Tag Archives: Painting

The Gesture of Saint Anne of Faras and its Mysteries

Passing by Warsaw on my way from the Chopin Airport to my hometown, I decided to stop at the National Museum of Warsaw to explore once again the Faras Gallery. One of its precious treasure is a fragmentary wall painting, described as the image of Saint Anne of Nubia. Like other wall paintings from the same gallery, it originally featured the cathedral of Faras (earlier Pechoras), located in the capital of the Kingdom of Nobatia (or Nobadia) (Cartwright, 2019).

Birth and re-birth of Christian Nubia

Established in the 4th century AD, Nobatia had grown out of a long ancient tradition of Egypt and the Kingdom of Kush (Ibid.; Adams, 1991:1800). Since the early Middle Ages it had been inhabited by a tribe of the Nobatae who developed their culture beyond the first cataract of the Nile, between present-day Egypt and Sudan (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:11-0:30]; Cartwright, 2019). To the south, there also existed other Nubian kingdoms, namely Makouria and Alwa (Adams, 1991:1800). Christianity reached this region in the 6th century AD, brought there by Byzantine missionaries (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:30-0:45]; Cartwright, 2019) but initially inspired by the Christian tradition of Egypt, and with minor influences from Byzantium, Syria and Palestine (Adams, 1991:1811-1812).

After the Islamic invasion of Egypt in the 7th century, Nubia emerged as a lonely “Christian island among the sands of Sahara desert” (NMW, 2014-2015:[0:45-0:59]), having developed its culture until the 14th century, when it was eventually sunk by the same enemy, with its monuments covered in sand (Ibid.:[2:00-2:10]). “They were [only] reborn [in the 1960s] when a Polish archaeological [rescue] expedition, headed by Professor Kazimierz Michałowski, explored the sites designated for flooding by the waters of the Nile at the Aswan Dam” (Ibid.:[2:10-2:26]). As a result, preserved objects from the Faras cathedral, mainly priceless mural paintings, were shared between the National Museum of Sudan in Khartoum and the National Museum of Warsaw (Ibid.:2:41-2:52; NMW, 2019). The painting of Saint Anne has been displayed as a part of the Nubian Collection in the Faras Gallery since 1972 (NMW, 2014-2015:[2:42-2:52]; NMW, 2019). In 2014, the exhibition was redesigned, to mimic the layout of the cathedral interior and “present the wall paintings in a way that reflects their original placement, with the sound of authentic Coptic liturgical chanting heightening the experience for visitors” (NMW, 2019).

Styles of Faras wall paintings

“In church art, as in church architecture, it appears that the Nubians assimilated and combined influences from a variety of sources as well as adding touches of their own” (Adams, 1991:1812). Nevertheless, Nubian artists and architects did not only imitate the foreign traditions but created a Christian culture of their own, which is fully reflected by a distinctive style of Nubian mural paintings (Ibid.:1812; NMW, 2014-2015:[0:58-1:30]). “Initially monumental and austere, they gradually became to take on a unique local character allowing to be distinguished from Egyptian or Ethiopian images” (NMW, 2014-2015:[1:30-1:44]). Professor Michałowski has recognised different successive styles in the Faras art of mural paintings, in terms of their design, used colours and iconography (Adams, 1991:1812).

From the 8th to around 10th century, dimmed colours predominated, mainly ochre, white, and shades of violet (Ibid.:1812). Simultaneously, there were linear, frontal and schematic representations of human characters with elongated limbs, exceedingly large and absent eyes, and very few decorations (Ibid.:1812, Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95). They are stylistically typical of the Christian Egypt and it is believed that they were created by Coptic artists (Adams, 1991:1811-1812; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-1:40]). Among the represented figures facing the viewer there were mainly the images of Christ, His Mother, saints, angels and warriors (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:42-2:10]). Between the 10th and 14th century, Faras artists created in their own style, which had mainly been elaborated from the Byzantine, and apart from saints, they also represented Nubian dignitaries: bishops and kings (Ibid.:[2:10-2:40]). The paintings became intensely multicoloured, human depictions – more naturalistic and dynamic, with lavishly decorated details (Ibid.:[2:40-3:05]; Adams, 1991:1812). Saint Anne of Faras is dated back to the 8th century and so it features the characteristics of the early period (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[1:25-2:10]). Her image together with other Nubian paintings are usually referred to as frescoes (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). However, they are all tempera made on dry mud plaster by applying local natural pigments (Ibid.; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014 [3:05-3:20]).

