“Illusion is a refuge for everyone, not just for royal dukes. It softens life’s cruelties and smooths the sharp edges. The calendar cycles offer a sustaining image of pattern, order, and attainable achievement, to counter the confusions and disappointments in real life in the real world. For this reason, its little pictures continued to be welcome for centuries, long after they had grown detached from any teaching program and dwindled into decoration. In this afterglow they lived on as ornamental details, reassuring and endearingly familiar. […] As time rolled by, the calendar most needed labour for society, in any month of any year, was no longer to instruct but, instead, to charm, to comfort, and to cheer.”
The Fabulous Middle Ages
Of all numerous miniatures made for the Duke Jean de Berry, those of the calendar cycle are distinguished by art history as the most renowned illuminations ever made (Henisch 1999:26; see Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry: Squared Humanity inscribed in the Cycle of God). The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry seems to be a suitably luxurious title for the most fabulous Middle Ages ever painted: gentry play, happy peasants’ toil – the rich man’s view (Beckett 1996). And that’s the Duke of Berry actually was (Ibid.). Although, the Limbourg brothers painted what was requested by their powerful and rich commissioner, their miniatures seem to have a double levelled meaning in each case (Ibid.). The ability to look truly and without any fixed ideas of what is fitting is what makes great paintings (Ibid.).
“The animated little scenes offer delightful glimpses of everyday activity and for this very reason have often been used as illustrations of daily life in the medieval world” (Henisch 1999:vii). They show the world of feudal society, including contemporary clothes, splendours of the rich and everyday labours of peasants marked with the rhythm of passing time of the successive months of the year (Battistini 2005:47). Simultaneously, “their surface-realism is deceptive [and all idyllic images of the medieval calendar served to style and discipline] the unwieldy, unsatisfactory complexities of life, to create an image more beguiling and beautiful than any attempted re-creation of reality itself” (Henisch 1999:vii). In the idealized picture of contemporary society of the calendar, peasants’ rural labours, such as ploughing, sowing, haymaking and harvesting, grape picking, or wood collecting in winter, continuously interlace with a represented side by side allegorical picture of a medieval aristocracy and their favourite amusements: feasts, tournaments, courtship, nuptials, and hunting with a falcon (Battistini 2005:47). Two strikingly different worlds co-exist there in full accordance complementing one another.
Hierarchy of medieval life
The miniatures capture a hierarchical idea of the world characteristic of the Late Middle Ages: on medieval calendar pages every man, every creature and thing seem to have been placed as said by the divine will and order (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). The lifetime of a human being is bound with the successive stages of nature, and with the cycle of transformations, it is endlessly subject to the rolling year (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237). In the illuminations, a bulk of a knightly castle always dominates above an earthly life of peasants, while the law of God’s order rules over the whole universe (Białostocki 2008:213; Żylińska 1986:237).
The space of the fifteenth century painting had already reached quite far; all the same, it still looked like a mise en scène composition finishing behind several layers of hills (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). Inscribed in the framework, the painted landscape seems to rise above human heads (Białostocki 2008:213; see Żylińska 1986:237). The forest, like a curtain, is covering from a viewer a mystery living beyond the horizon and a symbolical image of a ruling the universe order is harmoniously extending over the world of mankind (Białostocki 2008:213).
Nevertheless, the reality was not so harmonious, and contemporary daily live did not go through as delightfully and in line with the social hierarchy, as contemporary artists tried to show in their bright illuminations (Żylińska 1986:237). Wearing linen shirts, bare-foot peasants were not so pleased with their life, nobles not always led a romantic life near their charming châteaux, or showed gallantry towards women, the latter, in turn, more often demonstrated their disagreement with the place imposed them by the Church and society (Ibid.:237).
Memories of the peasants’ revolt of the year 1381 were still alive; the Black Death was persistently taking a devastating toll on human life in Europe; heretics were burning at numerous stakes, and the Hundred Years War continued (Ibid.:237). The owner of the Very Rich Hours, the generous Duke of Berry, was not definitely known as a lord “noted for his love of farm life or, indeed, of peasants. [Outside] of the pages his very own books, […] he showed a harsh indifference towards his peasants, and a positively rapacious interest in the profits he could wring from their exertions. His record as a master of men called for not paeans of praise of grateful subjects but resentment and rebellion throughout his vast domains” (Henisch 1999:26).
The Middle Ages, like every epoch throughout history, had strong reasons to long for a more beautiful world to live in and the deeper despair and suffering because of difficulties of the present day (Huizinga 2003:54). In those days, the more passionate and desperate yearning and melancholy may have born (Ibid.:54). One of the ways of escape from the reality was an artistic imagery (Żylińska 1986:237).
From gold to true colours of life
In the so-called classical epoch of the Parisian miniature in the thirteenth century, illuminations were usually plentifully decorated with gold and vivid colours harmonically put together in the way to avoid clashing in their various combinations (Pijoan 2006:57). In the fourteenth century, especially in the Avignon school, golden surfaces clearly diminished giving a place to the colours of blues and greens, like in the case of Italian miniatures (Ibid.:57). Finally, in the fifteenth century, in the schools of central France and Burgundy, sparkling gold completely disappeared; the background adopted colours imitating those one could find in the world of nature, and the sky and trees were only slightly touched with silver and golden marks just for underling the brightness and depth of the colour (Ibid.:57).
Books of hours were traditionally much smaller in comparison with the large Carolingian codes, and their sumptuous imagery turned out to be an integral part of the written word (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). Consequently, accompanying a text, an illustration was treated less as a book decoration and more as its dominant information (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:213). In illuminated manuscripts of the Late Middle Ages, the observation of the nature objectified the pictures of a represented world giving them innovative expressions: clearness, light and shadow, a horizontal distance shining in the mist, and foamed waves of floating clouds, all joined together with a dancing rhythm of human shapes and various concrete forms (Białostocki 2008:213).
Painting more expressive than words
In the fifteenth century, painting dominated literature in means of expressions (Huizinga 2003:340,343). Especially miniaturists successfully tried to seize a colour of the passing moment, such as the depiction of the play of light of a torch, or of the radiant sunset (Ibid.:340,343). The illuminator of the Hours, Pierre d’Ailly even dared to represent the sunbeams breaking through the clouds after the storm (Ibid.:340,343). A realistic picture of the nature in contemporary painting, unlike in the literature, was freely developed, irrespective of any conventions (Ibid.:340,343).
Furthermore, a depiction of the nature painted in the background was only of a marginal importance, and therefore, it could preserve a clean expression and form, independent of the rules of the hieratic style strongly influencing in turn a major subject of the paining in the foreground (Huizinga 2003:340,343). A precise parallel to this phenomenon of the medieval painting can be drawn from the art of the ancient Egypt; the less the landscape was linked to the thematic scene, the more its picture itself became harmonious and natural (Ibid.:340,343).
In the architectural background
Although the Limbourg represented an imagined world in their masterpiece, it was depicted against a background of real scenery, still idyllic and gentle (Żylińska 1986:237). In the miniatures, the viewing of the distance is usually hidden by huge silhouettes of the castles, represented in detail with almost an archaeological accuracy (Białostocki 2008:213): from the majestic walls in and around Paris: the Louvre, royal palace of Cité with Sainte-Chapelle, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the castle of Vincennes, to the most charming royal residences, such as the Châteaux of Saumur, Lusignan, Étampes, or Clain, near Poitiers (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:3-4).
Amongst steep roofs of cities, charming castles, and towering cathedrals, the scenes of daily life arise in douce France according to the changing months of the calendar year; harvesting, grape picking, hunting with falcons, and sumptuous feasts belong to the most characteristic (Żylińska 1986:236-237). What the Duke of Berry saw was a paint in one of the most splendid manuscripts ever owned by a royal prince (Beckett 1996). And one can imagine him looking at these magnificent pictures with a proud of a rich owner (Ibid.). “For him the calendar pictures he enjoyed as he turned the pages of his book of hours must have woven a beautiful veil of illusion, to mask the ugly reality of the world outside his castle walls” (Henisch 1999:26).
TheVery Rich Hours opens with January and the New Year’s feast at the court of the Duke, Jean of Berry (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Only the first of the twelve scenes of the cycle represents activities taking place indoors; the Duke is sitting down by the table laden with food and drink, on the right (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). He is wearing a typical of the epoch blue belted houppelande and a furry hat (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The host’s subordinates are offering him gifts according to the custom (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The Master of Ceremonies encourages them with his words written above in French: approche, approche, [approach] (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Behind the feasting group there is a blue tapestry hanging on the wall, which represents fighting knights (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Accuracy in representing details is astonishing; the authors even depicted the so-called Salière de Pavillon – the salt-cellar in the shape of a boat with the Duke’s bear and swan emblems (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Quite surprising is the lack of ladies at the feast (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Women’s role was quite important at the court of Burgundy though (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
To illustrate February the artists covered the landscape in snow for the very first time in the history of European painting (Secomska 1972:14-25; Białostocki 2008:213). After Sister Wendy Beckett, the winter cold, with its delight but also with its inconvenience, has been shown in a surprisingly charming way (Beckett 2001:267). The Duke’s barns must be fulfilled with harvests; in the background there is a snow-covered haystack up the hill, the birds are pecking scattered seeds from the ground (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right of the framework there is an enclosure for the sheep, four bee hives, a pigeon loft, barrels, a bunch of brushwood, and a cart (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
At first sight, however, a viewer can see here a comic (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, inside the house a woman and a man are warming themselves by the fire; by the door, there is a lady in blue dress warming her underpants while bashfully averting her gaze from the couple inside the house warming there “their lack of underpants” (Ibid.). Outside the house, there are three peasants: the first man, trembling because of the cold, is covering himself with a white cloth and brushing the snow off his shoes, the second is chopping the wood, and the last one is driving a loaded donkey up the snow-covered and surely slippery road (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
“March” is also dedicated to the life at the countryside; first labours in the field; ploughing and sowing have just started (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Some peasants are trimming the grapevines (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them, a looking after the herd shepherd is trying to escape from the March downpour (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the fond and up the hill there is the huge silhouette of Lusignan castle stretched out on the whole width of the page; towering over the region of Poitou, it was one of many residences belonging to the Duke (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Its story is bound with the beautiful French legend of Melusine (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Although there are different versions of the story, the legend has it that one of the Lusignans married a ravishing woman named Melusine who turns into a dragon (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The miniaturist painted her in the shape of a fantastical lizard flying over the castle’s tower to watch over the lords of the castle and warn them against a coming danger (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Wonderful is that even the most hidden detail is to say a fascinating history (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
In April the nature is waking up again; in the background the Château de Dourdan is plunged in the green entourage of trees and meadows (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the foreground, accompanied by two witnesses, a young noble couple is exchanging engagement rings (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Plausibly, the scene shows the engagement of Charles d’Orléan with Jean of Berry’s granddaughter, Bonne d’Armagnac (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). On the right young women are picking first flowers; in the distance two boats with fishermen are floating on the waters at the foot of the castle (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). The whole illumination is imbued with the blossom of spring, which is symbolically underlined with the graceful scene of the engagement (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
“May” shows the scene of spring time outing taking its place outside the walls of a charming city in Auvergne (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). According to the depicted here tradition, people went to the forest in May to pick green branches used then for decorating houses (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
An elegantly dressed procession of lords and ladies are following the musicians; the nobles are wearing the so-called in French livrée du mai – the livery of May, and wreaths of leaves on their heads or on the shoulders (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind them there is the dense and dark forest and not less multiplied than the trees in the forest are the towers of the castle of Riom rising in the background (Żylińska 1986:236; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Hay-making in June is placed in the foreground of Paris, being seen from the Hôtel de Nesles, also the castle of the dukes of Berry, with a view of Île de la Cité with the royal palace and Sainte Chapelle visible in the picture (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). In the sweltering heat of summer the bare-foot peasants are working in the field, the men are scything; the girls are raking and piling the hay in the haystacks (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). The figures of the peasant-women are slender; they are dancingly bending and assuming flexible ballet positions (Białostocki 2008:213).
