Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.11.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.09

Hariclia Brecoulaki, Jack L. Davis, Sharon R. Stocker (ed.), Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context: New Discoveries, Old Finds Reconsidered. ΜΕΛΕΤΗΜΑΤΑ 72.   Athens:  National Hellenic Research Foundation / Institute of Historical Research, 2015.  Pp. 403.  ISBN 9789609538343.  €120.00.  


Reviewed by Anne P. Chapin, Brevard College (chapin@brevard.edu)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

With a preface and 14 lavishly illustrated chapters, Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context: New Discoveries, Old Finds Reconsidered presents, as its title suggests, recent discoveries and current research on Mycenaean wall paintings excavated from both palatial and non-palatial contexts on the Greek mainland, specifically Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Iklaina, Pylos, Thebes, Orchomenos, and Gla. The volume publishes a workshop organized by the volume’s editors, who, as outlined in the Preface, were motivated to undertake the project by their own continuing study of wall paintings from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos. This focus on previously unpublished material means that the material presented in this volume is new to scholarship, and thus highly significant for the study of ancient painting. The volume is clearly and consistently organized. Each chapter features a site plan marking find spots of wall paintings and includes written descriptions of archaeological and architectural contexts, observations on technical aspects of the paintings, stylistic and iconographic analysis, and discussions of possible meanings of the various compositions. With its systematic presentation of the archaeological material and the abundant large scale, full color photographs and drawings, this volume represents a major publication of Mycenaean painting.

The contents are organized geographically into four sections: Mycenae, Tiryns/Argos, Messenia, and Boiotia. This is preceded by introductory chapters intended to establish the conceptual and geographical contexts of Mycenaean painting, beginning with John Bennet’s discussion (Ch. 1) of problems scholars face today when seeking to contextualize Mycenaean paintings within their specific cultural and social milieus. For Bennet, “behind the wall” studies of painting technology that recognize chaînes opératoires complement “on the wall” investigation of representation and signification. Bennet’s essay emphasizes the importance of Mycenaean paintings not only as “‘windows on the Mycenaean world,’ but [also] as some of the most complex products that draw in multiple aspects of practice within that world, helping us to reach a richer understanding of what it meant to be ‘Mycenaean’” (33).

Andreas Vlachopoulos’s investigation of Mycenaean elements in Cycladic painting (Ch. 2) challenges commonplace assumptions of monolithic ethnic identities (“Minoan,” “Cycladic,” and “Mycenaean”) by awarding Mycenaeans active rather than passive roles in the creation and maintenance of visual and material culture from the beginning of the Late Bronze (LB) Age. Vlachopoulos argues that Theran artists made dynamic contributions to the formation of Aegean koine art, first in ceramic painting during the Middle Cycladic (MC) period and later in wall paintings of Late Cycladic (LC) I, contemporary with Neopalatial Crete. For Vlachopoulos there is not one correct answer to the question of ethnic identity; rather, the question itself needs rephrasing. This essay is valuable for its thoughtful discussion of recent trends in scholarship and for its fine illustrations of new finds from Akrotiri, particularly MC pictorial vases found in excavations for the new site shelter and a frieze depicting life- size boar’s tusk helmets—a motif often associated with Mycenaean art.

Santo Privitera’s contribution (Ch. 3) offers a valuable summary of recent investigations into the Late Minoan (LM) III paintings of Ayia Triada, Crete, excavated early in the twentieth century. Careful archival work identifies find spots of plaster deposits and their chronology. Of particular interest is the restoration of the late LM IIIA2 Great Procession and the Woman and an Altar to an extensively painted hall of ceremonial and cultic character, Room A in Casa VAP. The evidence from Ayia Triada suggests the presence of a local painting workshop—a “Messara school”—as early as LM IIIA1, one that continued to be active after the fall of Knossos, likely in LM IIIA2.

The section on paintings from Mycenae opens with Heleni Palaiologou’s study of a painted plaster female figurine excavated from a chamber tomb at Asprochoma, north of the acropolis (Ch. 4). This is the only chapter which does not deal directly with wall paintings, yet the techniques used to shape and decorate the plaster figure draw from relief fresco as well as techniques of clay modeling and ivory-, bone- and wood-carving. Details of style and iconography reveal affinities with Minoan art, but comparisons with the famous painted plaster head from Mycenae, the female statues from Kea, and Mycenaean terracotta figurines suggest it was produced by a Mycenaean palatial workshop in Late Helladic (LH) IIIA and probably represented a deity.

