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Minoan Realities

Diamantis Panagiotopoulos
Ute Günkel-Maschek

Introduction: the Power of Images and Architecture

Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek

Note de l’auteur

We would like to express our sincerest thanks to Tina Saavedra and Saro Wallace for their help in checking the English of the contributions.

Texte intégral

1In his visionary novel “Die andere Seite” Alfred Kubin described the social context of images at his imaginary capital Perle as follows:

  • 1 Kubin 1994, 19.

“Besondere Museen, Bildergalerien etc. haben wir nicht. Wertvolle Kunstwerke werden nicht aufgestapelt, aber im einzelnen werden Sie gar manches außergewöhnliche Stück erblicken. Es ist alles verteilt, sozusagen im Gebrauch.”1

  • 2 Bachmann-Medick 2006.

2Kubin’s words perfectly describe the actual function of images in an ancient society, where they were not contained in museums but instead filled a position in public or private spaces, where they could be used or ‘abused’ in manifold ways within the course of daily life. It took archaeologists some time to recognize this fact and distance themselves from an antiquarian perspective, according to which images were regarded and interpreted as works of fine art removed from their original social context. The way we view ancient images has, however, been changing during the past 20 years and especially in the last decade. The beginning of the 21 st century marked a series of cultural turns that gradually transformed social disciplines, including among others an iconic/pictorial turn referring to the new interest of social and exact sciences in non-verbal forms of communication, the spatial turn, the performative turn, etc.2. Even if some scholars regard these turns as purely ephemeral rhetorical designs and not as a proper theoretical paradigm, there can be no doubt that they exercised a strong influence on our disciplines and significantly changed the way we look at images. Art history has evolved to an image science.

  • 3 See, e. g., Hölscher 2000; Zanker 1994; 2000.

3Following the footsteps of this discipline, archaeology has experienced a major shift of interest from the creation to the perception of ancient imagery. Not the artist but the viewer suddenly became the main focus of scientific enquiry3. The image has been liberated from the sterile environment of the museum and brought back into its original spatial and social context. Art historians and archaeologists have slipped into a new role as ‘embedded journalists’ attached to the spectators of the past and have begun to offer a new ‘coverage angle’ of ancient images elevating the sense of their Sitz im Leben, their purpose in life, to a very high degree. This new line of thought does not aspire to replace but only to complement the old formalist model, thus introducing a new and holistic approach to visual culture in ancient societies.

  • 4 See, for example, Dünne and Günzel 2006, 11–15; Bachmann-Medick 2006, 284–28; Döring and Thielmann (...)
  • 5 Löw 2001; Maran 2006, 9–10. On relational space as medium in a phenomenological perspective see als (...)

4Another cultural turn has befallen the understanding of space. Since the 1980s, space has become a new or, rather, ‘rediscovered’ unit of perceiving and thinking relationships between beings and objects. Now considered chiefly as a social construct, space has been attracting special attention as a device to consider particularly synchronal phenomena and systemic manifestations of social and cultural life4. Since this spatial turn, space has been considered as a dynamic dimension, permeating as a structuring medium the relational arrangements of living beings and objects which occur continuously in the performance of social practices in certain places5. Methodologically, the constitutive subjects, i. e. the living beings, and the objects, i. e. artefacts and architecture, as well as the relation between them have to be considered in order to understand the different spaces reproduced and experienced by social individuals in particular places of their living environment.

  • 6 Taylor 1948; Clarke 1977; Seibert 2006; Salisbury 2007.
  • 7 On sociological models of space see Löw 2001; Schroer 2006.
  • 8 See inter alios the seminal work on The Social Logic of Space by Hillier and Hanson (1984).
  • 9 On this topic see also the contributions in Maran et al. 2006.