Their slim shapes more remind the figures of the ladies picking the flowers in the scene of April, or those riding horsebacks with their lords in May, rather than of hard-working women of the lower stratum (Ibid.:213). It is because both, the peasants and ladies, are depicted according to the same sophisticated style dominating in art at contemporary courts of Paris, Dijon or Prague (Ibid.:213). Not all miniatures of the Limbourg, however, show this particular type of slender proportions of the body or excessive decorations of clothes; in some illuminations the figures of peasants are not only represented in a naturalistic way, but also with an excessive indecency (Ibid.:213), and lack of dignity (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5), like in the scene of February.
In the miniatures summer is insistently going forward; the illustration of July represents the corn field with poppy and corn flowers between the ears (Secomska 1972:14-25). Two men are cutting the crops with a sickle; on the right, the sitting couple is shearing the sheep (Ibid.:14-25). Between the hills, the geometrical walls of the castle of Poitiers are mounting over the area of a scenic beauty (Ibid.:14-25).
In the miniature of August, there’s the castle – actually one of his seventeen castles – all fairly and gleaming in the summer light (Beckett 1996). In the foreground, a hunting scene is taking place; the nobles on horseback are using dogs and prey birds for chasing ducks and swans; a falconer is guiding the riders (Secomska 1972:14-25); the courtiers are wearing magnificent attire and sitting on their splendid horses, perhaps with the Duke himself on the white horse (Beckett 1996). As the Limbourg were great artists they did not reduce their representations to what the Duke really required to see but they depicted what they truly saw (Ibid.). And they saw those fields, the river and the peasants being engaged in different activities (Ibid.).
At the foot of the castle of Étampes, their small figures are caught while both working and enjoying the summer; some are stacking sheaves into shocks and piling them on a horse-cart, others are swimming naked and free, amusing themselves happily in the water (Secomska 1972:14-25; Beckett 2001:267). Striking is the difference between the look and attitude of nobles and depicted peasants (Beckett 2001:267). This is August, so probably it’s very hot (Beckett 1996). Yet, the nobles apparently living a good and wealthy life are dressed up to their neck in tight and heavy clothes (Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). They are also all following the rules of the court game, which is visible in a look exchange of the couple riding at the back (Beckett 1996). Hence it is a very constricted life, which is still observed and judged by others (Ibid.). Accordingly, on one side, there is a rather strict and tight etiquette of the well-dressed nobles, and on the other, an unhampered behaviour of the unclothed peasants who could freely and happily indulge themselves in a refreshing bath in the cold water Beckett 2001:267; Beckett 1996). Unlike the courtiers, they additionally seem unbound and sincere in their joy (Beckett 1996).
The leading theme of the month of September, a grape harvest, is represented by the river Loire, against the background of the picturesque castle of Saumur (Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25). With its Gothic towers, battlements (Żylińska 1986:237), “chimneys and weathervanes decorated with golden fleurs-de-lys” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), the château looks like a fairy-tale apparition (Żylińska 1986:237). “The architectural design of the château draws the gaze up towards the dreamily poetic volutes. The towers conceal their protective nature beneath festive trappings, redolent of fabulous adventures in the forests of Arthurian legends and suggestive of the presence of God in His creation” (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5). Good King René of Anjou stated that the Chastel de Plaisance from his dreams looked exactly the same (Żylińska 1986:237).
“These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light.”
François Cali in “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:5
Grape-picking takes place in the foreground: plenty bunches of grapes are being loaded either into the vats on the oxen-cart or to the panniers attached to the backs of the waiting mules (Żylińska 1986:237). Peasants are working hard in the vineyard plunged in the September sun (Żylińska 1986:237; “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4). Most of them are leaning forwards, picking the purple fruits (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4), “while one of them is tasting the grapes. […] In the middle of the grape pickers, a character is showing his behind. This intentionally grotesque touch contrasts with the extraordinary elegance of the château” (Ibid.:4-5). On the left, a looking pregnant woman (Ibid.:4) is tidying her hat up and straightening her body as if she felt too tired of working in the vineyard. Such a depiction of the peasant-woman may also suggest the child-bearing potential of women in general, and underline a symbolical connection between a woman pregnancy and the womb of the mother earth giving birth in the month of September (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4-5; Żylińska 1986:237; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Together with autumn the artists move the action of the Hours from the lands of the Valley of Loire to the banks of the River Seine (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Human figures are moving along them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Instead of charming châteaux by Loire, in the background are rising the towers of the Louvre (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). It is already October (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The scene shows the works typical of autumn; the man on horseback is tilling the field, another – sowing it (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Magpies and crows are stealing the seeds (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Behind the working men, dressed as an archer, a scarecrow is unsuccessfully trying to frighten the birds away (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The scene of November shows the autumn harvest of acorns (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The landscape is sparking with the colours of autumn (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Three swineherds are making the fruits fall down with the sticks (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). Pigs are feeding on them (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). One of the men, depicted in the foreground, is accompanied by a dog (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The darkness of the forest and a navy blue colour of the sky are the signs of the coming nightfall (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
The cycle traditionally ends with the scene of December (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The illumination represents a wild boar hunt (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The dogs are fiercely attacking the already hunted animal lying between two men (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25). The landscape is gradually rising up from the scene of hunting in the foreground through the dense forest behind, and finally finishes with the towers of the Château de Vincennes, being distinguished against the background of the dark sky (“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” 2012:4; Secomska 1972:14-25).
Castles seen from the outside
On the example of the calendar pages of the TrèsHeures it is possible to compare the way the same motive is presented in painting and literature. The equivalent of illuminated châteaux of the Hours is the literary description of nine French castles in the work of Deschamps (Huizinga 2003:345-346). While illustrating the castle, however, the painter is observing it from the outside; the poet is looking out of it (Ibid.:345-346). Consequently, literally enumerating pleasures and advantages of the castles bears no comparison with an impression being given by the painted pictures of a fairy-tale Saumur, prestigious Lusignan and gloomy Vincennes (Ibid.:345-346).
The image gains an advantage of the word (Huizinga 2003:345-346). It is also because the Middle Ages mainly perceived the outside world by means of the image (Ibid.:345-346). Behind the enchanting imagery, the epoch hid its reality or masked it with the dream of a better world (Roger S. Wieck in: Henisch 1999:back cover).
Featured image: AP Manuscripts (2020) “Très Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers 1412 AD. Page 112.” In: Manuscripts.
“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2012). In: PDF. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Oh9XJ8>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
“Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X7xQIK>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
AP Manuscripts (2020) “Très Riches Heures, Limbourg Brothers 1412 AD. Page 112.” In: Manuscripts. Available at <https://bit.ly/38LjyRP>. [Accessed on 11th April, 2020].
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Henisch, B. A. (1999) The Medieval Calendar Year. Pennsylvania: University Park, Penn State Press.
Huizinga, J. (2003) Jesień średniowiecza [Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen]. Brzostowski, T. trans. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.
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The Bronze Age. Dusk in the eastern Mediterranean (Westbrook 1995). The people on the island of Thera felt something frightening and cataclysmic in the air (Ibid.). They were preparing to abandon their home island (Ibid.). They had filled storage jars with wine, olive and wheat as if one day they would have come back to reclaim them (Ibid.). They carefully closed each lid (Ibid.). They also hid some valuables in their houses’ basements or under door frames (Mitchell 2011). Yet, their most precious possessions, like gold and jewels, they took with them (Westbrook 1995). They carefully sealed their houses as if protecting them from thieves and rushed to their boats (Mitchell 2011). What those people felt was the earth itself trembling beneath them but they had already survived similar earthquakes in the past (Westbrook 1995). That time, however, it was not a mere earthquake (Ibid.). Those people were to never return to their olive, wine and idyllic life they had depicted in their frescoes (Ibid.). They would have simply fled into the night and into the sea (Ibid.).
In the Mediterranean region, in the wide expense of the Blue Aegean Sea, a group of islands stands out in a Greek archipelago (Masjum 2006). They are thrown north of Crete, with a huge caldera at their center (Wengler 2009). The archipelago’s dark and brooding nature appears in contrast to the white limestone and pristine marble of the buildings (Masjum 2006). This islands are collectively known today as Santorini (Ibid.). The terraced landscape and rich volcanic soil make the them ideal for vineyards (History Channel 1980s). For this reason, Santorini is home to some of the finest wines in the world (Ibid.). But while tourists travel to Santorini for sun and the island’s quaint village life, archaeologists keep searching there for more clues about the destruction of the Minoan empire (Ibid.).
For years, teams of various scientists, each specialized in a particular field, have joined their forces to solve the mystery (Lilley 2006). They are still finding new evidence of a dreadful disaster that overwhelmed Europe’s first civilisation (Ibid.) ‘Did their terrible fate create the myth of Atlantis, the continent-city that drowned?’, speculates the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘They worshiped the sea and the sea [eventually] turned against them’ (Ibid.)
More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabulous civilization that had been swallowed by the sea but no one has been able to trace the origins of Plato’s story yet (Lilley 2006). Appearing evidence from the island of Crete led some archaeologists to speculate that the Atlantis legend was in fact created in the Mediterranean (Ibid.). Is the legendary destruction of Atlantis just a folk memory of what happened to the Minoans, who flourished on Crete in the Bronze Age, over two thousand years before Plato? (Ibid.)
Atlantis was mentioned in Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias, in the fourth century BC. (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). The great Athenian philosopher claimed the story had originally come from Egypt (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). It was handed down to him from an Athenian lawmaker, Solon, who had in turn heard it from Egyptian priests from Sais, the capital of Lower Egypt (Ibid.). Solon, and after him Plato, both claimed these were facts, no fiction (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:20). According to their accounts, a highly advanced civilization would have developed on the island of Atlantis (Westbrook 1995; Harpur, Westwood 1997:18-21).
