Minoan Crete

Introduction to Minoan Crete Part 3

Last week, I looked a bit at Minoan trading and got rather sidetracked by the talented artistry of the Minoans. Being still greatly impressed by them, I’m going to continue with their impressive frescoes.

Ancient peoples (I decline to use the word ‘primitive’ since the facts I’ve unearthed about Mycenaeans and Minoans indicate they were a highly intelligent and creative people) loved recreating the world around them on pottery, on ornaments and frescos. It is well known that Paleolithic (Stone Age) men painted the animals they hunted - Minoans went a step beyond this and painted the flowers, the trees around them as well as the human form.

The Minoans have left behind a picture of an uninhibited and gay people as evidenced by their frescoes. In many, women are found bare-breasted and cheerful, with long hair in tresses and dressed in flounced skirts. They did not seem too worried about religious taboos or obsessed by religious practices (as many historians have believed ancient peoples to be). The Minoans’ art reflects their joy of life.

A fresco that has gained much attention is one called “La Parisienne”. The women are gay and lively, are dressed provocatively in breast-baring jackets and are fashionable and sophisticated court ladies. Frenchmen call them “Parisiennes” because they are pampered and important ladies.

La Parisienne was carefully cleaned and we see that Minoans were not afraid to paint in bright colors. The queen’s megaron (her suite of rooms) is decorated with a fresco showing fish and dolphins, dancing girls all in a riot of color. The ceiling is colored with blue scrollwork and must have had a devastatingly colorful effect on the overall room.

As a point of interest, there are several frescoes which show plants and flowers among a series of rocks. It seems as if the whole scene was under water. Could the frescoes and their subject matter be an example of Minoan exuberance? We can only think so.

The frescoes also show how Minoans dressed. The Priest King, a fresco from the palace of Knossos, gives us a view of Minoan men of the upper class. The Priest King is dressed in a head-dress with plumes and he wears a type of kilt with cut-away drawers - a garment also worn by the famed bull-leapers - made of leather and padded for both comfort and protection. In other words, there were distinct similarities between Egyptian and Minoan dress. Hair was long and curling, there was a heavy use of jewelry, and then there was the tight belt around the waist. Having a narrow waist seems to have been the Minoan ideal of male beauty. Men did wear jewelry and did wear their hair long but this wasn’t considered effeminate in the least. Thus men in Minoan Crete appear to have been broad-shouldered and narrow waisted.

I must mention the belt around Minoan men’s waist was made of metal. Proof for this is in the frescoes which show boys older than ten years of age fitted with a belt. (There are ivory figures of young boys but these figures do not wear a belt of any sort.) As added information, the drawing of a young boy was found, not in Crete, but in Paris. This leads to some debate as to its authenticity but Sir Arthur Evans believed it was authentic. He also made the point of writing that, as men sometimes became overweight as they aged, the metal belt was replaced by a leather one. There is also strong evidence suggesting that this was a universal practice among Minoan men - peasants and aristocracy cinched their waists.

How did Minoan women dress? They too had very slender waists (which was a feature obviously popular in ancient Crete at that time). Women’s clothes were elaborate, even if it’s not what we usually think of as ancient Greek costume.