5This relational concept of space is, however, not completely new to archaeology: in fact, archaeologists had begun already by the mid-20th century to argue for a comprehension of archaeological findings according to the relation between them in their find positions6. The ‘relational’ understanding of the spatial arrangement of objects such as artefacts and architecture can be termed as a kind of ‘place holder space’ when seen through the eyes of a space sociologist who is used to considering primarily living beings and objects in their spatial relationship7. However, this divergence of space in its actual ‘social’ understanding on the one hand and archaeological space on the other hand is by no means mutually exclusive. Indeed, it has been used most effectively in the study of architectural remains, where, from the 1980s onwards, stimuli from social and architectural theory have been leading to a development of theories and methodologies in studying social aspects of architectural space8. Architecture has thus become the ‘material incarnation’ of social structures, exerting a great effect on structuring social life, practices and behaviour and thereby maintaining the established–but certainly not immutable–dynamics of power and social relationships9.

6In this conflation of spatial and social constellations, images play an important role as a visualization, manifestation and ‘presence’ of social and cultural ideas, ideals and beliefs. The pictures afford their placing, use and shared perception, and serve to provide visual statements and stimuli in various situations and contexts of social life. Being considered as part of the ‘material’ side of social space, images contribute not only an emblematic or narrative aspect to a social situation but also a visually as well as mentally perceivable aspect of the social space. The function of images within social contexts of course depends on cultural conventions. These conventions in turn determine not only where these images are to be displayed but also on which kinds of media and in which form, and, finally, what images are to be displayed, i. e. what kind of representation is appropriate to which medium and context of use in specific. These circumstances of contextualizing images may therefore vary according to the society and culture linking both media and pictorially represented ideas to social practices. Understanding from an archaeologist’s perspective where, how and which kinds of images are both incorporated into social spaces and related to social practices can therefore reveal very basic concepts of associating pictorially recorded ideas with people, objects, and actions in a particular visual culture.

  • 10 Harrison 1991; Saint-Martin 1990; Huth 2010. Referring to Minoan archaeology, a similar idea has be (...)

7Again from an archaeologist’s perspective, and in addition to their direct involvement in social situations and practices, images may also serve as external sources for the re-construction of social spaces. It is widely accepted that pictorial representations are not direct but biased ‘impressions’ of everyday life. Nevertheless, pictures capture visually and perpetuate ideas, meanings and values of relevance to a given society and thus can to a certain degree be understood as ‘documents’ of activities, habits and power relations which are considered or established as common, prevailing, or aspired in a given society. In a sociological perspective, people who and objects which have been depicted on a shared picture surface can be understood as having been set in relation to each other in order to reproduce a spatially envisioned social situation by means of this very arrangement of both the figures depicted and their spatial relations. Although the spatial position of the figures depends on both pictorial conventions and the surface provided by the medium, it reflects the mutual and positional relationships of the beings and objects represented by the pictorial elements as they are conceptualised and structurally established within the ‘reality’ of the society producing the images10. A human figure, for example, who is characterised by sex, hairstyle, and dress, and frozen in gesture vis-à-vis other human figures or objects, may be understood as a representative of a particular social group involved in an activity addressing another representative of a social group or a specific material structure. In this way, ‘social space’ in its widest sense can be approached by considering either distinctively represented human figures and the relations which were established between them alone or together with the objects accompanying them, through their copresence as well as through their mutual relationships implied in gestures, postures and orientations towards each other. Along these lines, images too become valuable sources for the re-construction of spaces as they were conceptualised, pictorially ‘documented’, and perpetuated by a given society and permeated the arrangements of their social interactions and practices.

8Reuniting both genres of sources for reconstructing past social spaces, images and architecture may be considered as complementary, the former filling with life and meaning the bare framework provided by the latter, itself meaningful in many aspects. On the one hand, both are material and visual components of the daily routines and practices of social life, serving as structuring, explanatory and illustrative stimuli for people moving and acting within the lived-in world. On the other hand, both have been created by social groups in order to epitomize and/or maintain established social and structural relationships which claim to, or are intended to claim to, a notion of normative and enduring values and persistence. In this regard, both images and architecture may be understood as reflections of social situations and issues, influencing both the creation and reproduction of social spaces and regulating the forms of interaction in a particular culture.

  • 11 Berger and Luckmann 2007.