Construction phases of the Faras cathedral

Apparently, the earlier 7th century cathedral of Faras was originally dedicated to the Twelve Apostles (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:96). In the 8th century, a larger temple replaced it on the same site but it was already devoted to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:96; Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-0:48]). The temple itself played a role of a metropolitan church in its earliest period and was built on the basilican plan with an apse (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). With the passing time, its construction had continuously been developing until the 14th century (Jurkow, Manowski, 2014:[0:15-1:15]) and only since the 8th century, the cathedral’s walls had been plastered and covered in paintings (Ibid.:[0:15-0:48];Adams, 1991:1811). One of the most famous of all is the painting under study – a fragmentary preserved image representing the head and left arm of Saint Anne. In the 8th century, it decorated the northern wall of the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral (Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Female programme in the Nubian art

In the East, as in the whole Christian world, the inside of the church was segregated by gender (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). In line with this architectural tradition, the northern aisle of the Faras cathedral was dedicated to saint women and is believed to have been reserved for the female part of the Christian congregation (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). Simultaneously, access to other parts of the church, except vestibules, was strictly restricted to women (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:103). As the status of women in Christian Nubia is thought to have been relatively high (Ibid.:104), the iconographical programme of the northern aisle must have once answered their spiritual needs (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The idea is supported by the fact, there were found numerous representations of saint women, among them foundresses, queens, martyrs, mothers and healers (Ibid.:154). On the whole, there are preserved around thirty wall paintings from the northern aisle, half of which represent female themes (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:104).

At the same time, in other parts of the church, women characters, beside the Virgin Mary, were depicted relatively rarely (Ibid.:104). “[I]n the context of ‘the women-oriented programme” (Ibid.:125), the image of Saint Anne has been considered by scholars as one of the most significant (Ibid.:110, 125). “The veneration of Saint Anne is oftentimes cited as specifically ‘female’” (Ibid.:126). Undoubtedly, Nubian women, like other women in the whole Christian world, turned in prayers to Saint Anne for help when they wish to conceive, deliver successfully, or they ask for wellbeing of their children and their own (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019; see Gerstel 1998:96-98). By miraculous events in Saint Anne’s life, Christian women surely hoped for her intercession and fulfilment of their personal prayers (Mierzejewska, 2014:155).

Ancestors of God

Saint Anne, the Mother of Saint Mary, does not appear as a biblical character in the Canonical Gospels (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Bible is equally silent about the lifetime of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). The story of Saint Anne and her Holy Daughter, however, are described in apocryphal gospels: the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, composed around the 7th century, and in the Protoevangelium of James, written in Greek, probably in Coptic Egypt, in the 2nd century (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:95; Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Anonymous authors tell there about the events accompanying the birth and childhood of Saint Mary, clearly following the model of the Old Testament, describing miraculous births of patriarchs, such as Isaac, or the New Testament birth of Saint John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). According to the apocryphal stories, Saint Anne was married to Joachim, a pious Jew and descendant of the House of David (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). For a long time, they had been childless, which was considered as a reproach in Israel (Ibid.:154). However, thanks to their persistent prayers and the faith in God’s grace, being already in years Anne conceived and gave birth to a daughter, Mary – the future Mother of God (Ibid.:154). This is why in a later tradition the Jewish couple has become known as Theopatores, which means Ancestors of God (Ibid.:154). Existing also in Coptic Egypt, the same tradition locates this event in Bethlehem, believed to be Saint Anne’s hometown (Ibid.:154).