In the Bronze Age, the Greek islands were in fact home to an advanced civilization, competing for cultural, artistic and commercial influences in the region, even with the pharaohs of Egypt (Mitchell 2011). These were the Minoans (Ibid.). Centuries before the Greek built the Parthenon, Minoan artists recorded their achievements through exquisite carvings and stunning frescoes (Lilley 2006). They were the first Europeans to use writing but at the height of their powers they were wiped from the pages of history (Ibid.). Their disappearance is still one of the ancient world’s greatest mysteries (Ibid.). Some think the Minoans were slaughtered by conquers from overseas (Ibid.). Others claim that the cataclysmic eruption destroyed them (Ibid).
Apart from the legend of Atlantis, there are also other famous stories passionately haunting human imagination. Until the twentieth century, the Minoans had been the mysterious people known only from Greek myths about hybrid monsters and human sacrifice (Lilley 2006). The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been studying Minoan culture on Crete for twenty-five years (Ibid.). He has explored ancient caves in the centre of the island (Ibid.). For hundreds of years, people have believed their winding corridors were actually the Cretan labyrinth, which was the home of legendary Minotaur (Ibid.). Greek myths describe the beast as a feeding on human flesh, half-bull and half-human creature, who was imprisoned in the subterranean chambers by King Minos (Ibid.). According to the myth, the Minotaur had a very particular taste (Ibid.). He liked to consume its human prey alive (Ibid.). ‘To keep a Minotaur fed, Minos executed the tribute of seven maids and seven youths from the Athenians and once they entered the labyrinth, they never left it’, recounts Dr Sandy McGillivray (Ibid.). The myth suggests that Minoans practiced human sacrifice and were even cannibals (Ibid.). Or was this simply a propaganda generated by Greek fears of a powerful people? (Ibid.).
When the explosion of Thera occurred, the Minoan empire must have been at its highest (Westbrook 1995). However, despite their power and remarkable achievements, the Minoans disappeared after 1500 BC (Lilley 2006). Their fate is still a mystery (Ibid.). Were they wiped out by ancient Greek invaders, described by Homer in his epic poems about the Trojan war? (Ibid.). Or was it a catastrophic natural event, like the one that supposedly destroyed the Atlantis? (Ibid.).
In 1900, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans started excavating at Knossos in northern Crete, near the modern capital of the island, Heraklion (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). The whole western world was astonished by his discovery (Lilley 2006). Evans devoted forty years of his life to this endeavour, for which he was eventually knighted (History Channel 1980s).
After the excavations started, it shortly turned out that the archaeologist had come across the capital of the highly advanced civilisation of the Bronze Age (Lilley 2006). Whilst the ancient Europeans were living as barbarian warriors, building clay huts, Cretans were creating monumental architecture and living in overwhelming luxury (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Men in Knossos must have moved about proudly and confidently (History Channel 1980s). Women were attired elegantly and glamorously (Ibid.). Evans exhumed in Knossos a huge architectural complex, he soon called a palace (History Channel 1980s; (Lilley 2006). It was a complex of buildings of the size of four football fields consisting of one thousand and three hundred courtyards, halls, passageways and rooms (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). All of them belonged to one single building, which was the heartbeat of the Minoan empire (History Channel 1980s). The palace was approached by massive entrance portals, leading deep inside its subterranean complex (Ibid.). Above the surface, the palace was two to three storeys high and built of cut stone (Ibid.). The walls were decorated with serene motifs of flowers and animals (Ibid.). War was not glorified there (Ibid.).
The architecture was so bewildering that Evans was convinced that he had found the Minotaur’s labyrinth, incorporated into the King Minos’ royal residence (History Channel 1980s). He found there marble walls and alabaster floors, which had been protected by the earth for millennia (Ibid.). In the lavishly decorated private chambers of the priest-king, as Evans assumed, a bathtub was even found (Ibid.). Staircases functioned as ingenuously designed air-conditioners (Ibid.). Light shafts provided subdued lighting (Ibid.). Below the floors, complicated drainage conduits have been built for bathrooms and, first in Europe, flush toilets (Ibid.). Even rainwater, which was collected in the open courtyards of the palace, passed through a special system of drains (Ibid.).
In the storehouses there were as many as four hundred storage vats for wine, oil, grains and honey (History Channel 1980s). The Minoans’ capital itself was a masterpiece of contemporary town planning, with its buildings being connected by Europe’s first paved roads (Lilley 2006). Surrounding the palace, there was a town with a population of more than forty thousand inhabitants (Ibid.).
Based on what Evans found, archaeologists have built a more accurate picture of what this once great empire looked like (History Channel 1980s). Modern technology offers an impression of extraordinary splendour of the civilization around the whole Crete; ceremonial buildings, holy places, storehouses and workshops were once grouped around large central courtyards (Ibid.). Successively, archaeologists have discovered similar Minoan settlements with the so-called palaces throughout Crete and far beyond it (Lilley 2006). Among them, Knossos is believed to have been the most significant.
The Minoans were the contemporaries of the mighty ancient Egyptians, with a language of their own and a distinctive culture, widely revered by others (Masjum 2006). Highly cultured and civilized, the Minoans held much promise as a people (Ibid.). It was their culture that provided the seed of Greek civilization a thousand years later (Ibid.). They had an advanced state of bureaucracy and organization (Ibid.). The Minoans were equally skilled craftsmen capable of producing exquisite treasures and sophisticated objects of art (Lilley 2006). Their pottery was known throughout the contemporary world for its outstanding beauty and craftsmanship (History Channel 1980s). Its distinctive geometric patterns and naturalistic imagery were prized even by the pharaohs (Ibid.).
Merchants, not warriors
The source of Minoan wealth was their rule at sea (Mitchell 2011). They were peace-loving traders who placed strong emphasis on commerce and not war (Masjum 2006).
A geologist, Jelle Zeilinga de Boer, says that the Minoans created a commercial empire (Masjum 2006). ‘They did not have any defensive walls or anything to protect themselves because they had the [powerful fleet], and they were known in the entire eastern Mediterranean as traders’ (Ibid.). Also artistic influences of the Minoans were far-reaching (Wengler 2009). Minoan pottery and other various artifacts carried by their ships have been found from Spain to Mesopotamia (Lilley 2006). Their distinguished artistic style and motifs, flourished in frescoes also in foreign palaces of Mycenaeans, Egyptians and even Canaanites, such as Tel Kabri, in modern day Israel (Cline 2013). In the Egyptian city of Avaris (also Awaris), in the north-eastern region of the Nile Delta, the Egyptologist, Prof. Manfred Bietak has found a Minoan fresco, dated back to the sixteenth century BC. (Wengler 2009). It represents a recurring theme of the Minoan iconography, especially on Crete, which is a bull-leaping (Ibid.). Bietak claims that the fresco must have been painted by a Minoan artist, probably living and working in Avaris and decorating an Egyptian palace in a typical Minoan style (Ibid.). At the time of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the artistic influence of the Minoans on Egyptian art became highly noticeable (Ibid.). The presence of Minoan frescoes in the Nile Delta is further evidence of close contacts between these two worlds: Egyptian and Minoan (Ibid.).
In ancient times, the Minoans traded with the peoples of the Aegean and were amongst the first to sail to distant foreign lands (History Channel 1980s). After the British author, Gavin Menzies (2011), their boats voyaged westwards through the Pillars of Hercules to finally reach not only the British Isles but even northern America. Although scholars have rejected such theories as pseudohistory, all of them agree that the Minoan representatives surely travelled to the Near East and up the River Nile to the legendary city of Thebes, in Egypt (History Channel 1980s; Cline 2013). The palaces in their homeland of Crete, in Knossos, Phaistos and Malia were on a smaller scale than in Egypt but archaeologists claim to have observed in Cretan monumental architecture, structural designs similar to the temples dedicated to Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Isis or Hathor (History Channel 1980s). As Diodorus of Sicily writes in the first century BC. (Bibliotheca historica, Book I, 61), the architect of the labyrinth in Knossos, Dedalus, had first seen such an edifice in Egypt and designed a similar one for King Minos (Santarcangeli 1982:85). Although the Egyptian one was more monumental than the Cretan, it apparently served as its prototype (Ibid.:85).
On the other side, the Minoans’ maritime empire was so vast that it even rivalled the ancient Egyptians (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). Nonetheless, the islanders must have been popular and respected in ancient Egypt (Ibid.), particularly because they did not sail with warships on buccaneering raids but as peaceful merchants (History Channel 1980s). Apart from mutual trading, as some scholars underline, there may have also been other Egyptian – Minoan relations, especially in the context of religion and ritual (Santarcangeli 1982:73-85). Yet, all of the sudden, all records of the Minoans came to an abrupt end in the papyrus texts of the Egyptian scribes. Why? (History Channel 1980s).
With time, the Minoans colonized Aegean islands also in the parts of mainland Turkey (Lilley 2006). Consequently, their powerful fleet could significantly control the Mediterranean’s trade routes (Mitchell 2011). At their intersection between Europe, Asia and Africa was Crete, the strategic centre of Minoan power (Ibid.). One hundred and twelve kilometres north lay the island of Thera, known today as the group of Santorini islands (Ibid.).
The island of Santorini may provide a clue to solving the Minoan disappearance from history (Lilley 2006). The wild scenery and jagged cliffs draw countless tourists but they do not realize that this is in fact a highly explosive volcano (Ibid.). Nor did the colony of Minoans, who lived on Santorini in the Bronze Age and had built their town on the most dangerous island in Eurasia (Ibid.). At that time, the island was known as Thera. Its crescent shape testifies to a violent volcanic past (History Channel 1980s). Its harbour is now a gigantic caldera, so deep that no ship’s anchor can touch the bottom (Ibid.). In the middle, a volcanic dome rises out of the sea (Ibid.). Today it is an awesome monument to the fourth largest eruption in the last twenty thousand years (Ibid.). It was a cataclysm that some believed led the Minoan civilization to its final end (Ibid.).
In 1967, archaeologists discovered the Minoan town of Akrotiri, located on the southern coast of Santorini (History Channel 1980s). It was buried on the slopes of the vast volcano crater (Lilley 2006). Traces of Thera’s wealth can be seen in the ruins of this town (Mitchell 2011). Kitchens and storehouses offered a glimpse of people’s daily life (History Channel 1980s). At the moment they were found, storage jars still contained green kernels and olive pips (Ibid). Along the streets stood buildings whose walls were richly decorated with sophisticated frescoes (Mitchell 2011).
Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist, pays attention to the way Akrotiri’s inhabitants may have celebrated their life, which is well reflected in Minoan art. ‘If you take a look at the wall paintings that have been discovered [there], they are portraying their landscape. This is a happy landscape: animal bouncing around and [girls] picking saffron’, he says (Lilley 2006). ‘They [are] showing a nice lifestyle, comfortable one. It’s a pity it was all destroyed’ (Ibid.). People living on Thera, like the Cretans, built a highly advanced society, provided with such facilities as the world’s first home toilets combined with an underground sewage system (Mitchell 2011). For such a luxury most Europeans waited another two thousand years (Ibid.).