9What the recent theoretical advances in the study of images and architecture have thus in common is their pronounced interest in what archaeology cannot directly document: the people who created their material world and interacted with it. The challenge to archaeological research is therefore to develop hermeneutical models to elucidate how architecture and images responded to prevailing social structures, how they were designed to both epitomize and to express the intentions and purposes, and how they were to make their impact on the performance of social practices. Several models have been already applied to overcome the strongly descriptive level of traditional archaeological approaches and to give shape to what lies behind the tangible objects. The theoretical approaches are generated by the common interest for the ‘reality’ in which the images and built structures once fulfilled their purposes. In this context, ‘reality’ can be used as an analytical term demanding for an integrative approach to images and architecture considered to be constitutive elements of ancient contexts of action and perception. The concept of ‘reality’ covers a multiplicity of facets related to an individual’s or a collective’s Weltanschauung. To live in a community means to share a certain aspect of ‘reality’ which establishes the basis for each individual’s action within the world11. This common set of rules, practices, experiences, and beliefs shapes the structural order of the living world. Social activities build upon these structures and are in turn influenced by them. The term ‘realities’ (in the plural form), therefore, can serve to unify the various social structures with their collectively shared and attributed meanings. There can be no doubt that the attempt to reconstruct practices, ideas, beliefs, and aesthetic experiences in a ‘prehistoric’ society is a speculative, yet necessary endeavor. Only when buildings, objects and images are embedded into a specific context of ancient ‘reality’ can the cultural significance of these material remains be fully exploited.

10In this sense, the workshop “Minoan Realities. Theory-Based Approaches to Images and Built Spaces as Indicators of Minoan Social Structures”, which took place on 16 November 2009 at the University of Heidelberg, was situated at the juncture of the iconic and spatial turn. The aim was to explore the question of how the current theoretical and methodological approaches can be meaningfully applied to the field of Minoan archaeology to illuminate the social role of pictures and built environments from an integrative perspective. Given the dilemma that Minoan culture has left us with a magnificent but silent material record, these images and constructed environments can be considered as our most important sources in order to address questions regarding the strategies of creating appropriate circumstances for the performance of social practices. During the different phases of the palatial period of Bronze Age Crete, images and architecture were at any one time used in specific ways as visually and spatially structuring and defining elements of communal life. Images in particular had an important role to play in cultic, ritual and administrative spheres but also served as personal adornment to enhance the ostentatious behaviour of the elite. In these areas images served their function as visual devices manifesting or making present the ‘deeds’ of human figures, the symbols of distinguished social groups and entities, or the plurality of a natural world. Architecture, on the other hand, served to provide and designate the appropriate places for the performance of social activities.

  • 12 On the ‘Minoan palatial architectural style’ see generally Driessen 1989–90.
  • 13 On the ancestry of the Minoan Hall system see now Shaw 2011. On early lustral basins at Knossos and (...)

11This involvement of images and architecture in routine communal life becomes very obvious in the socalled Neopalatial period (Middle Minoan III to Late Minoan I), when a very specific ‘palatial’ architectural design and a new way of “styling”, distributing and using pictorial artworks proliferated. From an architectural standpoint, along with the almost island-wide appearance of the new palaces and the so-called villas, the distribution of ‘Minoan Halls’, polythyron halls, ‘Lustral Basins’ and other types of rooms which were variably embellished with paved or plastered floors, plastered and/or painted walls or gypsum incrustations also became prevalent12. These new forms of spatial arrangements generally seem to reflect certain types of ritual practices, which were in part developed on a localized basis in the preceding Middle Minoan period and which were now institutionalised on a larger scale to be performed in the various areas of Neopalatial Crete and, to a certain degree, beyond13. By the end of the Neopalatial period, most of these room types went out of use; a clear indication that the practices were also no longer being carried out in the previous way.

  • 14 Compare also Rehak 1997, esp. 61; Gates 2004; German 2005.
  • 15 Rehak 1997; Driessen and Macdonald 1997, 59–64.
  • 16 On one explanatory model see Driessen and Macdonald 1997.

