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Minoan Realities

 | 
Diamantis Panagiotopoulos
, 
Ute Günkel-Maschek

Wall Painting and Architecture in the Aegean Bronze Age: Connections between Illusionary Space and Built Realities

Clairy Palyvou

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1In art size and medium matter… Take for example a small griffin depicted on an object that you can hold in your hands–a ring, a seal, a vase–and a large griffin painted on the walls of a room: The two evoke very different feelings and may convey varying messages. In the first case one relates to both the picture and the medium through abstract mental associations (a griffin depicted on a ring, for example, acquires its significance through the combined associations of the griffin as a symbol of power and of the ring as a symbol of status). In the case of a large griffin painted on the wall of a room, the symbolic meaning of the object depicted is probably the same but the second component, the medium, is more than the meaning of its materiality (the mental associations deriving from the knowledge that the wall belongs to a throne room, for example): looking at the picture on the wall is unavoidably part of a complex and rich experience, both corporeal and emotional, affected by the numerous parameters that shape our perception of the built environment. These parameters can function as potent tools in the hands of the artist and the architect, and may be used deliberately to manipulate and enhance the effects. It may be that once you have experienced a large griffin on a wall this recollection will always affect the way you see its small image on a movable object.

2Movement, pause and arrest guide our perception of the built environment. More elaborate buildings provide a variety of possible ‘architectural promenades’ designed or established according to their function and the identity of the user: For a visitor, for example, the promenade starts at the entrance and carries the incomer through architectural space towards his final destination, some kind of reception hall, in an appropriate manner, avoiding or by-passing private areas. Within a specific cultural framework, much of this spatial arrangement (including wall painted spaces) and corresponding circulatory patterns are well known and the element of surprise or unease is thus kept to a minimum. This kind of familiarity eludes us as scholars; a misfortune as difficult to deal with as the missing parts of the building. Our decoding of architecture and monumental art, therefore, must rely on careful observation and sound arguments.

3To narrow the discussion to the issue at hand, it is safe to assume, as a starting point, that the manner in which a person perceives a room with wall paintings depends on the characteristics of the promenade he has been following, and the properties of the architectural space, as much as those of the paintings; this interrelationship is especially powerful when the theme depicted on the walls includes illusionary space. In this context, the goal of this paper is to explore the connections and interrelations between the real architectural space and the space depicted on the wall paintings in quest of intentions, both artistic and architectural. In other words, to explore to what extent, in what ways, and to what end the artist takes into account real space in order to provoke specific emotional reactions and guide the viewer in reading their meaning. A subsequent query, rather bold in its suggestion, is the possibility of the architect taking into account the theme to be depicted when designing the building; this of course would mean thinking far ahead when designing a house and also making decisions in collaboration with the artist. These questions will be addressed through two specific case studies from Akrotiri, Thera: the West House and building Xeste 3. The high quality of preservation of both the architecture and the paintings at this unique site offer a rare opportunity for a detailed discussion of this sort.

West House, Room 5

  • 1 For a general description of the building see Palyvou 2005, 45–53.
  • 2 See especially Michailidou 1987.
  • 3 For the Theran wall paintings see Doumas 1992.

4The West House is a rather typical house for the settlement of Akrotiri: It has a ground floor consisting of storage spaces and working areas, an upper floor where domestic activities took place and a second floor consisting of one room1. The entrance is located at the corner of the house and opens into a staircase that leads to the upper floor. This is the staircase a visitor would use to reach the living rooms and the reception halls upstairs (fig. 1). The first room entered on the upper floor, Room 3, is a large squarish room with a central column, typical at Akrotiri and well known from Crete as the hub of the traditional house2. This is where weaving took place and, presumably, where the family would gather. The room is entered from a door at a corner and the only other door leading to the rest of the upper floor rooms is situated diagonally at the other end of the room. This second door opens into Room 5: It is a square room (4 x 4 m) amply lit by two pier-and-window partitions occupying the largest part of the two exterior walls. Cupboards and doors occupy the other two sides of the room. The little there is in terms of wall surface is richly painted (the two Fishermen, the Miniature Frieze running above the windows and the dado simulation below) (fig. 2). These paintings have been discussed in detail in several publications3; here we shall focus on certain aspects of the architecture and on the way the paintings were perceived and experienced by a person entering and moving within the room.

FIG. 1 The West House, Akrotiri: plan of the first floor

FIG. 2 West House, Room 5, first floor (computer simulation by A. Kassios, architect)

5Stepping back into Room 3, one may notice a peculiar architectural irregularity: This very large room has a small extension at the point where the door leading to Room 5 is situated. It is clear that the extension was meant to accommodate the door. But why was this extension necessary? It always puzzled me that the architect ‘interfered’ with the corner of this room in a way that created all sorts of structural problems in this area, affecting not only the room itself (a weak corner) but also the small auxiliary staircase beyond, that has been literally squeezed to fit into a narrow space.

  • 4 Palyvou 1999, 367, n. 594.