Mother of Theotokos

Particular interest in Saint Mary’s hagiography, which is not recorded in the Scripture, especially grew after the Council of Ephesus convened in 431, where the Virgin Mary formally became regarded as Theotokos (Mother of God) (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). The Council’s decision had inspired numerous literary works dedicated to Saint Mary’s lifetime, including Her parents’ (Ibid.:154). Consequently, important events from Her lifetime were referred to as the subjects of the Liturgy and became frequently illustrated in contemporary art (Ibid.:154). In the Eastern Christianity, the image of Saint Anne with the little Mary has represented significant theological truths supporting the human nature of the Virgin born from human parents and so the human nature of Christ (Ibid.:154). Moreover, the granted title of Theotokos inspired more feasts dedicated to Saint Mary, which were consequently introduced in the Liturgical Calendar (Ibid.:154). Among them, there is a feast commonly known in the Eastern Church as the Conception of Saint Anne, to celebrate the moment when she became the Mother of Theotokos (9th December) (Ibid.:154; Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019). It also exists in the Catholic Church but it is known under the name of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th December) (Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, 2019; see Mierzejewska, 2014:154).

Saint Anne of Faras

The fragmentary image of Saint Anne may have been once a part of a larger representation (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125): the Saint was possibly depicted in a full figure, while standing or being enthroned, with a little Mary in her arms or on her lap, which is indicated by her head slightly bowed to one side (Mierzejewska, 2014:154). Such an assumption exists because of “[t]he inscription accompanying the image of Saint Anne, [which] implies that the image of her daughter – Mary was also a part of the painting” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125). Tadeusz Dobrzeniecki (1988:97), however, notices that the same inscription can equally signify Saint Anne’s title of the Mother of Theotokos, which means she may have been depicted alone, without her Daughter.

Saint Anne of Faras is wearing a violet maphorion covering her head and surrounding the oval face, which is filled with calm and gentleness (Ibid.:110,125). Her wide open and large eyes are dominant and seem to smile while looking straight ahead (Ibid.:110,125). In their look, they give an expression similar to those observed in Egyptian portraits of Fayum (Ibid.:110,112,125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:106). Once  the viewer has got an impression the saint is looking beyond them, absent, the other time, they feel her warm gaze of understanding and comfort (see Dobrzeniecki, 1988:103). Even if Saint Anne’s figure cannot be seen entirely, it must evidently have been slender with elongated limbs; her right hand is supporting the chin and the long index finger is placed on the lips (Ibid.:95).

Portrayal with no analogies

Representations of Saint Anne were quite common in the Christian art of the 8th century (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110;125), however, “the portrayal […] from Faras is for many reasons exceptional” (Ibid.:125). First of all, Saint Anne is missing a halo around her head, even though it was usually depicted as a typical feature of all saints (Ibid.:110,125). While there is another example of such a representation in the 8th century art (Theotokos, Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Italy), Saint Anne’s image seems outstanding in this respect (Ibid.:110;125) and “devoid of any direct or obvious analogies” (Ibid.:126). Dobrzeniecki (1988:95) suggests it is because her character does not appear in the Canon Scripture but only in the apocrypha. In turn, Aleksandra Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016:125) points out to “[a]nother singular trait” of the same portrayal: “the juvenile or perhaps timeless appearance of Saint Anne’ face” (Ibid.:125). As it is described in the apocryphal story mentioned above, Saint Anne was well along in years when she conceived her Daughter by God’s will and as such she was usually represented by artists (Ibid.:112;125). Also Sharon Gerstel (1998:98) observes that the saint’s “portrait-like depictions always underline her old age” (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:125), especially in the contemporary art of Byzantium (Ibid.:112,125). Yet the most original feature of all in the Faras image is the Saint’s mysterious gesture she makes by touching her lips with the index finger of the right hand (Ibid.:112,125; Mierzejewska, 2016:155). Its mystery has triggered a great interest among scholars and their numerous attempts for a possible interpretation have appeared in the literature on the subject (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:110,125).