12As a parallel phenomenon, iconic artefacts now increasingly served to visualise selected ideas and themes of relevance within certain spatial and social contexts. Consisting of a quite limited and repetitive repertoire of pictorial themes and motifs, Minoan ‘palatial’ imagery not only provides a very selective view of aspects of social reality, but also points to a highly specialised ‘visual language’ which was implemented for conveying specific topoi of meaning within a restricted range of social situations and contexts14. To judge from the pictorial themes, the images and topics represented can be mainly attributed to the spheres of religious and ritual practices, palatial ideology, and construction of social identity. Such pictorial representations were applied, among other uses, on the walls of architectural units designed for social activities, on vessels used in ritual performances, and on seals and signet rings which served as markers of elitist or official status. They were reproduced in the course of administrative sealing practices in the form of seal impressions or they took the shape of three-dimensional figures and figurines to be placed in sacred caves, peak sanctuaries, and other areas of religious or ritual practice, perpetuating in human form veneration on behalf of the faithful. Both the distinctive style and the intermedial analogies of elements and motifs between the different categories of pictorial artefacts point to the coherence of this Neopalatial ‘visual language’. In addition, wall paintings offer the link between this pictorial language and contemporaneous architecture, making clear that both the ideas embodied and expressed in the images and the social practices performed within the architectural enviironments were in some ways correlated. At the end of the Neopalatial period, when numerous architectural places were abandoned, many of the topics used in pictorial language were discontinued as well15. This evidence points to major changes in Minoan social life and structure, concerning especially the actions and interactions for the appropriate execution visual language as well as the architectural places had been created16.

13In this era of Bronze Age Crete both images and architecture thus had played an important role as factors of Minoan social spaces. It is therefore necessary to go beyond the mere description of pictorial representations or architecture and to discuss their perception and use as visual and constitutive elements of Minoan ‘realities’. Based on these considerations, the aim of the workshop on “Minoan Realities” was to present various approaches to, and perspectives on, the Minoan material record in order to reveal its potential as providing the required structures for the realisation, localisation and performance of social activities. A special focus was laid on the role of images as visual components of spaces and as mediators of meaning linked to the social activities in relation to which they fulfilled their role. We are grateful to the participants and contributors for having accepted our invitations to share with us their approaches to the construction and agency of ‘Minoan realities’ by means of images and built structures.

14The papers collected in this volume proceed from approaches considering the reciprocity of images and constructed environments towards approaches addressing the social dimension of built spaces and images. In the first two papers, the architectural settings of wall paintings are analysed in different ways in order to achieve new insights into practical issues related to their accessibility and perception. Clairy Palyvou (Thessaloniki, Greece) analyses the movement through built environments with wall paintings and their perception. She explores the connections and interrelations between the real architectural space and the space depicted on the wall paintings in quest of artistic and architectural intentions. Using the examples of the West House and building Xesté 3 at Akrotiri, Thera, she discusses the ways in which the artists linked architectural space with pictorial space in order to provoke specific emotional reactions and guide the viewer in reading their meaning. Quentin Letesson (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) uses the method of space syntax analysis to examine the spatial configuration of rooms decorated with wall paintings and stuccoes in Neopalatial buildings. Applying a qualitative and quantitative approach he delineates recurrent patterns in their structural properties and explores their spatial connections and integration, their accessibility and role within the circulatory pattern as well as the visual properties and controllability of the built environment. His aim is to achieve a better understanding of the practices related to the decorated rooms by means of understanding the spatial context of the wall paintings.

15Approaches to Aegean wall painting in a more general perspective are presented in the following three papers dealing with basic aspects of composition and perception of the visual language as well as with the social and political contexts of the images, their viewers and ‘users’. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos (Heidelberg, Germany) offers a theoretical approach towards the polyvalent significance of Minoan and Mycenaean imagery, taking into consideration the various devices that produced the viewing experience. He defines the viewer, the image and the act of viewing as the basic elements of a triangle, which he then uses as a heuristic tool to reconstruct specific viewing situations. Having considered the social status of the target audience of Aegean imagery, he introduces the concept of Aegean decorum as a set of rules which operated at different levels determining the subject matter, style, medium and position of an image. Finally, he focuses on the ways of viewing and presents a new method of categorising Minoan wall paintings on the basis of the relation between the image’s theme and the architectural context. Looking at the artistic interrelations between the distinct art forms of Aegean Bronze Age imagery, Fritz Blakolmer (Vienna, Austria) proceeds from the assumption that a certain hierarchy of art genres existed in Aegean imagery, the iconography of mural images being copied on seal stones and objects of relief art. Based on this argument, he offers an attempt to reconstruct mural paintings by analysing an amount of elements and motifs recurrent on both the walls of palatial buildings and in small-and miniature-scale relief art. Furthermore, he explores the socio-political dimension of this artistic phenomenon, analysing the motives governing the circulation of images and highlighting the ‘palatial’ context of their production and use. Drawing too upon the iconographic interrelations between the different pictorial media of Aegean Bronze Age art, Ute Günkel-Maschek (Heidelberg, Germany) develops a theoretical approach to explore potential reasons for the choice of themes and motifs decorating the walls of particular rooms. Proceeding from the assumption that the application of the Minoan pictorial language on whatever kind of pictorial medium depended on this medium’s use, she argues that the significance, function and use of an architectural space decorated with wall paintings can be revealed through an examination of both the ‘fields of application’ of the depicted motifs and the reconstruction of the pictorial cycle from which the selected elements were taken. In this sense, three prominent motifs–the running spiral, the bull, and the ‘sacred landscape’–are analysed in order to reveal aspects of the significance and use of the architectural spaces they decorated.