6To check the architect’s intentions let’s see what the alternative would have been if there was no extension in Room 3 and if the northern wall of the room (an important load bearing wall) extended properly all the way to the corner: Room 5, the room with the wall paintings, would have been entered at the corner, whereas now it is entered at the centre (fig. 3). The latter is quite strange, for the rule in Cretan and Theran architecture is for doors to be placed at the end of the wall, that is by the corner of the room4. So why did the architect go against all logic, both structural and architectural?

FIG. 3 West House: plan of the first floor and alternative arrangement of entrance to room 5 (below)

7The answer, I believe, lies in the peculiarities of the painted Room 5 and the clear intention to give the room a central entrance. Again a comparison between the two options as presented above might be helpful. Room 5 has a very strong architectural feature: centrality. It is a square room with openings arranged along a grid of 5 x 5 units, and a paved floor that also emphasizes the centre. Such an architectural space evokes powerful centripetal forces: Only a central access point can hold these forces together. The other alternative, a door at the corner of the room, would have introduced the incomer sideways leaving him with a feeling of by-passing the centre. The sensation might be of moving along a tangent that forces one out of the circuit or of missing the target altogether. A corner door would simply have cancelled the very essence of this room, its centrality. It is clear to my understanding that the displacement of the wall in Room 3 was intended to provide space for entering Room 5 centrally, and this is further emphasized by the fact that the beautiful stone pavement of Room 5 spreads out into Room 3 appropriating the small extension which functions as a preparatory space or forehall (fig. 1).

  • 5 For the miniature frieze see Morgan 1988 and Televantou 1994.

8Entrance to Room 5, therefore, is directed to its centre at which point the verticality of the body defines a horizon at eye level, approximately 1.50 m above the floor (fig. 4). A person standing in the middle of the room is invited to gaze around as in a panorama. The eye is first captured by the light coming from the windows facing the entrance door (west) and is mobilized towards the right side (north) by the continuation of the windows on the other wall (fig. 2). The wall paintings imply the same movement: The first painting one sees on entering the room is a Fisherman moving to the right, in a clockwise direction. The frieze above the windows (not preserved) would also have followed the same direction (this is indicated by the overall direction of the frieze)5. The engagement of the beholder is further enhanced by the easy (more or less even) eye contact with the Fisherman.

FIG. 4 West House: visual contact between a person standing in Room 5 and the figures on the wall paintings

9The clockwise movement of the gaze is continued till the second Fisherman is reached where it momentarily stops because his body posture and his gaze change direction and send the viewer backwards. At this point one might perceive the two Fishermen and the bright light in between them as a separate entity in its own right, as opposed to the dark other half of the room. The roundabout movement seems indeed to have been cancelled. But is it so? For me, the two Fishermen actually emphasize the centrality of the room. Their lateral depiction in profile should not be read literally as pointing to the corner of the room but as intended to show them facing each other: They are actually moving out of the walls and into the room towards its centre. One might even imagine that they are reaching out to the person standing there offering him their fish (fig. 5).

10To judge the effect of the two Fishermen, we can work with the alternative option once again: If the second Fisherman had been painted facing to the right, then the circular movement would have been reinforced, perhaps overwhelmingly so, at the expense of the centrality and the equilibrium of the overall composition (fig. 6). The two men would have seemed almost chasing each other in a perpetual circular movement. To conclude: In the West House, we have clear evidence of the architect giving priority in his design to the aesthetic values of architectural space; the same values that the artist enhanced through his own work. Architect and artist had a common goal in mind and one may even envisage them together, over a cup of Theran wine, discussing their intentions ahead, long before construction had begun.

FIG. 5 West House: the two Fishermen are perceived as coming out of the walls towards each other or towards someone standing at the centre of Room 5

FIG. 6 West House, Room 5: both Fishermen looking in the same direction (alternative posture of the Fisherman to the right)

Xeste 3, Room 3, upper floor

  • 6 For a general description of the building see Palyvou 2005, 54–62.

11This building differs from the West House in several ways. It is clearly a building of special (public?) functions, as opposed to the typical house that the West House represents6. Xeste 3 is a very large building, with three stories, numerous rooms and an astonishing number of wall paintings (fig. 7). It seems that apart from some rooms to the west which had an auxiliary function, all other rooms in all three stories were richly decorated with wall paintings. Another major characteristic of Xeste 3 is that it has many pier-and-door partitions in all three storeys. Space articulation and intercommunication, combined with a colorful pictorial background and a rich interplay of light effects, are thus raised to a highly sophisticated level.

  • 7 For an overall presentation and discussion of wall paintings of Xeste 3 see Vlachopoulos 2008.

12The building is far too large and complex to be discussed here in its totality, both in terms of the various ways one can move through it and the thematic narratives of the wall paintings that follow one’s footsteps7. We shall therefore go straight to the upper floor, to Room 3a, and focus on just two of its walls, the eastern and the northern, where the final scenes of the theme of the Crocus Gatherers are depicted. These correspond to a narration that starts at the ground floor and ends here in the culminating scene of the offering of crocuses to the Goddess.

