Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.12

Janice L. Crowley, The Iconography of Aegean Seals. Aegaeum, 34.   Leuven; Liège​:  Peeters, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 408; 25 p. of plates.  ISBN 9789042929173.  €95.00.  

Reviewed by Judith Weingarten, Belforte, Siena (

It is not often that one reviews a book that’s over 20 years in the making, weighs fully 4 pounds (1.846 kg), and still only lays the groundwork for a promised second volume. But Janice Crowley’s Iconography of Aegean Seals is just such a massive effort that aims to classify the whole of Minoan-Mycenean glyptic from the beginning to the end of the Bronze Age. Her goal is “…to decipher the messages given by the seals and this means trying to read the seal images as carefully as we can.”(5)

Getting started, Volume I presents a new vocabulary called IconAegean which claims to describe in neutral terms all parts of all seal motifs: 590 items from ‘aboard ship’ and ‘above’ to ‘Zakros fantasy’ and ‘zigzag’. This vocabulary is then used to describe 1000 specially chosen seals in the IconAData database (illustrated by enlarged drawings of their impressions), which are taken to be representative of all Minoan seal images. Crowley plans to extend the database — with no change in vocabulary — to the entire corpus of ca. 12,500 seal motifs. The symbolism and meaning of this iconography is the task of the future Vol. 2.

Chapter 1 describes Crowley’s Icon Theory of glyptic composition which rests on the over-riding design principle of the icon, defined as “the memorable image compounded of content and shape.” An icon is created in three stages: (1) an initial image (= the ‘eidetic image’ directly registered by the artist); (2) reworked to make an essential image (extracting the essence of the subject); (3) reworked again into an elaborate image made as clear as possible and fit into a seal shape. This three-fold overworking results in the memorable image which is the icon immediately accessible to the viewer.

Crowley argues that, in contrast to Egyptian and Mesopotamian art, “the point of view of the Aegean artists is that of the observer of everyday scenes and they try to convey that visual immediacy in their compositions” (16). Taking bull sports as an example of Icon Theory at work, we should imagine that artist and viewer are both spectators at the event and react to the same high points of action and danger. Six icons describe those points: leaper preparing, leaper somersaulting, leaper landing, leaper falling, leaper fallen, and leaper bulldogging (= wrestling). For the artist, the initial image is the eidetic vision of the bull’s form and the leaper’s form. The essential image is the size and strength of the bull and the courage and agility of the leaper. The elaborate image removes all background detail and fills the oval (ring) or circle (lentoid) with the interlocking shapes of bull and leaper. Nothing — except an occasional ground line — is added. Such minimalism is an example of focus composition (i.e., a compositional feature defined as ‘Syntax’, in this case Syntax # 9).

Syntax is a lower level on the IconAegean hierarchical scale discussed in Chapter 2, which refines the description of the image “as each level feeds down to the one below in ever-increasing detail”. The apex contains 10 Categories (human, animal, vegetal and so on), followed by 25 Themes (e.g., symbolic, war and hunt; animal studies and animal attack; plants; geometic forms), then 125 Icons (described below) detailed in a broad base composed of 340 constituent Elements plus 90 Syntactical terms. Each entry gets a short textual explanation followed by two seal designs, the Paradigm example and an additional example (‘a’) which illustrates a variation.

Although glyptic scenes with humans are relatively rare (animals make up two thirds of representational seal images), they are undoubtedly of keenest interest. More ink is spilt in glyptic arguments over the interpretation of such scenes than over any other subject. Human imagery (Category C1, with C2, Stylized humans — essentially Malia-Workshop and related seals) is divided into seven Themes:

T1 Symbolic –“images transformed from the real world to another level of meaning”;
T2 Featured – i.e. full human figure or head;
T3 Peaceful activities – e.g., tree pulling, processions, scenes of greeting;
T4 Seafaring;
T5 Bull sports;
T6 Athletic sports;
T7 War and hunt.

Themes are judged to be ‘Symbolic’ (T 1) if they include fantasy creatures (e.g., Minoan Genii, griffins, but not hybrid humans [= T 11]), or include an artistic formula that we take to be symbolic. T 1 leaves me ill at ease. Why is a Mistress of Animals with two antithetical lions placed in T 1, while two men trussing a captured lion (CMS II.7 33) is T 7? I am sure that Minoan artists never drew either scene from real life: they are equal ‘fantasies’. Another problem occurs when a Lady or Lord — to use Crowley’s terms — drives a chariot drawn by griffins. Of course this has no place in the natural world but what if Minoans believed that griffins were real, imagining them living in some foreign land; rather like lions, really? Elsewhere, griffins at rest are classed as T 13 (Animal study) or, when hunting other beasts, T 17 (Animal attack).

The Icon section consists of 125 motifs from I 1: “VIP appearing on high” = the “memorable image of a VIP, a Lady or a Lord, occupying a position somewhere in the above section”, to I 125 ‘Various’, i.e. unidentifiable. Most icons (I 1–I 116) describe representational motifs with only I 117–123 covering floral or ornamental subjects and I 124 script signs. A single seal can, of course, present more than one Icon.

How does this work in practice?

