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Ancient Aegean Art & Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of art would you make if you lived on islands? What kind of structures would you build? The people who lived in the Aegean islands were creative and learned diverse skills. In this lesson, we'll explore ancient Aegean art and architecture

Who made ancient Aegean Art?

The people of the Aegean cultures lived mostly on islands around the Aegean Sea in the Eastern Mediterranean and on the mainland of what later came to be known as Greece. They benefitted from the seas that surrounded them and provided them with food, but these plentiful waters also allowed other cultures to invade via the sea. For this lesson, we will be exploring three primary cultures that existed in this part of the world.

Cycladic culture

The Cycladic culture existed from 2600 to 1100 BC. These people lived on a group of islands called the Cyclades that included Santorini and Naxos. Scholars don't know much about them, but archaeologists have found examples of their art. Cycladic art is very geometric (angular with basic shapes), almost all three-dimensional sculpture, and centered on depictions of the female figure. Many are carved from marble and were found in graves. Scholars have speculated that they might be related to fertility beliefs and funerary practices, but their true meaning and purpose are unknown.

Cycladic female figure, carved from marble
Cycladic female figure

The figures are very stylized. They don't look realistic, aren't detailed, and have very simplified forms. Many are shaped like female nudes with folded arms. Other subjects include male figures, who are often playing musical instruments. They're some of the earliest depictions of musicians in the history of art.

Minoan culture

Minoan culture developed on the island of Crete and existed from 3000 to roughly 1400 BC. They were seafaring people who gained great wealth from trade throughout the Mediterranean. Minoans were also sophisticated and creative. They invented an early form of writing and built large complex palaces with multiple stories, staircases, colonnades (long series of columns with a roof overhead), bathing rooms, indoor plumbing, and even spaces for theater performances and public spectacles. These buildings were not fortified (no walls or towers meant to repel invasion) and they weren't built on a centralized plan. Rooms were added as needed and the buildings probably served administrative, creative, and everyday purposes. In other words, they were meant to be lived in not just created as showpieces. A good example of this is the Palace at Knossos. Ruins of this palace (some partially reconstructed) give a glimpse into how the space was decorated and what it might have felt like to walk through it.

Interior view, Palace at Knossos
Interior view, Palace at Knossos

Minoan art is colorful and loaded with a love of nature. They decorated their palace walls with frescos, large wall murals painted directly into wet plaster. These frescos display all sorts of animal and bird life with a playful sense of motion and careful observation. Minoans were also excellent goldsmiths and were skilled at creating decorative but functional pottery. There's a sense of exuberance and decorative flourish in all Minoan art.

Minoan fresco of leaping bull with acrobats
Minoan fresco of leaping bull

But the Minoans' economic prosperity and sophisticated culture couldn't save them from a decline following a series of earthquakes and being invaded by the Mycenaeans, another culture on the rise in the region.

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