  • 8 As for the general perception of the wall paintings in this part of the building, this is too broa (...)

13Room 3a–b is a composite space-unit: Three pier-and-door partitions and a thin partition wall made of mud bricks divide the space into a corridor, a main area (Room 3) and an L-shaped space flanking it (Rooms 3a and 3b). Access to this unit is either from the south through a pier-and-door partition, coming from the main staircase (and the entrance to the building) or via the corridor coming from the inner rooms of the building to the west8 (fig. 7). An auxiliary staircase at the end of the corridor relates this space-unit directly to a similar unit at ground floor level which in addition includes a Lustral Basin.

FIG. 7 Xeste 3, Akrotiri, Thera: plans of the ground floor (below) and the first floor (above), and sketch of the wall paintings in Rooms 3, 3a, and 3b

FIG. 8 Xeste 3, first floor: the wall painting of the Crocus Gatherers (eastern wall) and the focal element of the composition (mountain and crocuses) at its centre

FIG. 9 Xeste 3, Room 9: wall painting with rosettes

14Room 3 is a squarish space that acts as a place of ‘arrest’, a place to contemplate and perceive the whole unit before taking the next step. Centrality is a strong element here as well, and the effect of the pierced borders of this space (pier-and-door partitions on three sides) combined with the partial view of the wall paintings beyond and the light coming through the windows would have been overwhelming!

15Not unlike the ambience in Room 5 of the West House, both the architecture and the wall paintings of this space activate a rotation movement that starts with the female figures on the eastern wall of Room 3 and continues in a counter-clockwise direction. The ladies on the eastern wall invite one to proceed ahead, crossing the pier-and-door partition as walking through a screen. Having crossed the ‘mutable barrier’ that is the pier-and-door partition, one is halted to an arrest once again. Beyond lies a stunning composition that captures one’s attention immediately: the large culminating scene with the seated Goddess. Yet, one is also immediately aware that the scene is not confined to one wall: It wraps around the beholder in a manner emphasizing all three dimensions of space, as we shall see below.

16The girls depicted on the wall to the right are on the move, climbing up a mountain picking crocus flowers. They thus set the whole scene in motion, leading the beholder masterfully through illusionary space as much as real space. Let’s yield then to their call and follow their path, and, in doing so, observe how the artist has manipulated our response to this illusionary space.

  • 9 Doumas 1992, 152, fig. 116.

17The eastern wall depicts two young women on a mountain plucking crocuses. This wall painting appears in most publications as an autonomous painting in its own right9 (fig. 8). Indeed, it has all the attributes and the merits of a self-contained finished painting that can stand on its own. At the same time, however, it is an integral part of the overall scene that spreads over all the other walls as well. This dual performance–also attested in other wall paintings at Akrotiri (for example the Fishermen, the Boxing Boys and the Antelopes)–is a significant artistic attainment in its own right. But how is it achieved?

  • 10 Doumas 1992, 174, fig. 136.

18A careful look at this wall painting reveals certain simple codes for organizing the theme on the wall surface, which enhance the visuality of the picture and facilitate the reading of its meaning. As we shall see, these codes seem to be standard procedure for most paintings. A starting point of reference for organizing the blank surface of the wall is its centre. This is easily defined by simply ‘drawing’ the two diagonals of the wall surface and marking their crossing point (two strings held tight momentarily suffice for this); a vertical and a horizontal line passing through this centre are further guidelines for the composition (fig. 8). This is attested at Xeste 3 on both walls we are dealing with here, but a casual test on other wall paintings seems also to confirm it, as, for example, in the wall painting of Room 9 depicting rosettes set within a network of white bands in relief10 (fig. 9): The diagonal lines that form the net are parallel to the basic diagonals and the centre of the wall is the starting point for the whole composition (see also the rare instance of perspective in the knots flanking the central axis).

FIG. 10 Sector Beta: the Antelopes. The centre of the composition defines the overlapping of the two animals and the axes of their bodies

  • 11 This is an interesting topic of research in progress: it might even prove helpful in anticipating (...)

19The same is true in the Antelopes (fig. 10): The centre of the composition defines the overlapping of the two animals and the axes of their bodies. In the Boxing Children (fig. 11) the vertical line separates the domains of the two figures and defines the point where their outstretched arms cross while the horizontal line corresponds to the centres of their bodies. The boy to the right is actually bending his body forcefully forward in a way that seems to have been dictated by the very diagonals of the composition11.

FIG. 11 Sector Beta: the Boxing Children. The vertical line separates the domains of the two figures and defines the point, where their outstretched arms cross while the horizontal line corresponds to the centres of their bodies

20In the wall painting with the two Crocus Gatherers we are dealing with here, the centre of the wall is indeed the main point of reference of the whole scene, both literally and symbolically: The artist seems to have begun his work by placing at the centre the focal element of the whole composition, a mountain crop with crocus plants growing on it (fig. 8). Once the centre has been set, two guidelines both passing through this centre are activated: one horizontal and the other perpendicular. The former separates the ground from the sky (or some other binary situation in other instances, such as the rosettes in Room 9) whereas the latter acts as a magnet that keeps together the composition and helps read the picture as a self-contained autonomous entity. It also acts as an axis for symmetry (albeit latent), yet another element that favours internal equilibrium and autonomy.