Island cursed by gods
In the rubble of the ancient town, scientists have found clues, which suggest that Thera eruption may have coincided with the downfall of the Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s).
Gradually the buried city began to divulge its secrets (History Channel 1980s). However, working among the crumbling walls was dangerous and the man who first discovered Akrotiri, the veteran Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos (1901-1974), was killed by falling rocks and buried in his town (Ibid.). His daughter, Nanno Marinatos, is carrying on his work (Ibid.). She says that most archaeologists agree that the Minoans established a theocratic empire of the seas (Ibid.). Still they do not know what their ruling class was like (Ibid.). Marinatos thinks that its representatives were priests and they claimed their special connections with a deity (Ibid.). Minoan priestesses apparently had the greatest power of all (Mitchell 2011).
As Marinatos claims, Minoan priests usually appeared in front of the public dressed as deities, which is well defined by the preserved frescoes (History Channel 1980s). Indeed, the Minoan art represents the mysterious world, where powerful priestesses performed strange and dangerous rituals (Mitchell 2011). Their task as it seems was to communicate with the gods, often through complex rituals in which saffron served as a hallucinogen (Ibid.). Like all ancient civilizations, the Minoans believed that their gods were present everywhere (Ibid.).
Deity was responsible for every natural phenomenon, from the birth of a child to earthquakes, from the seas to the mountain peaks (Mitchell 2011). And the ancient peoples seemed to treat them as flesh and blood figures. Minoan gods were not considered gentle and merciful beings, but rather impulsive and often vindictive (Ibid.). To obtain the favour of the gods sacrifices were made to them and rituals were a way for priests to know their desires (Ibid.). In many houses in the town, rich and colourful paintings reveal images of the Minoan spiritual life: priestesses paying homage to their gods, maids and youths depicted at different stages of their initiation (History Channel 1980s). Even the young man with his abundant catch of fish, archaeologists believe may be on his way to the sacrificial altar (Ibid.). But with time, the Minoan belief system had to begin to break down (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). It was due to the geological forces that contributed to the destruction of Thera and this glittering world sank in the chaos of the powers of nature (Ibid.).
Earth-shaker is getting furious
In the second millennium BC., Akrotiri was shaken by a violent earthquake but this was merely the beginning of the natural disaster and subsequently the collapse of the entire Minoan civilization (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). One of the most powerful Minoan gods was called ‘earth-shaker, also identified with Poseidon (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18; Mitchell 2011). As a deity, he was responsible for sea powers and earthquakes and for this reason he was particularly frightening (Ibid.). Structural damage discovered on Thera shows that just before the volcanic eruption there was an earthquake with magnitudes exceeding seven degrees on the Richter scale (0-9) (Mitchell 2011).
The buildings on Thera had been designed to withstand weaker shocks, which usually happened in that region (Mitchell 2011). The houses were therefore strengthened by a skeleton made of thick, wooden logs (Ibid.) However, that earthquake was strong enough to smash a stone staircase, as it is visible in ancient Akrotiri, and triggered a series of fatal events for the inhabitants of Thera (Ibid.).
Heralds of the coming disaster
Yet before the deciding earthquake came, the great eruption announced itself slowly and gradually (Wengler 2009). As the black mountain, the volcano was slowly coming to life (Ibid.). One of the first signals of volcano activity were hydrothermal explosions caused by heated groundwaters (Mitchell 2011). Boiling fountains of steam bursting from the sea were accompanied by the first tremors shaking the island (Wengler 2009). Sea quakes caused giant waves to form (Ibid.). These were the heralds of the coming disaster a few months ahead (Ibid.) A Minoan wall painting from the island of Santorini represents a giant wave and drowning people beneath it (Ibid.). Is this a portrayal of the events just before the eruption? (Ibid).
For over seventeen thousand years, the magma reservoir beneath the island’s surface was closed but recurring tremors kept deepening cracks and lava began to rise (Mitchell 2011). The rising magma was accompanied by the larger release of sulphurous vapours and other toxic gases (Ibid.). It was another sinister harbinger of the approaching eruption (Ibid.). Foul-smelling sulphurous vapoursemerged and spread (Wengler 2009).
Certainly, for the inhabitants of the island it became a race against time (Wengler 2009). According to archaeological research, the damage after the final earthquake was so severe that residents of Akrotiri had to leave their weakened homes and probably moved to temporary camps, in the hope that they would be able to return to their town soon (Mitchell 2011). “There is evidence [that] people [even] started to repair the damage, but before repairs were complete, another set of quakes hit the town. It appears people abandoned it then and left fairly quickly, as many belongings were [found in Akrotiri]” (Jensen 2018). Undoubtedly, the residents had tried to save whatever they could (Wengler 2009). Just before the eruption, they managed to gather food and water supply and other domestic equipment, but eventually, food jars and the beds tied together and ready to go had to be left behind (Ibid.). The excavations at Akrotiri has showed that while some houses were almost completely emptied before eruption (Ibid.), in others, precious belongings were found safely under the bed or wooden frame (Mitchell 2011). Houses’ doors were shut tight (Ibid.). When the mountain belched hot volcanic ash, for the Minoan islanders it was high time to leave their island (Wengler 2009). Experts believe the population got off Thera just in time; unlike in Pompeii, no trace of human remains have ever been found in Akrotiri (Wengler 2009; Jensen 2018). Yet nobody knows where they sailed to take refuge (Wengler 2009).
Stages of eruption
‘And suddenly [the volcano] exploded’, says Prof. Floyd McCoy, a geo-archaeologist (Lilley 2006). Thera was erupting (Ibid.). The vast volcano blasted ash, gas and rock up to into the stratosphere (Ibid.).
On Santorini, a team of geologists, volcanologists, botanists, archaeologists and physicists has regularly studied the site of the disaster (Wengler 2009). Evidence of the volcano power is all around the island (Lilley 2006; Mitchell 2011). There are deposits that are more than sixty metres deep in places (Lilley 2006). The scientists have made an attempt to reconstruct different stages of the Thera’s eruption (Ibid.). ‘There, in that cliffs face,’ Prof. Floyd McCoy points to the multicoloured high rock face on Santorini, ‘[there are] all four [visible] layers representing the four major faces of this huge dramatic eruption’ (Ibid.).
Following the final earthquake, the pressure of magma burst the rock, which for thousands of years had clogged the volcano funnel (Mitchell 2011). It was only a preview of an impending explosion (Ibid.). The volcano was only clearing its throat (Ibid.).
Earlier generations had already seen similar but minor eruptions and recognized them as signs from the gods (Mitchell 2011). These were signs whose understanding was the task of the priests (Ibid.). For the Minoans, there was no better way to satisfy threatening and unpredictable gods than through sacrifice (Ibid.). They performed such rituals in sanctuaries, high in the mountains, where they were physically closest to the gods (Ibid.). Twenty-three such places have been discovered in Crete itself, and in them the remains of thousands of clay figurines (Ibid.) Clay parts of the body were to heal the same human limbs, and animal figurines were to heal and protect livestock (Ibid.). In Minoan shrines, bones of animals have also been found, of goats, sheep, pigs and even bulls (Ibid.). Possibly blood sacrifice was considered the most powerful (Ibid.). The power of priests and priestesses depended on their ability to win the favour of the gods, but the forces released beneath Thera’s surface could not be stopped any more (Ibid.). Consequently, confidence in the powers of priests weakened, which eventually led to the collapse of Minoan social and religious systems (Ibid.).
From the earthquake to Plinian eruption
From the structure of volcanic sediments in the initial phase of eruption, the island was covered with bright ash (Mitchell 2011). It was enough to poison the sources of drinking water (Ibid.). But it was not the worst awaiting the people living on Thera (Ibid.). What distinguished this eruption from all others experienced so far by the inhabitants of the island was the interaction of two types of magma that triggered a catastrophic chemical reaction (Ibid.). This reaction spewed about a hundred and fifty billion tons of magma onto the surface and made the eruption the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world (Ibid.). Columns of glowing gas of ash and stones flew at over nine kilometres up into the stratosphere, forming a cloud shaped like an atomic mushroom (Ibid.). Consequently, large clouds of rubble and dust rose into the sky after the explosion (Ibid.). Their force can be compared to the detonation of a nuclear bomb (Ibid.). The sound of explosion must have been heard even in Egypt, and clouds of smoke have been seen from Crete after a few minutes (Ibid.).
Thera’s eruption has been called the Plinian, which is the most devastating of all (Mitchell 2011). “Plinian eruptions or Vesuvian eruptions are […] marked by their similarity to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eruption was described in a letter written by Pliny the Younger, after the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder” (“Plinian eruption” 2020). Hence its name. Such “eruptions are marked by columns of volcanic debris and hot gases ejected high into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. The key characteristics are ejection of large amount of pumice and very powerful continuous gas-driven eruptions” (Ibid.)
During the first four hours of Thera’s eruption, the volcano ejected five billion tons of magma from the crater (Mitchell 2011). The day turned into night, because volcanic dust began to cover the entire island (Ibid.). The cooling magma began to fall as pumice (Ibid.). These were small stones filled with air bubbles but deadly in such large quantities (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy points out to the cliffs on Santorini, saying that at this stage of the eruption, the first layer was created (Lilley 2006). ‘[It] is that brown [one] at the bottom. [This] granular brown layer that’s pumice. Pumice is frothy rock. It represents magma frozen in place, a frozen explosion’, he says (Ibid.).
But it was ash, not pumice stone, that posed the greatest threat (Mitchell 2011). Volcanic ashes are different from ordinary ones, as they contain silicone (Ibid.). Drawn into wet human lungs, volcanic ash turns into liquid cement (Ibid.). Breathing then is difficult and finally impossible (Ibid.). Although archaeologists have not found any human remains in Akrotiri, it is still possible some residents of the town could have been stopped on the island, imprisoned by subsequent deadly effects of the eruption, either in their contemporary camps (Ibid.), or elsewhere on the island. Some scholars estimate that in Thera’s case, there were probably only few survivors who had escaped the island (Mitchell 2011).
Pyroclastic flows and torrential rains
The layer on top of the pumice from the cross-section of the cliffs proves the real power of this mighty eruption (Lilley 2006). This is the ash left by pyroclastic flows (Ibid.). ‘Pyroclastic flows [are made by] hot gas material that comes up and flows laterally across the landscape, sometimes at supersonic speeds’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). These gases were forced out by massive explosions in the heart of the volcano, the caldera (Ibid.). But what caused these blasts? (Ibid.).
When the magma first erupted, it left behind a huge empty chamber (Lilley 2006). The surface above the chamber collapsed, creating a vast cavity (Ibid.). Then seawaters rushed into the expanding crater (Mitchell 2011; Lilley 2006). Upon contact with magma, the water turned into vapour, starting another wave of eruptions (Mitchell 2011). ‘Magma and water do not mix [but] create an explosion’, explains Prof. McCoy (Lilley 2006). ‘The entire Aegean Sea [was] pouring in this vent, mixing with new magma coming up and explosion was tremendous […] and from that [came] these pyroclastic flows’ (Ibid.).