Kim Shelton’s overview of LH IIIA frescoes excavated in 2006-2008 from the LH IIIA Petsas House at Mycenae returns the volume’s focus to wall painting (Ch. 5). While conservation and study of these paintings continue, recognizable motifs include splash patterns, tricurved arches, rockwork, and argonauts. The presence of high- quality paintings in non-palatial contexts is notable. Similarly, figurative paintings decorated the LH IIIB1 West House at Mycenae, excavated in the 1950s but only recently the subject of study by Iphiyenia Tournavitou (Ch. 6). Fragments depict male hunters carrying spears, hunting dogs, vegetation (plants and trees), and horse- drawn chariots which share stylistic and iconographic similarities with the Boar Hunt Fresco from Tiryns. A fragmentary ritual scene with a female figure and two heraldic animals (a possible stag and a mystery creature) is new to Mycenaean iconography. Themes featuring sport and ritual, previously believed to have been restricted to palaces, are now known to have decorated nonpalatial buildings; visually, they link the occupants of the West House with the central authority of the palace at Mycenae.

The third section features chapters on paintings from Tiryns and Argos. Alkestis Papadimitriou, Ulrich Thaler and Joseph Maran present a fragmentary but important new LH IIIB composition excavated in 1999 from secondary contexts in the Western Staircase of the citadel at Tiryns (Ch. 7). As restored, the painting features “Pomegranate Bearers”: small female figures (statuettes or children?) grasping pomegranate branches, each held by a larger female personage and accompanied by processional escorts. The authors review evidence supporting every detail of the composition’s restoration before discussing its intriguing iconography. Ultimately, interpretation hinges on whether one understands the pomegranate bearers as living girls or effigies, and since neither identification can be made with certainty, the authors leave the question open.

Paintings discovered in a megaron-like building dated to LH IIIA2, uncovered in rescue excavations in Argos during 1971-1973, form the subject of Ch. 8, co-authored by Iphiyenia Tournavitou and Hariclia Brecoulaki. A fragment preserving the lower legs of three walking figures will be of interest to scholars investigating the Aegean color convention, according to which red-painted skin signifies male gender whereas white skin identifies female. In this fragment, the leading figure’s left leg is rendered in red outline, the central figure has solid red legs, and the third figure has a white leg (but no skirt or robe). Other fragments from the site preserve a twisting charioteer with naturalistically rendered musculature, a long-necked bird interacting with a hissing snake, two over-life-size yellow scorpions, and a seascape with octopuses. These extraordinary additions to the Mycenaean corpus make the fragments depicting female figures—even one carrying a caprid upside-down—seem ordinary.

The next three essays present paintings from Messenia, beginning with Michael Cosmopoulos’s overview of painted plasters discovered in 2009 at Iklaina, near Pylos (Ch. 9). Found in the LH IIB-IIIA1 Cyclopean Terrace Building, these paintings are among the earliest to survive from Mycenaean Greece. Of the 1181 excavated fragments, however, only 60 preserve recognizable patterns, the most interesting of which belong to a naval scene and depict part of a crescent-shaped ship decorated with spirals and occupied by three figures (two oarsmen and a man seated in a cabin), and two dolphins swimming beside vessel. Two additional fragments preserve parts of female figures and may belong to a procession fresco. The Iklaina paintings are significant for their adaptations of Minoan and Cycladic prototypes and for their embrace of artistic style associated with later Mycenaean painting (e.g., highly stylized dolphins). Cosmopoulos suggests that artists working in Messenia likely played significant roles in establishing the Mycenaean artistic idiom and shares the view that mainland artists were first exposed to painting in the Cyclades (especially Thera, Kea).

The two following essays focus on wall fragments from the palace at Pylos. In Ch. 10, Hariclia Brecoulaki, Sharon Stocker, Jack Davis, and Emily Egan offer a preliminary study and restoration of a LH IIIB naval scene excavated in 1953, now restorable to the northwest wall of Hall 64. Three overlapping, crescent-shaped ships sail on a fish-filled purple sea, propelled by oarsmen, framed above and below by a black-and-white checkerboard pattern; a fourth ship is distinguished by its hull’s decoration with argonauts, and probably belongs to a separate composition. Unlike many well-known Mycenaean paintings painted in blue, red and yellow (in addition to black and white), this scene’s color palette was restricted to iron-based ochres (for the ships) and murex purple mixed with grains of Egyptian blue (for the sea). These pigments were applied a secco to dry plaster using egg and vegetable gum binders. For the authors, the Naval Scene underscores Pylian state interest in maritime affairs, already evidenced by Linear B tablets from the site.

Egan and Brecoulaki’s co-authored essay (Ch. 11) takes a closer look at painted argonauts, which appear on 53 wall fragments from the Pylos palace. A good deal of confusion surrounds the argonaut motif, since it is commonly misidentified as the nautilus, a different marine species. The authors argue convincingly that argonauts are not merely decorative in meaning but emblematic of seafaring and naval strength and perhaps symbolic of political and religious power. Here, photographs of the actual animals—argonaut and nautilus—would have enhanced this study, as the painted creatures are heavily stylized and non-naturalistic in appearance.