21Next, the artist resorts to body posture and gaze and archetypal binaries, such as up and down, in front and behind. Body posture in this wall painting is most telling: Both girls move to the left and upwards, their bodies leaning accordingly (fig. 12). This strong directional movement suggests anticipation for things happening to the left of the picture, beyond the wall painting in question (which is indeed the case). In other words, a first link outside the picture is established. On the other hand, the fact that the girl to the left has twisted the upper part of her body backwards so as to confront the girl behind her activates symmetry in relation to the perpendicular line referred to above and enhances the reading of the picture as a complete, self-referential composition.

22The gaze of the two girls is yet another tool that the artist is using skilfully: The younger girl to the right (her hair is completely shaven) is looking to the left and upwards, emphasizing the directional movement of the whole composition but also implying difference of status with the higher and older girl (she has growing curly hair). The older girl looks back to her, emphasizing this time the internal equilibrium.

  • 12 Palyvou 2000.

23Predisposed for action to be continued to the left, the beholder now follows the directional line of the body postures only to find that it ends at the corner of the room. The anticipated continuation however is there, on the next wall around the corner, where there is yet another girl walking on the same colorful mountain (fig. 12). Ignoring the corner provocatively is a popular technique in Theran wall paintings (see for example the Spring Fresco): It evokes a feeling of space wrapping up around the beholder and Therans would have been acquainted with it12. This young woman is clearly ready to start her descent: Her basket is now full with flowers and placed on her shoulder while her upright body posture shows that movement has come to a halt; she is literally pausing momentarily before taking the first step downwards. Above all, however, it is her gaze that strongly suggests change for she is firmly looking down, ready to start her descent visualizing or actually seeing the valley below.

FIG. 12 Xeste 3: the crocus Gatherers, body posture and gaze

24This valley is depicted in the next part of the wall, but there is a window in between creating a substantial gap in the picture! It is truly amazing to observe at this point how the artist treated this gap: Not only was he not intimidated by this invasive architectural element, but he found a way of using it to the benefit of his composition: The ‘gap’ acts as an intermediary, as a passage or a link between the events taking place on the mountain and those below in the valley, as if time and space have been condensed in this gap or as if the window acts as a change of paragraph in the text of the narration.

25The beholder is thus ready to proceed to the next, and final, scene: He has reached the destination point of a thematic narration that started at ground floor level, around the Lustral Basin, went up the staircase, through the corridor and Room 3 to end here. This large composition represents the most important event of the whole narration, the offering of the crocuses to the Goddess and the blessing that comes with her acceptance (fig. 13). The scene takes place on flat ground, a valley spread with crocus plants (depicted in the cavalier perspective). It involves two female figures, one human, the other a deity, and two animals, one real and the other mythical. It also involves an impressive stepped structure.

26How is one to read this picture? The basic concept of the centre and the two lines passing through it–one horizontal, the other vertical–as the main elements of reference will help us get started, for they are very effective in this case. The centre of the plane is the epicentre of the composition: The artist has placed here the focal event of the whole narration, the act of the offering. A handful of crocuses held in the hand of the monkey–the intermediary–are presented to the deity who is picking a few with her fingertips, thus accepting the offering and affirming the ritual.

27The horizontal line defines the two areas of action, the mundane, factitious world below and the sublime or divine above (the monkey is barely surfing above this line). The artist made sure that the human figure to the left does not raise its head above this line. The same more or less applies to the perpendicular line that clearly divides the sacred from the profane.

28Reading the picture from bottom up one observes that the lower part has no landscape elements; it is a tripartite structure standing firmly on flat ground, which can practically be identified with the floor of the room itself (fig. 14). The stepped platform and all that happens upon it is therefore brought into the foreground, while nature is read as the background. The platform appears almost as if coming out from the wall into the room, linking real space to the illusionary beyond.

  • 13 Palyvou 2006.

29The stepped tripartite platform has been discussed in detail elsewhere13: In summary, it is seen to represent a temporary construction made of prefabricated elements that are carried to the spot and assembled in situ (figs. 15, 16). It consists of standardized elements of wood and stone that are mounted together so as to create the stepped platform and are dismantled after the ritual is over, then carried away and stowed for another occasion: That occasion will occur soon, because ritual acts are formal and repetitive.

  • 14 Shaw 1986; Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellaraki 1991, 30–32, fig. 16. See also Marinatos 2010, 136 (...)

30Timber elements, beams and planks, clearly identified by their color and the grain of the wood, are set longitudinally and transversely and are supported by stone bases in the well-known form of the so-called ‘incurved altar’. There are many depictions of such bases in art, but we also know a set of four real examples found in situ at Archanes14 (fig. 15). The latter are of special importance, for they were found placed tightly next to one another forming a broad square base or table.