Timeless image of silence

The index finger posed on Saint Anne’s lips as if asking for silence may be a reference to the “silence of God” (Mierzejewska, 2016:155). The subject was brought into attention by Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian mystic who died martyr death in c. 110 (Ibid.:155). For Ignatius there are three mysteries related to the Daughter of Saint Anne, Saint Mary, namely, Her Virginity, miraculous Conception and the Birth of the Son of God (Ibid.:155). According to his writings, “silence expresses what is characteristic of the Father, as logos expresses what is characteristic of the Son” (Ryan, 1988:22). Bożena Mierzejewska (2014:155; see Mierzejewska, 2014-2019) also observes that the index finger on the lips may indicate a prayer in which Saint Anne is immersed. As the painting comes from the period of a dominant Coptic influence in Nubia, the traces of Saint Anne’s gesture may lead to Christian Egypt (Mierzejewska, 2014-2019).

There are actually similar representations of Coptic monks in the Monastery of Bawit, in Egypt, who were depicted with their fingers on the lips while reciting the psalms, according to  a monastic tradition of placing the index finger of the right hand on the lips while praying in silence (Mierzejewska, 2014:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). It was believed as well that the gesture protected a praying person against the evil powers trying to attack their heart (Ibid.:155; Mierzejewska, 2014-2019). Sulikowska-Bełczowska (2016) mentions that the gesture is usually considered by scholars as the sign of contemplation, as it is in the case of representations of the Old Testament character of Sarah, who has just learnt she is going to conceive, or of the Virgin Mary at the moment of Annunciation (Ibid.:112-114; 125-126). “It could also express either sorrow or stupefaction in the face of sanctity – and, consequently, create a symbolic image of a human being listening to the voice of God” (Ibid.:125; see Dobrzeniecki, 1988). Saint Anne’s gesture may have also had a more practical function of reminding women gathered in the cathedral’s aisle to keep silent in the church (Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:114,126).

“Most perfect of all prayers”

The living cult of Saint Anne in Nubia, particularly in Faras, is testified by other paintings with her image found in in the northern aisle of local churches (Mierzejewska, 2014:155). Once Saint Anne is represented enthroned with Saint Mary on her lap, probably breastfeeding the Daughter (Ibid.:155), another time, she is depicted in a standing position (Ibid.:155). Such representations bring to mind some aspects of the iconographic depictions of the Virgin Mary, such as Galaktotrophousa, Hodegetria, or Eleusa (see Sulikowska-Bełczowska, 2016:128-129). The appearance of Saint Mary’s Mother in Eastern churches may have also meant a celebration of the mentioned feast of the Conception of St. Anne (Ibid.:114,126), where her image would be a part of “the [entire] history of salvation [by] conveying a meaning close to the scenes placed on the northern side of the church related to the [representation] of the Nativity” (Ibid.:126-127).

In this context, Saint Anne’s gesture would symbolise her Immaculate Conception, as – according to the theological tradition – Saint Anne would have conceived Mary by kissing her husband’s lips (Dobrzeniecki, 1988:96). The miracle is represented likewise in the Coptic art, where Saint Anne is kissing a dove symbolising the Holy Spirit (Ibid.:96). Accordingly, Saint Anne of Faras is depicted at the very moment of the Immaculate Conception being experienced in the state of ecstasy and mystical silence, which is shown by her gesture of the index finger (Ibid.:196). Silence is therefore the most perfect of all prayers (Ibid.:196). This is a lesson that Saint Anne from Nubia teaches in present-day Warsaw.

Worth being remembered

Among all the representations of Saint Anne, which were very common and highly estimated in the Eastern Christianity, the image of Faras clearly stands out with its unique iconographical features described above. Despite numerous and thorough studies, their meaning still eludes a full interpretation and so its mystery triggers a continuous interest in the Nubian culture and its oriental face. Although the Nubian Christianity had gone away together with its Faras cathedral, left behind under the water, the preserved Nubian paintings, such as the image of Saint Anne, stay above as silent witnesses of the lost Christian civilisation that once flourished in the sands of the desert. Although Nubia made an individual and local culture, it was at once a part of the larger early Christian tradition, and so its heritage remains an invaluable source on the Christian history and art in Africa.