The violent reaction of water with magma led to a phreatomagmatic eruptions (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that the sound pressure level of this explosion reached three hundred decibels (Ibid.). It was enough to burst the tympanic membrane of everyone within sixteen kilometres (Ibid.). Moreover, the power of this eruption threw rocks from the inside of the crater, turning them into deadly rockets – lava bombs (Ibid.). Such burning lumps of stone could reach the size of a small truck and weigh up to eight tons (Ibid.). As the crater widened, the pressure was pushing the column upwards (Ibid.). The gases and rocks forming it began to fall in all directions (Ibid.). Pyroclastic flows reached the speed of two hundred and ninety kilometres per hour and a temperature of seven hundred degrees (Ibid.). Finally, the sizzling wave of rocks fell into the sea, and when it made the water surface boil, it began to move even faster on the layer of hot steam (Ibid.). After the final monstrous pyroclastic flow, ten metres deposit of ash and pumice were left, which have eventually formed the third layer that the best demonstrates the awesome forces of this eruption (Lilley 2006).
And on their top Santorini cliffs are built of the final, fourth layer (Lilley 2006). ‘It started to rain’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Torrential rains came down and then all this loose ash and pumice on the surface started to move downslope. That’s what we call debris flows and then it was over’ (Ibid.).
What caused Thera eruption to be so far-reaching? (Masjum 2006). Thera sat on a string of volcanic islands straddling four plates (Ibid.). This convergence of plates creates the chain of volcanic islands and makes Thera eruption highly potent (Ibid.). Magma is formed when the African plate gets pushed beneath the Eurasian (Ibid.). The result is a gas rich and thick magma that erupts explosively (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy believes that the explosion was so loud that it could be heard throughout southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East (Ibid.).
More importantly, the blast has changed completely the shape of the land (Masjum 2006). Thousands years before the Minoan eruption, Santorini was believed to have joined as one island but after several eruptions the single island was blasted apart into smaller ones (Ibid.). At the time of the Minoans, the volcano was situated at the centre of these islands (Ibid.). When it erupted, it again changed the shape (Ibid.). When the centre of the volcano eventually collapsed, it formed a huge caldera (Ibid.). Today all that remains of the volcano is Nea Kameni, a tiny uninhabited island within the flooded Santorini caldera (Ibid.). With the birth of this new island the volcano is slowly rebuilding itself (Ibid.). Prof. McCoy claims that ‘over next twenty thousand years, this island is going to get larger and larger and then possibly it explodes again’ (Ibid.). ‘In the course of history of this volcano, an eruption repeats itself every twenty thousand years’, he explains (Ibid.).
Was the Thera eruption in the Bronze Age powerful enough to have destroyed the Minoans as well on Crete? (Lilley 2006).
Town under the ashes
Experts are only now learning the true scale of this disaster, which deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of Thera (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] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).
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).
Excavations on the island itself, 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).
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 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.).
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.).
‘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.).
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).
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 came archaeologists, such as Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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 fast around […] 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 and 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.).
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.).
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.).
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.).
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).
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 (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 same 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.).
‘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.).
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.
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.).
A major controversy
Dating the Thera’s eruption has become one of the major controversies in academic world.
“For more than two centuries archaeologists have refined the Bronze Age Mediterranean historical framework by observing the relative order of superimposed levels on a series of sites. Next, they established inter-site relationships based on common cultural characteristics – primarily in ceramics, art and architecture” (MacGillivray 2007:150). “Based on archaeological correlations between the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, the eruption of Santorini was believed to have occurred around 1500 BC., after the beginning of the New Kingdom in Egypt, [that is to say in the sixteenth century BC.]” (Ehrlich, Regev, Boaretto 2018). “The traditional date around 1500 BC. was first proposed in the 1930s by Marinatos. It has […] been challenged by a controversial new date of around 1600 BC., dividing prehistorians into two camps and generating heated debate” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).
Turning for help to ancient Egyptians
In 1980s, two scientists first disputed the archaeological dating (History Channel 1980s). These were the German geologists, H. Pichler and W. L. Friedrich who radiocarbon-dated the charcoal found in the volcanic rocks (Ibid.). According to the results they obtained, the eruption of the volcano took place around 1650 BC. (Ibid.). It would mean that Thera’s explosion was over one hundred years earlier than it was primarily thought (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). Accordingly, “the Minoans in [their] mature stages [would have been] contemporaries of the ‘Foreign Princes’ of Egypt’s Hyksos period, a century earlier than Hatshepsut’s reign in the historical chronology” (MacGillivray 2007:150).
In this case, some scholars turn for help to Egyptian texts, which “may give a clue to the absolute date [of Thera’s eruption” (MacGillivray 2007:159). And they find there interesting records, which may actually refer to the volcanic explosion and its devastating results. At the turning of the fifteenth century BC., “one of Hatshepsut’s best known dedications was the rock-cut temple to the lioness-goddess Pakhet, near Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. […] Here, Hatshepsut carved a very revealing account of herself and her deeds in that region over the architrave” (Ibid.:159). Some scholars interpret the text “as Hatshepsut sending braziers to her subjects driven by raging storms and total darkness into the temples” (Ibid.:159). One of her deeds “was to care for refugees who swarmed into Middle Egypt from the Nile delta because of the incursion of the sea there” (Ibid.:160). There is also another text from much later Ptolemaic period (third or second centuries BC.), but referring to the events having happened during the Eighteenth Dynasty (Ibid.:160). Namely, the words of an Egyptian scribe recall biblical descriptions of darkness covering the earth (Ibid.:160). “[He writes:] ‘there was no exit from the palace by the space of nine days. Now these days were in violence and tempest: none, whether god or man, could see the face of his fellow’. This nine-day period reads suspiciously like an Egyptian multiple of three, which meant ‘a long time’, and so refers to a lengthy period of storms and darkness” (Ibid.:160).
Additionally, there is also a very interesting writing on the fragmented stele, ascribed by some scholars to Ahmose, the pharaoh and founder of the Eighteen Dynasty in the middle of the sixteenth century (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006). ‘It records some tremendous catastrophe that happened to Egypt’, says Prof. Donald Redford, the archaeologist (Ibid.). ‘We aren’t quite clear what it was but it involved rain and thunder and lightening, such a storm that rarely happens in northeastern Africa. I mean that’s a dry area’ (Ibid.). For this reasons, the stele has been known as the Tempest or Storm Stele (“Tempest Stele” (2020). Apart from ravaging storms, it also confirms that Egypt was enveloped in darkness and that statues of its gods were toppled to the ground, which may have happened due to a sequence of severe earthquakes (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).
Such ancient records are usually pinpointed to the Eighteenth Dynasty, between the second part of the sixteenth and first part of the fifteenth century BC. But are these records dated correctly? If the stele had been really created by Ahmose and it talks about the Thera eruption, that would place it during the reign of the pharaoh, which is believed to have happened between 1550/49 and 1524 BC, or even twenty years earlier (MacGillivray 2007; “Ahmose I” 2020), which in turn, corresponds to the Late Minoan IA period (1600-1500 BC.). On the other side, Hatshepsut’s exact time of reigning is similarly unclear but usually estimated for the first half of the fifteenth century, sometimes between 1504-1483 or 1478-1458 BC. (MacGillivray 2007; “Hatshepsut” 2020), which mostly fell in the Late Minoan IB period (1500-1450 BC). If there are such discrepancies in dating the ruling of particular Egyptian kings, it is also highly probable some ancient texts are either wrongly ascribed (Ahmose’s stela refers just to a pharaoh, not Ahmose himself) or their date estimated incorrectly (Jacobovici, Cameron 2006).
Moving back to the seventeenth century BC., before Egypt’s consolidation by the Eighteenth Dynasty, it was the Egypt’s dark period (Wengler 2009). The kingdom of Egypt was split in two (Ibid.). The northern region (the Nile delta) was ruled by Hyksos, foreign invaders from Asia Minor (Ibid.). The time that followed brought economic decline and serious unrest (Ibid.) The rule of the Hyksos kings for long had reminded a trauma in the Egyptian minds (Ibid.). Did that period overlap with the volcano eruption on Thera?
Geologists make their way
For years now, doubts have been growing among scientists about the exact date of the eruption (Wengler 2009). On Santorini, colossal rocks were hurled through the air by the last great eruption of the Bronze Age (Ibid.).
Between these rocks, a geologist and student of Prof. Friedrich’s, Tom Pfeiffer, found in 2003 – as both geologists say – a critical evidence buried beneath the layers of lava (Wengler 2009; Volcano Discovery 2020). It was an olive branch of a tree smashed by Thera’s eruption (Wengler 2009). Around it, there were remains of olive leaves, twigs and olive stones, which signifies the tree was alive at the time of eruption (Ibid.). As it was an organic material, the remnants were carbon-dated (Ibid.). The moment, the olive branch died would mean the exact date of the volcanic eruption (Ibid.). Since the time of previous results, Prof. Friedrich obtained in 1980s, he has been convinced that the once accepted date of 1500 BC. for the eruption should be officially pushed back a hundred years (History Channel 1980s; Wengler 2009). He was sure that if the previous results had been confirmed by the results obtained by a recently found branch, the new timing would have been unchallengeable (Wengler 2009). Having conducted comparative tests, the geologists have received results confirming that the eruption took place in the seventeenth century BC. and not in the sixteenth century BC. or later (Ibid.). Accordingly, Santorini exploded somewhere between 1620 and 1600 BC (Ibid.). As Prof. Friedrich claims the confirmed date of the tree should have huge consequences for future research and for the understanding of ancient history in general (Ibid.).
Similar date has also been obtained by the soil specialist, Prof. Hendrik Bruins, who has studied Palaikastro’s deposits, which were accumulated by the tsunamis that had smashed the northern coast of Crete (Lilley 2006). He has radiocarbon-dated the cattle bone found on the beach in the deposit (Ibid.). According to the received results, the cattle bone comes from around 1600 BC. (Ibid.) For Prof. Bruins, who has been convinced that the Thera’s eruption took place around 1600 BC., it proves that the chaotic deposit is the result of the tsunami generated by the outbreak of the volcano (Ibid.). Thera’s eruption also produced “enormous volumes of ash and sulphuric acid aerosols which [usually] reduce atmospheric temperatures and may be detected in tree rings as years of slow growth” (Castleden 1998-2001:191). Forensic science and ancient records are also based on these dense clouds of ash across the Middle East and around the world (Westbrook 1995).
And they also pinpoint the years between 1628-1626 BC. to Thera’s eruption (Westbrook 1995). Although there is a difference of around thirty years between several independent studies, it is still the seventeenth century BC. they identify (Westbrook 1995; Castleden 1998-2001:191). Thera’s ash has also been found on the Nile, which is traced back to the same time period, like a fingerprint (Westbrook 1995). “An independent study of Irish bog oaks [has] revealed that 1628-1626 BC were very poor growth years. […] A search for acidity peaks in ice cores taken from the Greenland ice sheet failed to produce anything perceptible for 1500 BC., but revealed acidity peak for 1645 BC., which some eagerly identified as evidence of an early date for the Thera eruption” (Castleden 1998-2001:191).