31I cannot overemphasize the ingenuity of these stone artifacts: They are absolutely symmetrical and finely dressed so as to fit alongside one another perfectly. Their ingenious symmetrical curvilinear form–quite difficult to design and to execute–allows for many different combinations. They perform, in other words, as ‘modular units’ that can be used in many ways and on many occasions related to rituals: as a single base/altar (a common depiction in art), as a seat for a divine figure or a priestess, and in rows as supports for the tripartite platform. The very idea of standardization and prefabrication is an advanced technological concept and remarkable in itself, especially since we think of the Bronze Age as an era of ‘approximation’; true though this may be, it is clearly a matter of preference for a-symmetry (or eu-metry) rather than incompetence.

FIG. 13 Xeste 3: the culminating scene of the crocus gathering theme. The focal event, the offering of crocuses to the seated Goddess, is emphatically highlighted at the centre of the composition. The Goddess is stretching out her arm towards this centre to validate the act of offering

FIG. 14 Xeste 3: visual contact among the figures depicted in the scene. Below: a simplified drawing of the stepped platform

  • 15 Marinatos 1984, 61–84.

32The platform on the wall painting is shown in profile or, in architectural terms, in ‘elevation’–an advanced design tool for representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane. To mantle the platform, first, the bases are placed in position in rows on carefully levelled ground (fig. 16). On top of the bases wooden beams are placed in such a way as to bridge the gaps, positioned in alternating directions for the better stability and rigidity of the structure. Wooden boards or beams are then placed one next to the other to form the floor, probably held together by means of ropes or tenons and mortises. Timber blocks are used as supports for the higher platforms. It may be assumed that the three platforms diminish in width as they do in length (the dimension visible on the wall painting). This corresponds to their use, the highest being the smallest and exclusive to the Goddess. The three levels of the platform, as noted by N. Marinatos, are levels of hierarchy from the mundane to the divine, the intermediate level being precisely that15.

  • 16 Groenewegen-Frankfort 1972.

33To use Groenewegen-Frankfort’s words, the picture displays ‘absolute mobility’16: All the figures are tiptoeing, captured at the very moment of transition from one situation to another. Body posture, gesture and eye contact are also indicative of this mobility (fig. 14). The young woman to the left stands firmly on the lower level, one leg slightly tiptoeing towards her basket and symbolically towards the deity. The monkey is standing on the lower, human/real level and just touching the intermediate (his body posture does not imply intention to actually move towards the upper level, he is merely activating contact and communication), whereas the Goddess is sitting on the highest level and also touching (making contact with) the intermediate level.

FIG. 15 ‘Incurved altars’ made of stone from Archanes (above; photo by author) and depicted in art (below; seal images after CMS I, nos. 46, 98; II. 3, no. 7; ivory lid from Minet el-Beida after Aruz et al. 2008, 408, fig.)

34The griffin behind (or next to) the Goddess is not entirely preserved but its dynamic posture with the wings fully open and the front legs in the air seem to indicate that it is lingering in mid-air rather than standing on the intermediate level as the graphic reconstruction of the fresco suggests.

35The picture can be also read in terms of corporal proximity: The human figure stands alone at some distance, the monkey comes closer to the deity, while the griffin is almost touching the goddess, almost… Eye contact and gaze is another theme to bear in mind when ‘reading’ the picture (fig. 14): There is a line of eye-to-eye relationship starting from the young woman, passing through the monkey, and reaching out to the griffin, which, rather passively and unaware of this gaze, passes it on to the Goddess. This is a vague, mental relationship rather than true eye contact. The girl is bending her body downwards to reach the broad basket by her feet while painfully turning her head up towards the goddess to accept her benevolent gaze rather than to look at her. The monkey’s gaze, caught in the middle of this human/divine communication, is absolutely focused on the hands, the act of offering.

36The act of offering at the very centre of the composition is further emphasized by the directional movement of the two hands: The monkey, the agent, is merely presenting the offering with his arm close to his stiff body and only the hand outstretched, whereas it is the Goddess who takes action and accepts the offer, her arm emphatically (out of proportion) outstretched to reach the crocuses.

FIG. 16 Conjectural drawing of the stone and timber elements mantled together to create an ephemeral platform (computer drawing by A. Kassios, architect)

37Yet another way of looking at the picture is in the different ways the tripartite arrangement is activated: Two female figures, one human and the other divine, communicate through an animal agent, the monkey; two animals, one real and the other imaginary, serve the Goddess, one as the agent of the world of the humans, the other as the guardian and agent of the world of the gods.

38Last but not least, there are two points of special interest in this composition, relating the illusionary space to real space. They may be revealing as to the meaning of both the architecture and the wall paintings of this space unit. A first point is the red leash tied around the neck of the griffin, extending upwards and ending in a knot (fig. 17). Griffins tied to architectural elements, commonly columns, are depicted in several works of art. In these cases the column is understood as an emblematic representation of palace or elite architecture and therefore of royal or elite power. By tying the griffin to the column, the attributes of the griffin are transferred to the royal/religious power that this architectural element represents while at the same time the griffin is secured against flying away.