Featured photo: A detail from the 3D model of the Faras Cathedral (narthex), showing the Mother of God with the Child surrounded by two Archangels, Saint Michael (left) and Saint Gabriel (right). Their wings form a kind of canopy over the head of Saint Mary – a concept known in both Nubian and Coptic art. Photo by Karolina Kaczmarek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.


Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubia”. In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1800-1801. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Adams, W. Y. (1991) “Nubian Church Art.” In: The Coptic Encyclopedia, vol. 6, Atiya, A. S. ed., pp. 1811-1812. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Archeparchy of Pittsburgh (2019) ”The Immaculate Conception: the Conception of St. Anne, ‘When She Conceived the Holy Mother of God’ According to the Ruthenian Tradition”. In: The Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. Available at <https://bit.ly/33LyQ5f>. [Accessed on 19th October, 2019].

Cartwright, M. (2019) “Faras Cathedral”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2BEh9sx>. [Accessed on 20th October, 2019].

Dingemanse, M. (2005). ‘Christian Nubia’ in Wikipedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. Available at <https://bit.ly/3OYpY5b>. [Accessed on 5th December, 2022].

Dobrzeniecki, T. (1988) ”Święta Anna z Faras w Muzeum Narodowym w Warszawie. Symbolika gestu milczenia”. [“Saint Anne of Faras in the National Museum of Warsaw. Symbolism of the Gesture of Silence”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, ann. 32. Warsaw: National Museum. pp. 95-214.

Jurkow, W., Manowski, R. (2014) FARAS 3D. “Katedra nad Nilem”. [“Cathedral by the Nile”]. National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2J4yNtj>. [Accessed on 18th October, 2019].

Mierzejewska, B. (2014) ”Sala VI Malowidła z katedry w Faras” [“Room VI Paintings from the cathedral of Faras”]. In: Galeria Faras im. Profesora Kazimierza Michałowskiego. Przewodnik [The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery. Guidebook]. Warsaw: National Museum, pp. 106-197.

Mierzejewska, B. (2014-2019) “Galeria Faras. Skarby zatopionej pustyni”. [“Faras Gallery. Treasures from the flooded desert”]. The National Museum of Warsaw. In: Google Arts&Culture. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VKPuPz>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2019].

NMW (2014-2015) “Galeria Faras. Skarby zatopionej pustyni”. [“Faras Gallery. Treasures from the flooded desert”]. The National Museum of Warsaw. In: Youtube. Available at <https://bit.ly/2IOtRZB>. [Accessed on 15th October, 2019].

NMW (2019) “Faras Gallery. The Professor Kazimierz Michałowski Faras Gallery”. In: National Museum of Warsaw, Collections. Available at <https://bit.ly/1p8RMzR>. [Accessed on 16th October, 2019].

Ryan, P. J. (1998) On Silence in Ignatius of Antioch. In: Prudentia, vol 20, no 2, pp. 20-27.

Sharon E. J. Gerstel (1998) “Painted Sources for Female Piety in Medieval Byzantium”. In: Dumbarton Oaks Papers, vol. 52, pp. 89-111.

Sulikowska-Bełczowska, A. (2016) ”Kobiecy program ikonograficzny nawy północnej katedry w Faras” [”Female Iconography in the Northern Aisle of Faras Cathedral”]. In: Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie, vol. 5. Warsaw: National Museum, pp. 96-129.