Who is closer to the truth?
“In spite of the strenuous lobbying of a seventeenth-century BC. date, the evidence in its favour is inconclusive. To begin with, the eruptions are not the only cause of narrow tree rings: weather patterns vary for a great many reasons. […] From Thera itself comes a different kind of evidence. […] Some radiocarbon dates for the destruction level of Thera are too old for the […] eruption date. Charcoal from a Minoan hearth in the Athinios quarry in 1979 was dated to 1800 BC.; fava beans found in jug in Building 4 produced a date of 1700 BC. It has been claimed that [these] increasing numbers of radiocarbon dates favour the older date […] In fact, the average of over twenty radiocarbon dates from Akrotiri is 3200 BP, which rather calibrates to 1500 BC. (Castleden 1998-2001:191).
It is also worth to note that there can be some inaccuracies in standard carbon dating, leading to further mistakes in estimating an exact date for archaeological finds (Gorey 2018). “Research conducted by Cornell University [in 2018] could be about to throw the field of archaeology on its head with the claim that [due to] a number of inaccuracies in commonly accepted carbon dating standards, […] many of […] established historical timelines are thrown into question, potentially needing a re-write of the history books” (Ibid.).
In 2018, further attempts of dating have been conducted using tree rings.
According to University of Arizona-led research, “[new] analyses that [have used] tree rings could settle the long-standing debate about when the volcano Thera erupted by resolving discrepancies between archaeological and radiocarbon methods of dating the eruption, according to new research. […] ‘It’s about tying together a timeline of ancient Egypt, Greece, Turkey and the rest of the Mediterranean at this critical point in the ancient world – that’s what dating Thera can do’, said lead author Charlotte Pearson, an assistant professor of dendrochronology at the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. ‘What we can say now is that the radiocarbon evidence is compatible with the archaeological evidence for an eruption of Thera in the 16th century BC’, Pearson said” (Jensen 2018).
Is it a compromise?
The date of Thera volcanic eruption is regarded as crucial as it “has far reaching consequences in the archaeology of the Aegean, Egypt and the Levant, and the understanding of their interconnections” (Jensen 2018). This is why the fierce debate between the two camps, mainly between archaeologists and geologists has still been going on. Nevertheless, the UA Laboratory of Tree-Ring results have offered a provisional compromise.
“Archaeologists have estimated the eruption as occurring sometime between 1570 and 1500 BC by using human artifacts such as written records from Egypt and pottery retrieved from digs. Other researchers estimated the date of the eruption to about [1600-1650] BC. using measurements of radiocarbon, sometimes called carbon-14, from bits of trees, grains and legumes found just below the layer of volcanic ash. […] By using radiocarbon measurements from the annual rings of trees that lived at the time of the eruption, the UA-led team dates the eruption to someplace between 1600 and 1525” (Jensen 2018).
Although the results are more in favour of later dates for the eruption, as an estimated “time period overlaps with the 1570-1500 date range from the archaeological evidence” (Ibid.), the highest point of the same results points to the date of 1600 BC, also proposed by geologists.
If standard methods fail, scientists count on legends
With just few written records as their guide, scholars usually have no choice but to use legends as launching pads for their studies (Masjum 2006). ‘When volcanologists are trying to reconstruct an ancient eruption, [they] use everything [they] can, all the available data and certainly, there are a lot of collaboration between volcanologists, historians and archaeologists’, says Dr Rosaly Lopes Gaultier (Ibid.). ‘In Santorini, for example, it turned out to be a great collaboration because archaeologists can tell the things helping to date the eruption, while other scientists studying the volcano can tell more about the effects and sequence of events. So it ends up tying it all together. And you even look at legends and stories’ (Ibid.).
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). Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilisation is too heavy for their relaxing vacation. Soon they abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. Yet, endowed with natural grandeur, the Aegean islands 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.
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Among art works preserved in the Condé Museum in Chantilly, in France, there is a lavishly illuminated and decorated manuscript created at the beginning of the fifteenth century. Commonly known from French as Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry[The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry], the bookcontains undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and important cycle of Gothic miniatures shaped by the Late Middle Ages (Żylińska 1986:236; Białostocki 2008:213).
The Limbourg Brothers and the Duke of Berry
It is believed that the medieval masterpiece was produced by the three Limbourg brothers who came from the Low Countries. The authorship of the Book of Hours is also ascribed to other great contemporary illuminators, namely Barthélemy d’Eyck and Jean Colombe, who successively illuminated the manuscript after the death of the Limbourg, in the years between 1440s and 1480s (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). As a matter of fact, it took a number of skillful craftsmen to produce a manuscript of that kind. (Husband, Cambell 2010). The writing, the calligraphy and the text was done by scribes (Ibid.). Somebody else did the decorating of the letters, the line enders and all the decorations within the text (Ibid.). Yet other craftsmen did all the rest of the borders (Ibid.).
As the name of the book indicates, the manuscript was commissioned by a well-known great patron of the arts Jean, Duke of Berry. Although he had already owned a few books of such kind, he was always eager to get involved in a new ambitious project. (Secomska 1972:14-25; Husband, Cambell 2010). One can almost envisage the Duke flicking through his precious books by candlelight, savouring their charming illuminations (Husband, Cambell 2010). One of his other famous manuscripts, the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was also painted by the brothers Limbourg, between 1405 and 1409 (Ibid.). What makes the manuscript really unique among other Books of Hours is that it consists of seven inserted “story-like cycles that read like picture books” (“Belles Heures …” 2018; see Husband, Cambell 2010). They are devoted to saints, particularly venerated by the Valois princes, and to other important historical moments in Christianity (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Each section of the Belle Heures is customized to the personal wishes of its patron” (“Belles Heures …” 2018) and the Duke’s ownership of the book is indicated by representations of his coat of arms and personal emblems, namely the swans and bears, in each elaborate border of its pages (Husband, Cambell 2010). “Along with the Très Riches Heures, […] the Belles Heures ranks among the great masterpieces of the Middle Ages. The manuscript is now in The Cloisters in New York (“Belles Heures …” 2018).
The Very Rich Book of Hours was painted by the Limbourg between circa 1412 and 1416 but eventually, the manuscript could not be finished by the three brothers who died, as their patron, in 1416 (“Très Riches Heures …” 2020). In 1856, the masterpiece was acquired by the Duke of Aumale and now it is preserved as the MS 65 in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France (Ibid.).
BOOK OF HOURS A book of prayers to be said at the canonical Hours, intended for a lay person’s private devotion (e.g. Hours of the Blessed Virgin). Popular in the Late Middle Ages and often containing rich ILLUMINATION.
Books of Hours were used as prayer books that developed in late medieval Europe World (Digital Library 2017). Although they were made for the wealthy laity and so were used for private devotion, it had been based on the books used by the clergy but much simplified (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010). Accordingly, they were devotional manuals used as personal prayer books; usually beautifully covered in jewels and with a silver fastening (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213). Sometimes they open with a portrait of an owner and of their patron saint (Ibid.).
Books of Hours universally include a register of Church feasts together with multiple texts of everyday prayers (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Digital Library 2017). The text is accompanied by rich miniature cycles, representing the Christian iconography characteristic of the Middle Ages, such as the Annunciation, Nativity, the Three Wise Men, the Life of Christ, the Virgin, various Saints, and sometimes also scenes depicting episodes of the Old Testament (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).
One of the most dominant and significant parts of Book of Hours, particularly in the case of the Très Riches Heures, is unquestionably a multi-coloured calendar year with vibrantly dynamic miniatures (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).
Owning such a manuscript was also a way for wealthy individuals to establish a more direct relationship with God than exclusively through the Church, and in particular to express a more personal prayer to the Virgin Mary for at the core of each Book of Hours, there are the “Hours of the Virgin” (World Digital Library 2017; Husband, Cambell 2010).
Art of Luxury
The Reign of Saint Louis the Ninth in France (1226-1270) was the very peak for medieval illumination being developed mainly in Paris. Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, describes the moment while he meets the most famous illuminator of his times in Purgatory and pays honour to this art (Pijoan 2006:56), which “is in Paris called illuminating” (Alighieri: CantoX:79).
ILLUMINATION The illustrations and book decorations found in medieval and later manuscripts, usually painted in GOUACHE or TEMPERA with gold highlights – hence the name. Synonym of ILLUMINATION – MINIATURE.
Not only the Bible and canonical books were decorated at that time – like in the Carolingian epoch – but there were also various texts, psalters and prayer books for a personal use. The most characteristic books of the times of Philip August and Louis IX were definitely psalters illuminated with two kinds of miniatures. Some in their forms imitating stained glasses cover the pages in circles, within which various episodes are told; in others, the entire compositions of scenes are enclosed in an intricate frame of Gothic architectural motifs: pinnacles, rosettes, roofs and arcades with flying buttresses (Pijoan 2006:56).
After a thousand years, non-religious themes in art had reappeared and the Limbourg brothers painted the Duke’s properties: castles, lands and peasants (Beckett 1996). Towers, battlements, pinnacles – a castle seems the main witness to events illustrated by the Limbourg brothers and the Duke of Berry actually owned seventeen castles (Ibid.). Regrettably, not much original architecture depicted has been preserved; some of the examples painted by the artists that survived to our times are the castle of Saumur by the River Loire (Ibid.), the castle of Vincennes to the east of Paris, and St. Chapelle on the Île de la Cité.
As the artwork commissioned by the Duke of Berry, his Very RichBook of Hours also “celebrates the luxuries and sophistication of court life. Partially, it was designed to delight, flatter and amuse the patron” (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).
European Courts of the Late Middle Ages
The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry was created in the Late Middle Ages where the world of art was becoming smaller (Beckett 1996). Artists were travelling and meeting one another (Ibid.). Consequently, the so-called international style had been born (Ibid.).
In the span of the years 1320-1420, royal and duke’s courts, mainly of Paris, Berry, Dijon, Burgundy and Low Countries, started to witness an unusual florescence of miniature painting within contemporary manuscripts. In the fourteenth century, together with a transformation of the feudal society hierarchical structure and a formation of a new social stratum, namely the rich intellectuals, a considerable need for a decorated book substantially increased. In about one hundred years the same need would result in the invention of the printing press, which rapid development consequently brought the end to the illuminated manuscript (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).
In the heyday of the medieval handwritten book, there was also a rapid artistic growth of illustrations within its frame. With the development of a medieval image in wooden panel paintings, the illustration had also flourished on parchment or vellum used for miniatures and illuminated manuscripts, particularly lavishly in prayers books of hours, called in French, livres d’heures. Their rich and intricate decorations at the time constituted a manifestation of a luxury and personal wealth, and even satisfied snobbery (Pijoan 2006:56-57; Białostocki 2008:211-213).