FIG. 17 The culminating scene with the Goddess: note the red leash tied around the neck of the griffin and ending in a knot by the window post. Similar scenes of griffins tied to columns are depicted in art (seal image after CMS I, no. 98; Goddess and griffin from Xeste 3 after Doumas 1992, 159, fig. 122; griffin relief from Knossos, Heraklion Museum)

39What is both strange and fascinating in this wall painting, however, is that the leash is tied to the real post of the nearby window! Not to a column or any other architectural element within the same illusionary space as the griffin but to a window outside this space, belonging to the real world! The only way I can understand this symbolic correlation is that the illusionary space depicted on the wall is meant to be read in absolute connection with the real space of Xeste 3. The fact that the tripartite platform is painted as if standing on the floor of the room is another means to this end. The scene of the offering of crocuses in the countryside then was probably meant to be understood in conjunction with relevant scenes actually taking place within Xeste 3. The platform in particular may have functioned as the link between the city, the countryside and the domain of the gods: It is a man-made artefact imposed on nature that provides isolation from the ground and elevation towards the heavenly domain.

  • 17 Marinatos 1984; Morgan 1990, 261–62; Doumas 1992, 130–31. Tzachili (2005, 113) also points out the (...)

40I would suggest therefore that we are witnessing the merging of the pictorial and the real, as a symbolic statement of the strong and inextricable relationship between the countryside and the town. The narrative of the wall paintings has brought the women back home to their urban environment (the urban effect is even more patent if one ignores for a moment the crocuses on the background, the only element that alludes to countryside). These are, after all, city girls invading the countryside, as many have observed, all dressed up for the occasion. And the occasion is a rite de passage that involves peregrination in the countryside, where the girls are tested before returning to the city for the final stage of the ritual17.

  • 18 There may be, however, a further symbolism in the direction of the bodies for it seems to be typic (...)
  • 19 See Vlachopoulos 2008.

41A further observation is the directional treatment of this composition: The girl to the right side of the window, who is about to begin her descent from the mountain, looks as if she will be approaching the Goddess from behind, a very inappropriate attitude indeed (fig. 7). It is well known, however, that in Aegean art the profile depiction corresponds to a variety of real positions. The key in this painting is the young woman at the far end of the picture to the left: She is looking to the right, confronting the descending girl, while in between the two is the Goddess. This confrontation (reminiscent of the two Fishermen) implies that their focus is somewhere in between them: In this case, it is the seated Goddess, which is clearly meant to be perceived as frontal. Again, a test of the alternative situation would be helpful: Had the main composition been presented the other way round, the procession of the girls would have seemed more natural, ending at the stepped platform (fig. 18). But there would have been several points of concern: First, the movement would have ended abruptly with no clear indication of a ‘pause’ or an arrest prior to the offering; the emphasis would actually have been on the linear procession as such, instead of on an event taking place ‘around’ the platform; and most important, the Goddess would have had no space behind her, no ‘air’ appropriate to her status, as if she was literally cornered at one end of the composition. The decision to arrange the synthesis the way we see it was surely a conscious and well judged one18. The effect is indeed impressive for it ‘rounds up’ the theme and makes the beholder standing in the room feel somewhat involved in the whole scene. Beyond the main scene, to the left, another even larger window mediates to interrupt the narration and a new theme builds up its own space19.

FIG. 18 The culminating scene with the Goddess: the effect is that of ‘surroundedness’, with the Goddess envisaged in a central and frontal position. An alternative arrangement (right) would have resulted in a linear procession of women moving towards the Goddess. See comparable depictions in art (after CMS II. 7, no. 8; II. 8, no. 268; V, no. 199; V Suppl. 1A, nos. 175, 177; V Suppl. 1B, no. 195)

42On a final note, we should always keep in mind the gaze of the beholder (fig. 12). His/her eye horizon cuts through the two walls allowing him/her to relate to the depicted figures accordingly: He/she relates easily with the three young women who, judging from their growing hair, have recently passed the initiation rites of adultness. The younger girl on the eastern wall is at a considerably lower level of eye contact while the Goddess is much higher, as is to be expected. Note also that although the artist deals with a strongly undulating land, from the mountain top all the way down to the valley, he manages to keep the eye horizons of all figures involved in a reasonable interrelation: Thus, the girl who is about to descend after having reached the highest point of the mountain is slightly higher than the one behind her, while all the eye horizons of the human figures remain lower than the one of the Goddess. For this to happen the descending girl and the girl emptying her basket have been shortened (size manipulation is another well-known tool for handling space articulation and hierarchy).