Successive Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

The multitude of images in our everyday life means that we usually lack time to look at them closely, without their careful analysis, or their correct interpretation, not to mention a proper methodology for such an interpretation, which we usually prefer to leave in the hands of historians of art. Anne D’Alleva, a historian of art, calls such a phenomenon the syndrome of “lazy looking” (2009:29). And what about a proper interacting with art after crossing the threshold of a museum or a gallery, and I do not mean here ‘a galleria’, a cluster of shops and stalls … yet, even in such a place we can encounter multiple visual representations, especially when some artists decide to arrange there an installation of their works or a collection of photos …

Still, let’s stay inside a gallery of paintings and works of art, or a museum. If we are generally interested in art and have enough time, I would recommend breaking our visit down into several stages. If we focus our attention on selected works of art, it will help us to improve the quality of our cognitive abilities in relation to the selected objects. As I mentioned above, the accumulation of images, the splendor of their colours and and shapes can cause fatigue and, consequently, discouragement … Consequently, we will leave “the center of art” even more confused than we are before entering it.

First think about an artistic epoch you are most fascinated about, then pick up a museum or gallery where you can see its expressions. Among all the exhibited works, pick up four or five and spend at least four hours for their contemplation; yes, yes … approximately one hour for each work of art … why so long? One reason is that famous galleries of art or museums can be really crowded. Assuming you are heading off to one of such type of places and an art object of your choice is famous, it may also take much time to wait on queue to see it. Secondly, the chosen object does not exist in isolation and is normally surrounded by works of art coming from the same context: an epoch, place of origins or style, and when I am writing about a need of selecting four or five works must-see, I do not mean making your way to them with your eyes closed – first, it is dangerous for yourself, then for other amateurs of are, who just being focused on art, are not paying attention to you elbowing across the crowd, and finally, a danger of bumping into a priceless object … So, open your eyes, analyse a chosen object … first in isolation, and then look around and see it in its context. Other artifacts or artworks, looking at you (or judging you!) from their glass-cases or from the walls, depending on what you are looking at, will help you to better understand your object of choice.

Stages of the Analysis of a Work of Art

Finally, standing in front of a preferable work of art, you can start to observe its characteristics. Yet, at that point, it is not possible to escape from spontaneous and disordered thoughts coming to our mind at first sight; they are mostly related with our own feelings triggered by the work. I assume those are pleasant emotions, providing that the object to see has been selected deliberately. There equally appear some links between the work and our unconscious knowledge resulting from our culture, religion, history and education. Such aspects shape our experience and values All that phenomenon cannot be avoided, so let it approach you and tell you for a while a story. It is also a story about yourself … Finally, pay attention to its colours, lines, figures, planes. Does it show an abstraction or a representation? Now, take a step back in time, bring your initial thoughts and analyse them. What element of all observed in the work is the most significant, and how is it described in relation to the whole composition? What does the work reveal about the culture that once shaped it? Who was its creator and patron? Who could be its receiver? Now it is you … What does tell about your mutual relation? How do you read its messages?

By answering all those questions, from the initial stage, when you are in front of the artwork, being bombarded by its scattered meanings, through your attempts to focus on its describable physical features, till the end, when you enter a relation with it, you are in the process of its methodological and complete analysis. In history of art, these stages are professionally defined as follows: a formal analysis, iconography, contextual analysis, and finally semiotics. The formal analysis is also refereed to as pre-iconography, while the iconography stage can be imagined as a meaningful bridge joining the form with the context of an artwork. Accordingly, the third stage is known as the contextual analysis. And finally, there is semiotics, which after many art historians constitutes just a more interdisciplinary version of the combined iconographycal and iconological stages (D’Alleva 2012:35).

Such a conventional division into successive stages of the analysis of a work of art, which also can be named as the methodology in art, has resulted from numerous theories coined by historians of art of international origins, who usually worked at the turn of the twentieth century. Many a time, the methodology of the interpretation of art can be simply limited to two general analyses: formal and contextual. Although the former includes many elements, which are usually grouped into five pairs of concepts, yet the latter should always be further divided into separate stages. Hence, while studying a given work of art, one should know the difference between iconography and iconology, and between those two stages and semiotics, to follow the process correctly, especially if you are studying history of art. The methodology also helps to organize our thoughts in a coherent whole and give our analysis a deeper meaning, also by adding to it our own opinions about the work.