Calendar in Medieval Art aka Labours of the Months
Life at the Duke’s Court is the subject of the secular scenes that portray the seasons (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). “The pictorial calendar convention […] has a very long history and a very wide circulation” (Henisch 1999:vii). In Western Europe its origins date back to “the ninth century onwards; by the twelve century it had become firmly established, and was to grow especially strong and popular in France, Italy, England and Flanders” (Ibid.:5). Medieval calendar year not only was represented on sheet of vellum inside devotional books but also designed by skillful artists in wood, stone, glass, and woven into mosaics, most universally, however, used in the magnificent sculpture of Gothic cathedrals (Henisch 1999:4; Białostocki 2008:211-213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69).
Wherever it is depicted, and irrespective of small deviations in its details, the calendar pattern always consists of twenty-four scenes. Twelve of them stands for each month of the year. Correspondingly, they unfold tasks, popular occupations at the countryside, detailed scenery landmarks, and all other features characteristic of a given month (Henisch 1999:vii-3; Białostocki 2008:213; Cerinotti 2009:68-69). The successive months of the year chase one another like shifting scenes in a wheel of a vibrant kaleidoscope, “and each of these represents one stage in the never-ending process of providing food for society” (Henisch 1999:vii). Hence the medieval calendar year is also known as the “labours cycle” or the “Labours of the Months” (Ibid.:vii).
“As the year unfolds, each season has its own character and concerns. The winter months are spent indoors, in feasting and keeping warm by the fire. In the early work spring begins on the land, getting it ready to yield the best crops in the months ahead. At spring’s high tide, in April and May, there is a pause to celebrate the new life bursting out of the ground, the vigor and vitality coursing through the world’s veins. After the joy, the hard work starts again. June, July, and August are dominated by the raking of hay, the reaping of wheat, and the threshing of grain. In September, attention turns to the grape harvest and the making of wine. In the late autumn fields are plowed and seed in sown, for next year’s food supply, and animals are fattened and killed, to make sure there is plenty to enjoy when the year swings around once more to the time for feasting by the fireside.”
The overall pattern of the monthly labours inscribed in the framework of the calendar was thoroughly set up, conventionally repeated by artists throughout centuries, and therefore recognized elsewhere by the medieval mind (Henisch 1999:3-7).
“Little jingles, [usually chanted by children] – like the following, copied down in mid-fifteenth century England – also served to make the general plan well known and easy to remember” (Henisch 1999:3).
“January: By thys fyre I warme my handys
Februar: And with my spade I delfe my landys.
Marche: Here I sette my thynge to sprynge;
Aprile: And here I here [hear] the fowlis synge.
Maij: I am as light as byrde in bowe;
Junij: And I wede my corne well I-know [enough].
Julij: With my sythe [scythe] my mede [meadow] I mawe [mow];
Auguste: And here I shere my corne full lowe.
September: With my flyll I erne my brede:
October: And here I sawe [sow] my whete so rede.
November: At Martynessmasse I kylle my swine;
December: And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne” (Henisch 1999:3)
From Labours of the Months to the Cycle of Occupations
LABOURS OF THE MONTHS A series of twelve scenes, one for each month, each showing a different country occupation, and usually accompanied by the appropriate sign of the zodiac. Found in medieval sculpture and STAINED GLASS and often in the calendar of the BOOK OF HOURS decorated with ILLUMINATION.
By the end of the epoch in question, however, a set of the illustrations – traditionally called the Labours of the Months – had become more often known as “a cycle of occupations than labors” (Henisch 1999:7). It was because instead of duties people usually carried out in due seasons, artists started to illustrate seasonal activities and pleasures the contemporary society themselves indulged in with a full engagement and fantasy (Ibid.:7) “from snowball fights in December to boating parties in May” (Ibid.:7).
Signs of the Zodiac
In the medieval calendar the twelve scenes of the Labours or Occupations of the Months are always matched pair with the remaining twelve scenes representing each month’s principal zodiac sign (Henisch 1999:vii-3). It is because every month is identified with a certain planet and the divine power, an influence of which was believed to be very present in the world of nature and human disposition (Battistini 2005:47). In view of that, “the occupation scene for each month is usually linked in some way with the month’s zodiac sign, whose familiar emblem helps to pinpoint the position of each activity of the year’s map” (Henisch 1999:2). Just as it is illustrated by the cycle of stained glass scenes depicted in the Cathedral of Chartres in France (below), where a particular zodiac sign on the right is ascribe to each of monthly human occupations on the left (Slides 1-9 from Frame Pool 1996).
“January – Aquarius, the Water Carrier,
February – Pisces, the Fish,
March – Aries, the Ram,
April – Taurus, the Bull,
May – Gemini, the Twins,
June – Cancer, the Crab,
July – Leo, the Lion,
August – Virgo, the Maiden,
September – Libra, the Scales,
October – Scorpio, the Scorpion,
November – Sagittarius, the Archer,
December – Capricorn, the Goat” (Henisch 1999:2-3).
In the Very Rich Book of Hours of the Duke of Berry, the zodiac signs depicted at the top of the page tract the cycle of months represented below (Prof. Elizabeth 2019).
Long Ancient Tradition Inscribed in the Medieval Iconography
As the tradition goes, the zodiac signs were first of all to represent the endless, subsequent cycle of the passing time. Still they also gave the evidence of a close and harmonious relation between human activities and the movements of heavenly bodies in the sky. Their origins reach the ancient civilizations, such as of Egypt, China, Persia, and India. The zodiac was then adapted by the Christianity on the way of the religious syncretism, to eventually find its central place in the medieval iconography, where it was linked to twelve labours depictions characterizing twelve months of the year. As it was said above, the calendar year was being commonly worked out in the stones of Gothic cathedrals where, like in the late medieval illuminations, the zodiac signs correspond to human occupations (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).
Accordingly, while the sign of Aries, the Ram is joined with March’s activity of trimming the Vines, Libra, the Scales illustrates a grape picking in September (Maye, Stones 2009). Sometimes, the zodiac signs are placed in a tympanum semicircle, surrounding the figure of Christ; in this case they show a close connection between the earth and the Heavens, people and God, and so they illustrate that the actual order of the Creation and events on the earth meets the order imposed by the Creator (Cerinotti 2009:68-69).
“The zodiac is the narrow pathway across the sky, in which the sun, the moon and the principal planets seem to move throughout the year. It is divided into twelve equal sections, or signs, each named after a constellation, whose position once, long ago lay within it. The sun passes through one of these sections each month, as it makes its progress from one year’s end to the next. Because the sun was all-important in the life of men and women, its movement was studied with the greatest attention, and it was only natural and fitting, that the twelve divisions of the calendar should be marked with the zodiac signs, as reminders of the sun’s journey through the sky, as well as with the scenes that show the round of labors needed to sustain society on the earth below.”
Square and Cycle Intertwined
The zodiac signs and labours of the medieval calendar many a time were represented as scenes inscribed in the forms of cycles (medallions or quatrefoils). A cycle – an ideal geometrical figure – was believed to have been created to reflect the perfection of God. Correspondingly, its shape incorporated into art assured the balance of the universe, and so regulated the cycle of life (Cerinotti 2009:68-69). In this context, the shape of a square on the other side stands for the earthly world and human sphere of influence. Not without reason these two geometrical figures predominate in the calendar illuminations of the Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. The entire composition of the calendar including two scenes is thus divided into two geometrical zones: at the bottom of the framework there is a square-shaped image of human labours, whereas at the top – a semi-circular forms with zodiac signs and the symbols of the planets (Białostocki 2008:213). In each of the zodiac spheres, there is additionally a representation of “the Greek deity Apollo who rides his [heavenly] chariot while carrying the Sun across the sky (Prof. Elizabeth 2019). Such an illustration referring to the ancient tradition not only introduces a divine element in the human everyday life but also it is a sing of the coming Renaissance.
The overall set of illustrations in the Book of Hours successfully “depicts the year as a round of seasonal activities on the land, […] almost always drawn from the countryside and the farm, [which sequence] represents the annual, endlessly repeated cycle of necessary, basic tasks which put food on the table” (Henisch 1999:vii,1-2). On the other side, all the human occupations framed in the squares are regulated by the divine element above – the earthly world of a human being inscribed into the sphere and order of God.
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Yet before I started my studies of art history I had got problems to accurately recognize a technique applied by artists in processes of mural painting. Although people generally describe wall paintings simply with the term of frescoes, it may not be technically correct for all of them (Jaspal 2007). Then I actually realized that even scholars may happen to misuse the term, especially in case of controversial examples, whose technique has been always strongly debated.
But let’s start from the beginning
When we talk about wall paintings or murals (Latin murus) we mean paintings done on the walls (Somathilake 2007:109). In the context of techniques of murals, we can specify:
AL FRESCO (It. ‘fresh’) True fresco (buon affresco, as distinct from fresco secco), is painting done with mineral or earth pigments upon wet lime or gypsum PLASTER. (Vegetable pigments cannot be used as they are attacked by the lime). The pigments are suspended in water, and unite with the plaster as they dry. The basis is a roughcast wall, covered with a layer of plaster (the arricciato), on which the composition (the synopia) is sketched out in charcoal and sinopia. Only enough wet plaster (the intonaco) is then applied for a day’s work. Any additional retouching must be done in fresco secco.
AL SECCO (It. ‘dry’), fresco secco (It. ‘dry fresco’) Painting which, unlike true FRESCO, is carried out on plaster which has already dried. It can be done in TEMPERA, or with PIGMENTS in a MEDIUM of lime-water. In the latter case, the surface is dampened before applying the paint. The results are less durable than true fresco.
Al Fresco – from the Antiquity to Renaissance
AL FRESCO (fresh in Italian) indicates fresh or
wet ground, and FRESCO BUONO (true fresco) is made using a
genuine wet ground (Somathilake 2007:109). Although al fresco had been
already practiced by ancient civilisations, the technique called fresco
buono (or buon fresco) was first perfected in Italy, around 1300, on
the verge of Renaissance (Ibid.:110).
“The technique [actually] involves the most
durable form of art known to Europe where a piece of painting must be completed
on a wet and freshly laid stucco ground before another piece of plaster is
prepared” (Somathilake 2007:113). In this method pigments are mixed with water
only (Lucie-Smith 2003:96). In a fresco technique, “no binder is required to be
added to the mineral pigments that are applied because the chemical reaction of
the wet plaster with the carbon dioxide in the air creates a hard layer of
calcium carbonate and the pigments are securely fixed in the calcium carbonate
layer while drying” (Jaspal 2007).