16In the final two papers, ethnological models and data are used for comparison in two very different approaches to Minoan buildings and their social dimensions. Jan Driessen (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) analyses the significance of architecture and images as evidence for gendered practices and spaces. He proposes an interpretation of Cretan Bronze Age society as a matrilineal and matrilocal ‘house society’, arguing that the residences of large families as well as ownership-structures were centred on and around women. After giving an historiographical overview of past and present views on Minoan gendered spaces and practices, he considers the environment and setting of public female roles by analysing the iconographical evidence, proceeding then to the discussion of gendered ceremonial spaces and their location within Minoan residential structures. Finally, Maud Devolder (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) takes into consideration the construction of Neopalatial buildings and presents a quantitative approach based on labour costs analysis, focusing on the expenses relating to materials, techniques, and labour force, and employing ethnological data for an approximate estimation of the investments and their social implications. The application of her analytical instrument on three case studies (the palace at Gournia and two East Cretan buildings) opens a new perspective on the study of Minoan architecture, shifting the focus from its functional and aesthetic aspects to the social and economic strategies involved in construction projects of different scales.

17The present volume, thus, offers a variety of theoretical and methodological ways of thinking about buildings, images, and the social structures which go beyond their appearance and use. New insights have been gained concerning the design, perception and experience of decorated spaces, the ways of providing meaningful atmospheres for social activities, and the reflections, in images and architecture, of ideological and religious concepts as well as gender-related activities and performances. Given the lack of written sources, these new approaches may be useful to everyone concerned with understanding and reconstructing the way in which Minoan society defined the environment for practices and rituals defined by architecture and images so as to comply with the ideas and expectations of Minoan realities.



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1 Kubin 1994, 19.

2 Bachmann-Medick 2006.

3 See, e. g., Hölscher 2000; Zanker 1994; 2000.

4 See, for example, Dünne and Günzel 2006, 11–15; Bachmann-Medick 2006, 284–28; Döring and Thielmann 2008; Günzel 2008.

5 Löw 2001; Maran 2006, 9–10. On relational space as medium in a phenomenological perspective see also Tilley 1994, esp. 7–34.

6 Taylor 1948; Clarke 1977; Seibert 2006; Salisbury 2007.

7 On sociological models of space see Löw 2001; Schroer 2006.

8 See inter alios the seminal work on The Social Logic of Space by Hillier and Hanson (1984).

9 On this topic see also the contributions in Maran et al. 2006.

10 Harrison 1991; Saint-Martin 1990; Huth 2010. Referring to Minoan archaeology, a similar idea has been developed by Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood (1985).

11 Berger and Luckmann 2007.

12 On the ‘Minoan palatial architectural style’ see generally Driessen 1989–90.

13 On the ancestry of the Minoan Hall system see now Shaw 2011. On early lustral basins at Knossos and Malia see Niemeier 1986 with further references; Platonos 1990.

14 Compare also Rehak 1997, esp. 61; Gates 2004; German 2005.

15 Rehak 1997; Driessen and Macdonald 1997, 59–64.

16 On one explanatory model see Driessen and Macdonald 1997.

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