In the following months, each of the following four stages of the analysis will be further discussed by providing examples, a choice of which is wide, as the studied methodology in art can be applied to different expressions in art, such as two-dimensional works (painting, including fresco, photography, graphic), sculpture (also relief), architecture, installation, digital art, performance and video. Because of my profession, which is mainly archaeology, in my analysis I will normally use ancient and medieval works, though made by different cultures. Yet, I will sometimes provide some examples from later epochs for the sake of comparative studies and to illustrate a variety of artistic topics.

All your questions and comments are welcome.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.


D’Alleva A., 2009. Jak studiować historię sztuki. [How to Write Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

D’Alleva A., 2012. Metody i teorie historii sztuki [Methods and Theories of Art History], Jedlińska, E., Jedliński J. trans. Cracow: universitas.

Limestone Flakes of the ‘Ostraca’

Greek: ostraca (plural) – oyster shells, ostracon (singular).

Ostracon is usually understood as a potsherd (“a piece of pottery, usually broken off from a vase or other earthenware vessel” (“Ostracon” 2021) or a flat stone piece (normally a flake of limestone), which was mainly used by artists from ancient Egypt and Greece for their freehand sketches and written notes.

“Generally discarded material, ostraca were cheap, readily available and therefore frequently used for writings of an ephemeral nature such as messages, prescriptions, receipts, students’ exercises and notes” (“Ostracon” 2021). Very exceptional are “the so-called figural ostracons [featuring] drawings, often sketches by artists or architects. The artists sketched their ideas on them with great freedom, avoiding the limitations of official art, thanks to which their sketches were more spontaneous, not devoid of the sense of accurate observation and a clear satirical message. One of the most beautiful and known examples of an ostracon paintings is a representation of an Egyptian dancer performing a somersault (Deir el-Medina, the New Kingdom, between sixteenth and the eleventh centuries BC.; see: Egyptian Dancer from Turin and Her Acrobatic Somersault).

Ostrakon of Cimon, an Athenian statesman, telling his name (as “Kimon [son] of Miltiades”); 486 or 461 BC., Ancient Agora Museum in Athens. Photo by Marsyas (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Photo and caption source: “Ostracon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Featured image: A possibly satirical ostracon depicting a scrawny cat giving a bolt of cloth and a trussed up goose as an offering to a seated mouse, likely representing either a noblemen or a noblewoman with bared breasts. Either a satire on upper-class life, or perhaps a scene from a fable. New Kingdom, either nineteenth or twentieth dynasties, circa 1295-1070 BC., from Thebes. Photo by Keith Schengili-Roberts (2007). CC BY 2.5. Photo modified. Photo and caption source: “Ostrakon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.


“Ostracon” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3iizilv>. [Accessed 2nd August, 2021].

“Ostrakon” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3rP7fNZ>. [Accessed 2nd August, 2021].

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art, p. 158.

Yamato-e in the National School of Japanese Paintings

The national school of painting in Japan that was founded in Yamato (the former name of Japan and the district with the capital of Nara). It is characterized by using purely Japanese themes drawn from national poetry and novels, with or without accompanying text, completely devoid of the influence of Chinese culture. The paintings “show the beauty of nature, with famous places meisho-e (…) or the four seasons shiki-e (…). Characteristic features of Yamato-e include many small figures and careful depictions of details of buildings and other objects, the selection of only some elements of a scene to be fully depicted, the rest either being ignored or covered by a ‘floating cloud’, an oblique view from above showing interiors of buildings as though through a cutaway roof, and very stylized depiction of landscape” (“Yamato-e” 2020).