To take just one example, the complex cult scene on a randomly chosen gold ring, CMS II.3 114, depicts: (right) standing woman tugging at a tree growing from a shrine; (lower centre) man leaning over a boulder; (left) flying bird; (far left) another built structure(?); and (above) four small floating objects. The four floaters are identified as I 111a “Beehive with bees”; the woman is I 18 “Pulling the tree”; and the man I 19 “Kneeling the boulder”. I could not find any mention of the bird, presumably I 16, “flying messenger”. Both “Tree puller” and “boulder kneeler” reappear later as separate elements (E 55, E 56). While ‘tree shrine’ is also an element (= E 163, one of eight shrine types), the ring CMS II.3 114 is not listed under this rubric — nor is the built-structure on the left classified at all. It seems impossible to put together all bits and pieces without an index providing full cross-referencing. Appendix I does list the 1000 seals in the IconADatabase but gives only a single icon or element for each: in the case of CMS II.3 114, it lists E 56 and no other terms. This should be rectified in Vol. 2.

No short review of a book of this scope should be sidetracked into nit-picking. It does not matter that this reviewer dislikes some IconAgean vocabulary terms. I bristle at VIPs, and Lords and Ladies, and doubt the neutrality of either a ‘Mighty Lord’ or ‘Epiphany Lady’. Hackles rise at the division of glyptic periods into Proto-Icons, Experimental Icons, Minoan High Art, Peak Icon Composition, Legacy, and Late Seals. It does matter, however, that Crowley’s assigns the initial glyptic input to the artists’ eidetic vision — an old idea that really must be argued for and not simply assumed.1 Eidetic imagery — at least as it used to be understood — is essentially unimaginative. How does it become a creative power, as Crowley would have it? For example, regarding the bullman [aka Minotaur], she states, “The eidetic genius of the Aegean artist has … encapsulated the power of the bull and the agility of the leaper into one memorable composite being.” (353) This makes no sense when applied to other composite male figures (lionman, goatman), still less to the Minoan Genius—if male it be—whose ancestry is well-known. Besides, the ne plus ultra of glyptic bull sports appears on LM I ring impressions (17 n. 66) whereas the Minotaur only comes into play in the Mycenaean period. Crowley pays little attention to changes over time and even less to the quality of engravings. Admittedly, since Volume 1 is intended to classify images (and not yet interpret), this might turn out to be little more than a quibble on the way to decipherment.

The take-off in representation and naturalism that begins in late MM II is often credited to the introduction of the horizontal bow lathe that allowed hard stones to be carved for the first time. That tool is incredibly important for the future but the real breakthrough occurs, in my opinion, on the gold rings that were used at MM IIB Phaistos which probably owed more to jewellers than to stone cutters. Another rarely considered stimulus concerns the changes induced by writing (as was cogently argued for the Near East by D. Schmandt-Besserat2), so that figures start to be arranged in logical succession rather like the way that signs were disposed on a tablet. Minoan scribes, however, unlike their Near Eastern counterparts, did not take to ruled lines (with rare exceptions, e.g. PH 8a), which may be why the artists, too, avoided a tyranny of the ground line. Still, by its nature, ground lines tend to link figures to the same place and time, “freezing an event at a climactic moment that evoked both what preceded and what was to follow.”

In short, glyptic starts to tell stories.

Years ago in (CMS Beiheft 3), I proposed that the single glyptic frame is, in fact, the encapsulation of sequences which viewers would mentally complete for themselves. One frame was sufficient to activate a sequence (e.g., of the hunt or sacrifice), which inevitably continues to completion. Because of the relatively limited number of stock sequences, the Bronze Age viewer would have had no difficulty in placing any individual episode within its proper sequence.

Crowley seems to accept that something like this is happening. In Chapter 3, (‘Reading the Seals’, a foretaste of what presumably will be the main subject of Vol. 2), she describes ‘Sets and Sequences’ (S 34 and S 35). The meaning of a seal motif extends forwards and backwards to include “the total import of the set”, so that, if you see a bull-leaper leaping, you will also think of a bull-leaper preparing, and onwards to him falling and fallen. Crowley’s own idea is more radical, that the fallen bull-leaper, in turn, brings to mind similarly unsuccessful outcomes (sequences) such as the warrior fallen or hunter fallen. Thus, seeing the fallen warrior will remind viewers not only of death in combat but also of death through being trampled by the bull or boar in the hunt or by the bull in the bull sports. (89) Crowley terms this ‘layering’, wherein the icon draws upon the wider iconographic repertoire, to enrich the particular image that is actually being viewed. Layering can also occur through ‘Substitution (S37) by reminding the viewer of both the original and substituted figures. For example, the VIP Bull Lord (E 31) holding a bull on a leash also brings to mind a Minoan Genius holding a bull by its horns (E 31a, S 37a) – and vice versa; while a monkey seated on a stool (S 37) may substitute for the ‘Great Lady as Seated Lady’ (E 8) – the one taking the place of the other and acting in the appropriate way.

It is difficult to agree. At the very least the social implications would be different. Is the icon imperative “the compositional imperative of Aegean art”? (61) It’s still too soon to tell. I can hardly wait for Volume 2.


1.   After looking away from a scene, an eidetic holds the vision in his mind’s eye and can transfer it to a blank wall or paper by literally tracing its outline. Eidetic vision is very rare among modern adults but is found occasionally in children. It was once fashionable to attribute it to primitive races to explain cave and rock art. R.W. Hutchinson (Prehistoric Crete [1962] 129-131) briefly thought it might explain Minoan naturalism but, after consideration, rejected it. G.A.S. Snijder (Kretische Kunst [1936] 149) diagnosed the Zakro Master as eidetic.
2.   When Writing Met Art, University of Texas, 2007.

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