The fourth and final section of the volume features paintings from Boiotia. Vassilis Aravantinos and Ioannis Fappas present recent discoveries of paintings from Thebes, where paintings were found in ten locations across the fortified acropolis (Ch. 12). Motifs include spiral friezes and birds in landscape settings. The Treasury Room of the Kadmeia, in contexts datable to the mid-13th century, produced border motifs (rosettes, spirals, and imitation stonework), spiral designs incorporating papyrus sprays, and fragments preserving string lines and an incised compass-drawn circle. Theodoros Spyropoulos’s contribution on paintings from the palace at Orchomenos, excavated by the author in the 1970s and 1980s (Ch. 13), presents fragments from an extensive Boar Hunt Fresco; similarities with the well known Boar Hunt composition from Tiryns point to the existence of travelling artists. Other painting fragments seem religious in content and are identified as male worshippers with raised arms and palm trees in a fenced temenos populated by deer; these motifs are linked rather daringly with the later temenos of the Charites which possibly gave Orchomenos its name (364-365). The plume of a griffin and the head of a young “prince” with a possible ivory throne are rare examples of wall paintings described in the text but not illustrated in this volume. Lastly, Christos Boulotis offers an updated analysis and restoration of a fragmentary Dolphin Frieze found at Gla outside Room N1 in the east wing of the South Enclosure, together with information on three wall painting fragments from the same deposit, identifiable as large-scale argonauts (Ch. 14).

The present book, richly illustrated, offers up-to-date insights into many new discoveries and research of Mycenaean wall painting. Among its many important contributions, a few points deserve repeated emphasis. First, fragments from Iklaina, Argos, and Mycenae offer new information on the earlier phases of Mycenaean painting and help fill chronological gaps in the study of painting. Second, the new finds underscore that fact that Mycenaean painting was widespread as an art form and not restricted to the palaces. Third, naval scenes and marine themes—largely unrecognized in earlier studies of Mycenaean painting—now seem to appear everywhere, as evidenced by new compositions from Argos, Iklaina, Gla, Mycenae and Pylos. In sum, this volume represents a major effort to bring together new work on Mycenaean painting, in a format that is easily accessible to a broad audience and lavishly illustrated with large format, high quality color images. It would be a welcome addition to any prehistorian’s library.

Table of Contents

Preface by the editors 13-17
Conceptual and Geographical Contexts
John Bennet, Telltale Depictions: A Contextual View of Mycenaean Wall-Paintings 21-34
Andreas G. Vlachopoulos, Detecting “Mycenaean” Elements in the “Minoan” Wall-Paintings of a “Cycladic” Settlement. The Wall-Paintings of Thera and Τheir Iconographic Koine 37-65
Santo Privitera, A Painted Town: Wall Paintings and the Built Environment at Late Minoan III Ayia Triada 66-90
Mycenae
Heleni Palaiologou, A Female Painted Plaster Figure from Mycenae 95-125
Kim Shelton, LH IIIA Frescoes from Petsas House, Mycenae: Splatters, Patterns and Scenes 126-143
Iphiyenia Tournavitou, Sport, Prestige, and Ritual Outside the Palaces: Pictorial Frescoes from the West House at Mycenae 145-169
Tiryns and Argos
Alkestis Papadimitriou, Ulrich Thaler and Joseph Maran, Bearing the Pomegranate Bearer: A New Wall-Painting Scene from Tiryns 173-211
Iphiyenia Tournavitou and Hariclia Brecoulaki, The Mycenaean Wall-Paintings from Argos. A Preliminary Presentation 212-245
Messenia
Michael B. Cosmopoulos, A Group of New Mycenaean Frescoes from Iklaina, Pylos 249-259
Hariclia Brecoulaki, Sharon R. Stocker, Jack L. Davis, and Emily C. Egan, An Unprecedented Naval Scene from Pylos: First Considerations 260-291
Emily C. Egan and Hariclia Brecoulaki, Marine Iconography at the Palace of Nestor and the Emblematic Use of the Argonaut 292-313
Boiotia
Vassilis Aravantinos and Ioannis Fappas, The Mycenaean Wall Paintings of Thebes: From Excavation to Restoration 316-353
Theodoros Spyropoulos, Wall Paintings from the Mycenaean Palace of Boeotian Orchomenos 355-368
Christos Boulotis, Reconstructing a Dolphin Frieze and Argonauts from the Mycenaean Citadel of Gla 371-403

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Home
Read Latest
Archives
BMCR Blog
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Commentaries
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010