Uji Bridge Screen, an example of later Yamato-e from the seventeenth century. Image by Japanischer Maler – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. Public domain. Photo and caption source: Photo and caption source: “Yamato-e” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The pictures are often on scrolls that can be hung on a wall (…), handscrolls (…) that are read from right to left, or on a folding screen (…) or panel” (“Yamato-e” 2020). Inspired by Tang dynasty paintings, it developed during the Heian period (794-1185). Yamato-e paintings, however, “stand for a style and are not restricted to a particular period” (Ibid.)

Featured image: A scene (AZUMA YA: East Wing) of Illustrated scroll of Tale of Genji (written by MURASAKI SHIKIBU (the eleventh century). The multi-panel curtain at the center bottom of the image is a kichō. The decorated sliding door panels at the top of the image are fusuma. The scroll was made in about ca. 1130 ACE and is in the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, Japan. Image by Imperial court in Kyoto – Genji Monogatari Emaki published by the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, Japan, 1937. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Yamato-e” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.


Yamato-e” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/30ln81D>. [Accessed on 6th March, 2021].

PWN (2007). Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych, p. 446. Kubalska-Sulkiewicz K., Bielska-Łach M., Manteuffel-Szarota A. eds. Wydanie piąte. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018).

Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Photo source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr. Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).

Tsunami waves demolishing the coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea, which caused giant waves of tsunami, breaking into Minoan cities, mainly on the north-eastern coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011). Source: Youtube.

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon and one more author – Own work (2015). Originally at Wikipedia. CC0. Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011). Photo source: Dr. Senta German (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy.

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo source: Ricardo André Frantz (User: Tetraktys). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr. Senta German (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy.

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Fritz Blakolmer (2012). “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Idyllic life on the coast of Crete. The town of Amnisos was believed to have served as the harbour of Knossos, which was located farther inland and so was not directly affected by the tsunamis. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Sherna Bhumgara (2004). Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog.

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

Between now and then

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).

Today, Crete is being visited by hordes of tourists, who usually prefer sandy beaches and the warm sea to spending time on archaeological sites, where the heat is quite unbearable. Yet, the Minoan legends are still very tangible on the island and their elements can be encountered and felt everywhere on the island. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilization is too heavy for people’s relaxing vacation. Soon most tourists usually abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. But endowed with its natural grandeur, the Aegean islands and Crete fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.

Featured image: The refugees from the erupting Thera are trying to flee to Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


“Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In:  Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TJkdNa>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

“Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2XL26YH>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Blakolmer F. (2012) “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.). Available at <https://bit.ly/2TF7bR1>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

Bhumgara S. (2004) Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ZKfCOH>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Bibi Saint-Pol (2012) “Illustration: A Map of Minoan Crete”. In: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3gvVoyi>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Carlina J. (2011) The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction. Available at <https://bit.ly/2TFQFQK>. [Accessed on 25th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2LX6bTN>. [Accessed on 26th May, 2020].

German S. Dr. (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Pwgr81>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Harpur J., Westwood J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

History Channel (1980s) Crete. Death came from the Sea. Time Life’s Lost Civilizations. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d3mCKx>. [Accessed on 21st May, 2020].

Jensen M. N. (2018) “Dating the ancient Minoan eruption of Thera using tree rings” In: UA College of Science. Available at <https://bit.ly/36D5GI8>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Lilley H. (2006) The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Masjum M. (2006) Inside the Volcano. Kraylevich Productions Inc.; Mechanism Digital.

Mitchell T. (2011) Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend. BBC Production.

Swindale I. (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d8jSv9>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Swindale I. (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Xx4v9b>. [Accessed on 27th May, 2020].

Telegram.com (2007) “Layers of Mystery – Archaeologists Look to the Earth for Minoan Fate”. In: Red Ice.TV. Available at <https://bit.ly/3daXXnd>. [Accessed on 28th May, 2020].

Wengler G. (2009) The Biblical Plagues; Episode 2: Darkness Over Egypt. Taglicht Media GMBH; ZDF Enterprises.

Westbrook J. (1995) Time life’s: Lost Civilizations; Episode 4: Aegean: The Legacy of Atlantis. Time-Life Video & Television.