Conclusion

43The above case studies show beyond any doubt that there are indeed intentions in the way architectural space and pictorial space are interrelated, which seem to converge on one main goal: to diminish or even eliminate the two-dimensional character of a wall painting by merging it with the three-dimensional real world. There is also clear intention to involve the beholder actively: The beholder is the link between the two worlds, the factitious tangible world of sticks and stones and the imaginary world the artist has created. It is the human body and the way it moves through space that guides both the architect and the artist in manipulating how space should be perceived. The effect in both cases is that of ‘surroundedness’, as Groenewegen-Frankfort would have described it, and of illusionary space being distinct as such while at the same time being integrated into the architectural ambience of the room. It is this dual performance that the artist and the architect strive to achieve through their combined work. As for the theme represented, the artist uses a simple yet effective set of tools to facilitate its readability: In the case of Xeste 3, the theme could be epitomized by reading the two centres of the adjacent walls in the order implied by their direction: the focal element is saffron growing on the mountain and the focal event is the offering of saffron to the Goddess after it has been plucked. The rest of the story revolves around the two centres: The task is performed by young women whose actions emphasize the perpetual cycle of moving out to the countryside and back again to the urban environment of their town, thus emphasizing the close bond and interdependence between the two.

Bibliographie

References

Aruz, J., K. Benzel, and J. M. Evans, eds. 2008
Beyond Babylon. Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B. C. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press.

Doumas, Ch. 1992
The Wall-Paintings of Thera. Athens: Petros M. Nomikos and The Thera Foundation.

Groenewegen-Frankfort, H. A. 1972
Arrest and Movement. An Essay on Space and Time in the Representational Art of the Ancient Near East. Reprinted edition, New York: Hacker Art Books Inc. Original edition, London: Faber and Faber, 1951.

Marinatos, N. 1984
Art and Religion in Thera: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Society. Athens: D. and I. Mathioulakis.

Marinatos, N. 2010
Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: a Near Eastern Koine. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Michailidou, A. 1987
“Το δωμάτιο με τον κίονα στο μινωϊκό σπίτι.” In: Aμητός. Tιμητικός τόμος για τον καθηγητή Mανόλη Aνδρόνικο, 509–26. Thessaloniki: Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.

Morgan, L. 1988
The Miniature Wall Paintings of Thera. A Study in Aegean Culture and Iconography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Morgan, L. 1990
“Island Iconography: Thera, Kea, Milos.” In Thera and the Aegean World III. Proceedings of the Third International Congress. Vol. 1, edited by D. A. Hardy, C. G. Doumas, J. A. Sakellarakis, and P. M. Warren, 252–66. London: Thera and the Aegean World.

Paliou, Ε., D. Wheatley, and G. Earl. 2011
“Three-Dimensional Visibility Analysis of Architectural Spaces: Iconography and Visibility of the Wall Paintings of Xeste 3 (Late Bronze Age Akrotiri).” JAS 38 (2): 375–86.

Palyvou, C. 1999
Aκρωτήρι Θήρας: Η οικοδομική τέχνη. Athens: Η εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία.

Palyvou, C. 2000
“Concepts of Space in Aegean Bronze Age Art and Architecture.” In Proceedings of the First International Symposium ‘The Wall Paintings of Thera’, 30 August–4 September 1997. Vol. I, edited by S. Sherratt, 413–36. Athens: Petros M. Nomikos and The Thera Foundation.

Palyvou, C. 2005
Akrotiri Thera. An Architecture of Affluence 3,500 Years Old. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press.

Palyvou, C. 2006
“Οικοδομικές παρατηρήσεις μέσα από την τέχνη της Εποχής του Χαλκού: Τυποποιημένες, λυόμενες κατασκευές.” In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Ancient Greek Technology, edited by T. P. Tassios and C. Palyvou, 417–24. Athens: EMAET.

Sakellarakis, Y., and E. Sapouna-Sakellaraki. 1991
Κρήτη. Αρχάνες. Athens: Εκδοτική Αθηνών.

Shaw, M. C. 1986
“The Lion Gate Relief of Mycenae Reconsidered.” In Φίλια ‘Επη εις Γεώργιον Ε. Μυλωνάν. Vol. 1, 108–23. Athens: Η εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία.

Televantou, Ch. A. 1994
Ακρωτήρι Θήρας. Οι Τοιχογραφίες της Δυτικής Οικίας. Athens: Η εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία.

Tzachili, I. 2005
Anthodokoi talaroi: the Βaskets of the Crocus-Gatherers from Xesté 3, Akrotiri, Thera.” In Aegean Wall Painting: A Tribute to Mark Cameron, edited by L. Morgan, 113–17. BSA Studies 13. London: The British School at Athens.

