The top of a scene was normally placed at the level of the door or windows leading into the room. The bottom edge was one metre above the floor (zone of birds and monkeys from the House of the frescoes at Knossos). Some narrow friezes extended along the top of the wall above the lintels (wall-painting of partridges, 0.03 m. high, from the Caravanserai at Knossos). There were also large-scale scenes which occupied most of the wall surface (wall-painting of a landscape from Ayia Triada).
Whatever their size, the paintings normally had borders of parallel bands at the top and bottom. These bands were painted in strongly contrasting colours (white and black, or blue and black), between guidelines. The dado beneath the wall-paintings was often revetted with marble or dressed stone with a distinctive surface, though paintings imitating stone masonry or revetment with slabs of veined marble are more common.
Similarly, we find painted imitations of vertical or horizontal wooden beams. The background of the scenes in the earliest wall-paintings was usually red, or red in combination with white, the traditional colours used for wall plaster in Crete. In the later paintings, the most common background colour was bright Egyptian blue, combined with white or black. The background colours were separated by vertical, horizontal, or undulating lines. White was used for the flesh of females, and brown or a reddish colour for males.
The following stages were involved in the execution of the wall-paintings: the lowest layer, applied to the stone masonry of the wall, consisted of clay containing foreign bodies, mainly straw. On this substructure were spread a series of layers of diluted lime plaster, which also contained foreign bodies, such as animal hair. Wooden pegs were sometimes used to keep the plaster in position on the vertical wall surfaces. The penultimate layer was about 0.015 m. thick and the final layer 0.005 m. Both these layers consisted of pure diluted lime. The final layer was applied in sections, as the work progressed.
Earlier and recent analyses of pieces of coloured plaster, mainly from Knossos and Tiryns, have shown that they were painted in the buon fresco technique used in the Italian Renaissance. The final details, however, seem to have been applied when the plaster was dry, in the fresco secco technique. The final colours were probably mixed with diluted lime water to make them easier to absorb, or with a kind of glue. The main painting, including the drawings and outlines, the background, and the filling of surfaces, was executed on the plaster while it was still wet.
The composition was drawn in yellow or orange, or was incised. String or a blunt instrument was used to mark the guidelines, bands and borders of the composition, or the small squares in the case of repeated motifs or designs. Circles were drawn with a compass. The view has been advanced that ready-made templates or patterns were used for designs. The colour was applied to the design while the plaster was still wet and penetrated to the lower layers of plaster, as we have seen.
Corrections were sometimes necessary, and this involved scraping away the area in question and repainting it.
The final stage in the creation of a scene was to polish the plaster surface; this was also done section by section, after the final corrections had been made. Egg tempera was used for this purpose and the surface was rubbed after it had dried and the colours had been absorbed. The quality and stability of the plaster was usually excellent.
According to recent analyses, the paints used for Minoan wall-paintings were mainly minerals or earth pigments. White was made of pure lime, red of ferrous earths and haematite, and yellow from yellow ochre. Black was derived from argillaceous schist (Crete) or charred bones (Tiryns). The blue used for the background was from Egyptian blue, an artificial vitreous material or thick powder, which was a compound of silicon, copper oxide and calcium oxide. The theory that blue came from lapis lazuli, the source of which was distant Afghanistan, is valid only for the blue used on the Ayia Triada sarcophagus. Green was made by mixing blue and yellow; when pure green is found, it comes from malachite, as in Egypt. In the preserved fragments, the colour has often deteriorated as a result of the fire that destroyed the building. The early wall-paintings (17th, 16th, and 15th c. BC) in mainland Greece and Crete had brilliant colours. The paintings of the later centuries, especially those of the mainland, had new, less distinct shades. The paints were apparently applied to the surface with brushes, the marks of which can occasionally be seen; is some cases sponges were used, particularly for backgrounds and fillings.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis