The Minoans as Hippies (and an Etruscan Thought)

When I was an undergrad, one of my professors liked to compare the Minoans to the hippies of the 1960s. My teacher isn’t the only one who has made this comparison. In fact, recently Minoan lilies were cleverly dubbed “the ancient equivalent of flower power.”1

My teacher pointed out that the Minoans were very interested in nature (as evident in their art, which often depicts animals and plants) and used opium. And I think one could even (jokingly) say that the bright colors in some of the frescoes (like the hills in the Spring Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera, before 1630 BCE, shown above left) are “psychedelic.”2

I don’t mind the hippie comparison, especially if it can help students to differentiate between the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. I do think it’s important, though, for students to know that the comparison isn’t perfect. For example, the fact that the Minoans had fortifications (despite what Sir Arthur Evans argued) and were possibly involved in human sacrifices suggest that these people weren’t all about love and peace.

Speaking of Minoans and the Spring Fresco, I was struck today about how there are some similarities between this painting and a tomb painting from the Etruscan period (“Boys Climbing Ricks and Diving,” from Tomb of Hunting and Fishing in Tarquinia, late 6th century BC, shown right). Both paintings depict brightly colored hills (with the mounds divided into multiple colors). In both cases, the hills are adorned with spindly vegetation (the Spring Fresco depicts stylized lilies, but I don’t think there is enough detail to identify the Etruscan plant). Additionally, the two paintings have birds darting about in the air. I know that over 1,000 years separate these frescoes (not to mention that they are from different geographic areas – the Minoans were on islands in the Aegean Sea and the Etruscans were on mainland Italy), but I think the similarities are interesting.

1 Mary Beard, “Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery,” in The New York Review of Books (August 13, 2009). Available online here.

2 However, I only make the psychedelic comparison with students as a joke. It has been noted that the bright colors of the rocks are actually quite naturalistic. “The colors may seem fanciful to us, but sailors today who know the area well attest to their accuracy, suggesting that these artists recorded the actual color of Thera’s wet rocks in the sunshine, a zestful celebration of the natural world.” See Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 92.


Museum for Forgeries

If there was a museum for art forgeries, would you go to it? What would be the appeal of seeing such forgeries? The underhanded element of crime and mystery? The sheer historical interest?

Or, on the other hand, would you consider such art to be “second rate” and unimportant? Would you find forgeries to be uninteresting from a historical perspective, since the works of art are not deemed authentic and perhaps not as old as once supposed?

I’ve been thinking about all of the artistic forgeries that exist in the world. Many of them have been relegated to the storage of museums, since the authenticity for most of these works were questioned after the museum acquired the forged piece. Today I’ve been reading about the Minoan “Statuette of a Boy-God” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), a supposedly forged work of art which Kenneth D. S. Lapatin discussed in his 2001 article, “Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses.”Although the SAM no longer displays the “Boy-God,” they still claim its historical provenance, as indicated on the museum website. (The museum is justified, for the most part. At this point, “Carbon-14 tests [on the SAM statue] were inconclusive because of contamination from earlier restorations. Even is contamination could be ruled out, however, science would not necessarily resolve the issue, for forgers are reported to have employed ancient materials.”1)

Wouldn’t it be nice to relieve the SAM of such a problematic and questionable statue? I think it would be fun to take these works of art out of storage and put them on display. Although I know that some temporary museum exhibitions have been dedicated to forgeries (earlier this year the National Gallery in London held the exhibition “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” (see a related Telegraph article here)), I don’t know of a museum that boasts a permanent collection of forgeries.

Of course, if there was one museum dedicated to forgeries, what would that imply for the rest of the museum world? Would a museum of forgeries make other art museums seem more approachable? In other words, would a forgery museum undermine the cultural snobbery (and authoritative voice) associated with the art world? Or do you think that a museum of forgeries would perpetuate the incorrect voice of authority with the remaining “legit” museums, especially if the latter was no longer associated with forgeries (and by extension, mistakes)? Does anyone think that existing museums should embrace (and exhibit) the forgeries that are currently in storage – perhaps a museum for forgeries is unnecessary?

What forgeries would you be interested in seeing in a museum? I know that I’d like to see works by Han Van Meegeren, the infamous Vermeer forger.

1 Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, “Snake Goddess, Fake Goddess,” in Archaeology 54, no. 1 (January/February 2001): 36. Abstract of the article is available here.


Lion’s Head Doorknockers

This past weekend, my family and I traveled to visit the Washington State Capitol Building. It’s always fun for me to identify the different architectural features on such buildings, and particularly to think of Western/European counterparts which may have inspired such features. But as we approached the bronze doors of the capitol (c. 1923-28, see detail on left), I paused. Bronze doors are a common feature in Western architecture, but what about the lion’s head doorknockers? What’s their history? I could think of earlier lion’s head knockers, such as the Ottonian ones on the Hildesheim Cathedral, but I wasn’t sure if there might be an earlier example.

After doing a little research, I found a really charming article from 1918 that discusses the history of doorknockers. I was surprised to learn that the doorknocker has existed since ancient Greece.1 At this time slaves were often assigned to answer doors, and they were chained to the door in order to prevent them from running away. The predecessor of doorknockers were short iron bars that attached to these chains, which were used as “rappers.”

It appears that the lion’s head design also existed for doorknockers in ancient Greece. In 1942 Sterling Dow mentioned some “heavy handsome lion’s-head door knockers…which escaped the sack by Philip in 348 BC.”2

So, what’s the significance of lion’s head doorknockers?  Did they symbolize anything, or were they just decorative? I haven’t come across any speculation on the subject, but I think that there must have been some symbolism involved. Lions held symbolism in lots of ancient cultures, and often embodied power and strength. I have a theory that lion’s head doorknockers were intended to serve the same symbolic function as the lion statues which decorated the gates of the Hittites (Hattusha Lion Gate, c. 1400 BCE, see above right) and the Mycenaeans (Lion Gate at Mycenae, c. 1250 BCE). In each case, these intimidating lions serve as guardian beasts for the city, as well as symbolize strength and power.  I think the same thing can be said for lion’s head doorknockers, which rest on the doors (i.e. gates) as guardians of a building.

On a side note, though, it’s interesting that not everyone today associates lion’s head doorknockers with such ancient symbolism.  This fascinating study by Zachary McCune mentions a woman who selected a lion’s head doorknocker for her home, but only because the same knocker was found on the door of the UK Prime Minister’s house.  In this woman’s case, it appears that she wanted her knocker (and her home) to have some connection and/or status with this association to the Prime Minister.

Do lion’s head doorknockers have any particular meaning or symbolism for you? Can you think of an ornate doorknocker (of a lion’s head or otherwise) that you particularly like?

1 “The Evolution of the Door-Knocker,” The Art World 3, no. 5 (1918): v, vii-viii.

2 Sterling Dow, “Review: Excavations at Olynthus,” The American Historical Review 47, no. 4 (July 1942): 824.


"Mask of Agamemnon": A Forgery and/or Misattribution?

I have just started to read David A. Traill’s book Schliemann of Troy: Treasury and Deceit.  The book functions as a biography and critique of Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who excavated Troy and Mycenae.  In this book, Traill argues that the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon” (a funerary mask excavated in Grave Circle A (southern burial shaft grave V) in Mycenae, ca. 1600-1500 BC, see left) could possibly be a 19th century forgery.1  One of Traill’s main reasons is this the only discovered Mycenaean mask which shows facial hair.  In addition, the upturned “handlebar” mustache looks like it was added later; it seems like the original mustache was created to turn down at the ends of the mouth.  Traill does also posits, however, that this mask could be authentic but then Schliemann added the “handlebars” in order to give the mask a more authoritative appearance.1

Not all scholars accept this idea that the mask is a forgery, but it is accepted that this is not the mask of the fabled king Agamemnon, even though Schliemann had imagined and wished such a thing.  If Agamemnon was a real person, he would have lived about 300 years after this mask was made.

Interestingly, though, some think that this mask (shown above) is the not the one which Schliemann originally identified as the mask of Agamemnon.  Oliver Dickinson believes that Schliemann was referring to a different mask found in the same shaft grave (called “NM 623”, from northern burial in shaft grave V, see below right).3

To support his argument, Dickinson cites a telegraph by Schliemann (translated into English) which reads: “In the last tomb three bodies, one without ornaments.  Have telegraphed to Nauplia for a painter, to preserve the dead man with the round face [italics for emphasis].  This one is very like the picture which my imagination formed of Agamemnon long ago.”4

Since only three burials were discovered in grave shaft V (and one of the burials had been presumably robbed, since it was devoid of goods), these two masks are the only ones by which we can compare Schliemann’s statement.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that this second mask (NM 623) has a round face, whereas the other face could hardly be called “round.”  Could this be the mask that Schliemann originally identified as the “Mask of Agamemnon”?  It certainly seems possible to me.

1 David A. Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasury and Deceit (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 169-172.
2 Ibid., 172.
3 See Oliver Dickinson, “The ‘Face of Agamemnon,'” Hesperia 74, no. 3 (July – Sept. 2005): 299-308.


Minoan and Egyptian Goddess Cults

Minoan art was one of my first loves as an art historian. This dry fresco on the left has been nicknamed “La Pariesienne” (c. 1400 BCE) because the woman’s striped dress resembled a popular Parisian dress style. I’ve always liked this fresco, mostly because I love the woman’s curly, stylized hair. Sigh. If only I could have hair like that.

Obviously, this woman’s curly locks have distracted me from paying attention to other details in the fresco. I finally noticed, after reading yesterday’s post by heidenkind, that there is interesting loop knot that is located at the nape of the woman’s neck. It appears that this loop could be connected to the goddess cults, and more specifically, to similar Egyptian cults by way of the ankh symbol. Heidenkind also discusses further connections between these goddess cults through priestess girdles, which is fascinating to me, since the Minoan Snake Goddess (c. 1600 BCE) is one of my favorite pieces of ancient sculpture.
This connection between Egyptian and Minoan cults totally makes sense. There were obvious ties between the two cultures. Minoan art has often been compared to Egyptian art, and you can even see a similarity in “La Parisienne” – she is depicted in profile view with a frontal eye (the traditional mode of depiction in Egyptian art).
Anyhow, you should read heidenkind’s musings. It’s interesting to think about.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.