Vlachopoulos, A. 2008
“The Wall Paintings from the Xeste 3 Building at Akrotiri: Towards an Interpretation of the Iconographic Programme.” In Horizon: A Colloquium on the Prehistory of the Cyclades, 25–28 March 2004, edited by N. J. Brodie, J. Doole, G. Gavalas, and C. Renfrew, 451–65. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Notes

1 For a general description of the building see Palyvou 2005, 45–53.

2 See especially Michailidou 1987.

3 For the Theran wall paintings see Doumas 1992.

4 Palyvou 1999, 367, n. 594.

5 For the miniature frieze see Morgan 1988 and Televantou 1994.

6 For a general description of the building see Palyvou 2005, 54–62.

7 For an overall presentation and discussion of wall paintings of Xeste 3 see Vlachopoulos 2008.

8 As for the general perception of the wall paintings in this part of the building, this is too broad a subject to discuss here. The presence of so many pier-and-door partitions seems to complicate things. See Paliou et al. 2011 on the issue of visibility.

9 Doumas 1992, 152, fig. 116.

10 Doumas 1992, 174, fig. 136.

11 This is an interesting topic of research in progress: it might even prove helpful in anticipating the missing parts of some wall paintings, such as those in the House of the Ladies, by following the diagonals depicted on the wall painting.

12 Palyvou 2000.

13 Palyvou 2006.

14 Shaw 1986; Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellaraki 1991, 30–32, fig. 16. See also Marinatos 2010, 136–38, for a different reading of this object.

15 Marinatos 1984, 61–84.

16 Groenewegen-Frankfort 1972.

17 Marinatos 1984; Morgan 1990, 261–62; Doumas 1992, 130–31. Tzachili (2005, 113) also points out the aspect of ‘time’ in these scenes: time is circular, and there is a perception of before and after, that is of time present, past, and future.

18 There may be, however, a further symbolism in the direction of the bodies for it seems to be typical for the Goddess to be looking to the left.

19 See Vlachopoulos 2008.

Table des illustrations

Légende FIG. 1 The West House, Akrotiri: plan of the first floor
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 215k
Légende FIG. 2 West House, Room 5, first floor (computer simulation by A. Kassios, architect)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 342k
Légende FIG. 3 West House: plan of the first floor and alternative arrangement of entrance to room 5 (below)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 101k
Légende FIG. 4 West House: visual contact between a person standing in Room 5 and the figures on the wall paintings
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 208k
Légende FIG. 5 West House: the two Fishermen are perceived as coming out of the walls towards each other or towards someone standing at the centre of Room 5
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 223k
Légende FIG. 6 West House, Room 5: both Fishermen looking in the same direction (alternative posture of the Fisherman to the right)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 238k
Légende FIG. 7 Xeste 3, Akrotiri, Thera: plans of the ground floor (below) and the first floor (above), and sketch of the wall paintings in Rooms 3, 3a, and 3b
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 240k
Légende FIG. 8 Xeste 3, first floor: the wall painting of the Crocus Gatherers (eastern wall) and the focal element of the composition (mountain and crocuses) at its centre
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,7M
Légende FIG. 9 Xeste 3, Room 9: wall painting with rosettes
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 448k
Légende FIG. 10 Sector Beta: the Antelopes. The centre of the composition defines the overlapping of the two animals and the axes of their bodies
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 192k
Légende FIG. 11 Sector Beta: the Boxing Children. The vertical line separates the domains of the two figures and defines the point, where their outstretched arms cross while the horizontal line corresponds to the centres of their bodies
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 168k
Légende FIG. 12 Xeste 3: the crocus Gatherers, body posture and gaze
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-12.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 772k
Légende FIG. 13 Xeste 3: the culminating scene of the crocus gathering theme. The focal event, the offering of crocuses to the seated Goddess, is emphatically highlighted at the centre of the composition. The Goddess is stretching out her arm towards this centre to validate the act of offering
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 349k
Légende FIG. 14 Xeste 3: visual contact among the figures depicted in the scene. Below: a simplified drawing of the stepped platform
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-14.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 407k
Légende FIG. 15 ‘Incurved altars’ made of stone from Archanes (above; photo by author) and depicted in art (below; seal images after CMS I, nos. 46, 98; II. 3, no. 7; ivory lid from Minet el-Beida after Aruz et al. 2008, 408, fig.)
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Fichier image/jpeg, 244k
Légende FIG. 16 Conjectural drawing of the stone and timber elements mantled together to create an ephemeral platform (computer drawing by A. Kassios, architect)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-16.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 380k
Légende FIG. 17 The culminating scene with the Goddess: note the red leash tied around the neck of the griffin and ending in a knot by the window post. Similar scenes of griffins tied to columns are depicted in art (seal image after CMS I, no. 98; Goddess and griffin from Xeste 3 after Doumas 1992, 159, fig. 122; griffin relief from Knossos, Heraklion Museum)
URL http://books.openedition.org/pucl/docannexe/image/2835/img-17.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 274k
Légende FIG. 18 The culminating scene with the Goddess: the effect is that of ‘surroundedness’, with the Goddess envisaged in a central and frontal position. An alternative arrangement (right) would have resulted in a linear procession of women moving towards the Goddess. See comparable depictions in art (after CMS II. 7, no. 8; II. 8, no. 268; V, no. 199; V Suppl. 1A, nos. 175, 177; V Suppl. 1B, no. 195)
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Fichier image/jpeg, 209k

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