Accordingly, the method “consists of painting with
lime-resistant pigments (only pigments which do not suffer from lime can be
used) on damp lime plaster, which has not yet set. In this process as the
plaster can only be painted on once it is wet, the painter divides his work in the
so-called ‘day-pieces’, each piece day being the area, which he can finish [daily]”
(Somathilake 2007:113). “In this rapid process, the parts of the plastered
portion that have not been painted yet need to be cut away at the end of [work]”
(Dhanapala:65). When the artists comes back to painting, the surface is
plastered to keep it damp (Ibid.). “Thus in true fresco nothing can be
added or altered after the plaster has set. This time factor gives fresco
painting an extraordinary vitality as it means that the brushwork must be
quick, the forms monumental and the range of colours limited”(Somathilake
“In addition, when the plaster sets, the particles of colours crystallise into the wall and remain permanently fused in it. They cannot flake off. […] The fresco can only be damaged if the wall decays. (…) The relevant plaster layers must therefore be very carefully built up” (Ibid.).
The technique of Al Secco and Tempera
Fresco secco actually indicates any dry technique of murals, including tempera. Here, “the whole wall or rock surface may be completely plastered and allowed to dry” (Dhanapala:65). The main aspect of this method, involves then painting on lime plaster which already has set (Somathilake 2007:113). The technique al secco was commonly applied in antiquity (Somathilake 2007:113). In its process, “the pigments were ground in an aqueous binding medium. The completely dry lime plaster wall is usually thoroughly saturated with lime water (or baryta water) and left overnight. The painting then takes place on a moist surface as in fresco, except that the colours are mixed with a solution of casein glue or egg yolk [- tempera], instead of being ground in water only” (Ibid.). Painting in fresco secco “are also quite stable, but susceptible to damage by moisture and dampness. Yet, as they are done on dry plaster, there is no stress of the time deadline” (Jaspal 2007). This technique has always complemented the fresco method, when alterations were needed. These are usually referred to as superficial, upper layers (ibid.).
TEMPERA (It. fr. Lat. temperare, ‘to mix in due proportion’). An EMULSION used as a MEDIUM for PIGMENT. Traditionally, tempera is made with whole eggs or egg-yolk, but milk, various kinds of glue or gum or even dandelion juice or the sap of the fig-tree can be used.
In other words, the pigment used is mixed with some liquid vehicle, such as egg-yolk, diluted glue or gum, chalk, clay, gelatine, etc. (Somathilake 2007:109-110,112,120). Next it is laid on a dry surface. After Somathilake (2007:120), however, true tempera is when the colours are ground with egg yolk only. Another characteristics typical of tempera are rather opaque colours in paintings, whereas in the true fresco technique, colours are subdued and their choice is limited (Dhanapala:67).
It is important to note that tempera in al secco technique is exclusively used in wall paintings, when a painting is applied directly on plaster (the latter is applied first on the wall or rock’s surface). Tempera, however, can also be executed on the wood (e.g. fayum portraits), vellum (e.g. The Beautiful Hours of Jean de France, Duc de Berry), paper (Funerary Equipment, Tomb Of Userhat), canvas (paintings in the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie in Gondar), etc.
Major difference between the techniques
Accordingly, the main difference in these two methods is that in the fresco the pigments are strongly bound within the plaster and so are united with the surface, while in al secco the pigments are applied as layers on top of the plaster surface (Dhanapala:65; Somathilake 2007:114).
Controversy in the matter of the Technique of Murals in South Asia
Controversy regarding a recognition of a correct technique of murals mainly appears in an analysis of paintings from South Asia, precisely Ajanta (India) and Sigiriya (Sri Lanka). Let’s call them simply paintings. The paintings of Ajanta Caves and of Sigiriya rock are said to have been created between the fifth and seventh centuries (Dalrymple 2014; De Silva 2019). Most of experts have already reached a consensus that the so-called Ajanta ‘frescoes’ are actually paintings made by means of some kind of tempera, which actually amounted to the title of al secco as their pigments had been applied to dried plaster (Somathilake 2007:120). Nevertheless, the case of Sigiriya still keeps the scholars awake.
Differences between murals of Ajanta and Sigiriya
One of Sri Lankan authors, D.B Dhanapala heatedly states that even “most authorities incline to the opinion that [Sigiriya paintings] are tempera in technique, [their] reasoning seems to be this wise: ‘[the] Sigiriya pictures bear a close affinity to those at Ajanta. [As the latter] have been proved to be tempera paintings, therefore the Sigiriya figures are tempera [too]!” (Ibid.:64).
There are several aspects of murals that can be actually examined in order to decide on a technique applied: characteristics of the ground (plaster), the presence of medium and its nature (Somathilake 2007:119).
As it is discussed above, a medium binder has been ultimately used in al secco technique, usually by means of tempera. The universally accepted classification of paintings, such as oil, watercolour, tempera, fresco etc. is generally formulated based on the medium (binder) used (Ibid.). Unfortunately, the binding medium in India and Sri Lanka is said to have largely perished due to autoxidation and the depredations by insect-pests (Ibid.:119-120). Hence there is an issue of identifying the presence of the binder even through chemical analysis, which factually stands in the way of coming to a definite conclusion (Ibid.:120).
Dr. Somathilake (2007:120,123), however, underlines that “in many murals [vegetable glue or gum] was the only organic binding medium that held the pigments firmly to the ground unlike in the fresco method. Thus, all these facts would definitely point to a tempera technique at Ajanta and elsewhere.” The binding components of the Sigiriya pigments are said to be a vegetable gum and a drying oil, which is insoluble in water (Ibid.:124). Probably, this is why the murals, which were exposed to the elements for centuries, have eventually survived to our times (Ibid.). From literary documents, we also know that ancient artists of Sri Lanka were familiar with a technique of using an oil medium for wall paintings (Ibid.)“and there was an apparent reason for using [it] since almost all of the murals were located outdoor, unlike the painting sites of India” (Ibid.).
Ground for the murals
In further examination, Dhanapala also analyses the ground for the murals in both cases, Ajanta and Sigiriya. The proper thickness and composition of the plaster at Sigiriya, unlike Ajanta’s thin surface, was actually more prepared for the technique of true fresco (Dhanapala:65-66). Moreover, artists working in Ajanta Caves must have worked in dimly-lit halls (Ibid.:66)(the way they actually let the light in is another mystery) and so they probably were not able to complete such intricate compositions, as Ajanta boasts, before the plaster got dry (Ibid.). Sigiriya’s painting have got more simple compositions and they are located in the open rock pocket, where strong sunlight has been available (Ibid.) (a separate question is how the artists actually managed to paint on the rock surface, while being suspended at the height of over 50 meters above the ground (Kovalsky, V. 2013).
Furthermore, the author observes that in case of Ajanta, the scenes are overpainted in many scenes, whereas at Sigiriya, there are only few examples of overcoating (Dhanapala:67). In comparison to Ajanta, where colours are deeper and their palette wider, at Sigiriya the pigments are much thinner and so subdued, and they are restricted to mainly red, yellow, green and black (Dhanapala:67; Somathilake 2007:121,123). Although there are small areas of more intense green and blue, the author suggests, they may have been later additions completed in tempera (Dhanapala:67). Dr. Somathilake (2007:121), however, argues that although the blue pigment was not actually used as much as the other colours, it is evident that the green was originally applied in Sigiriya murals and so it was not a later addition. He also underlines that all the pigments used were of natural origins. In a fact, organic pigments were typical of both, fresco and tempera techniques.
Besides, Dhanapala points out to the fact that the pigments in tempera have got a tendency to peel off on the plaster, which happens at Ajanta but does not occur at Sigiriya (Dhanapala:67). Even though the plaster comes off in Sigiriya murals, the pigments stay strongly incorporated in its structure (Ibid.:68). And if paint peels off, it appears only on surfaces, which were later altered in tempera (Ibid.).
Sigiriya woman with two hands
Dhanapala then puts forward another argument to support his thesis. In the figure no. 8 of the pocket B, behind the woman’s right hand, which was altered, there is an outline of the original hand visible in the plaster (Dhanapala:67).
Dhanapala came to the conclusion that the artist changed his mind about how the woman’s hand should be actually depicted “but before he had time to erase the original hand the plaster dried” (Ibid.). Dr. Somathilake responds to Dhanapala’s argument claiming that an examination of the painting does not show any attempts to erase the contour of the original hand (Somathilake 2007:120-121). Moreover, if the plaster had dried before the artist had time to erase the hand, he would not have enough time to finish the hand in the altered position (Ibid.). Simultaneously, the scholar assumes that both: the original version and its alteration would have been done in fresco. There is another option though. The original woman’s hand may have been made in a true fresco technique, and later her hand was altered with a tempera technique. That would actually explain how the artist had enough time to finish the altered version and also why his original idea was still visible in the plaster.
In his conclusion, Dhanapala sustains his arguments and claims Sigiriya murals were originally made as real frescoes (Ibid.:68). On the other side, such authorities, as Dr. Somathilake, strongly disagree with that opinion and argue that using the term ‘frescoes’ in terms of Ajanta or Sigiriya murals “is a misnomer in every sense” (Somathilake 2007:124). Further, they emphasize that there is no evidence that the Asian wall paintings are real frescoes (Ibid.), and “the general technique of the murals of India and Sri Lanka has always been some kind of tempera” (Ibid.). On the other side, there are scholars who have reached the compromise in that hotly debate and they believe that a technique applied in Ajanta and Sigiriya may be actually a combination of real fresco with tempera (see Somathilake 2007).
“No known process …”
Finally, it is also worth to quote another scholar, Havel (1905) whose words have become prominent for many researchers investigating the matter of Sigiriya’s murals (Dhanapala:66).
“There is no known process of tempera or oil painting which would stand to exposure of tropical weather for nearly fifteen hundred years as the Sigiriya paintings have done.”
Havel (1905). In: Dhanapala:66.
We can also conclude that, like many aspects of Sigiriya site (see: In the Realm of Demon Ravana), also the question of its paintings (aka frescoes) still remains unsolved, not only in terms of their technique of painting but also regarding the way they were executed, iconographically represented, and the purpose they were made for at all.
Image: “Decorated prayer niche” (Saqqara, Monastery of St. Jeremiah) (2020) In: Coptic Cairo. The Coptic Museum. Available at <https://bit.ly/2uJZQq0>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].
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De Silva, R. (2019) “The Sigiriya Ladies: Who
were they, why were they painted?” Available at <https://bit.ly/388vTxC>. [Accessed on 26th
Debutante D. (aka Jeanne), Cator J. (2020) “Frescoes at Sigiriya” In: Findery. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T90uXi>. [Accessed on 29th February, 2020].
Dhanapala, D.B. (Date is not provided) A Short Note on the Technique of the Sigiriya Pictures. University of Ceylon Review, pp. 64-68.
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One of the world’s greatest museums is situated in Turin, in the north of Italy. It is the only museum other than Cairo’s wholly dedicated to Egyptian art and archaeology. Among multiplied and various artifacts exposed there, I would like to pay your attention to one small and a very fragile object of the size of 20 x 15 cm. It’s a painting, or more precisely a drawing on a limestone ostracon representing an Egyptian young girl caught in an acrobatic position. An ostracon itself is a potsherd, usually used as a writing or painting surface. At that time it may have served as a scratchpad.
An Acrobatic Somersault
The object comes from the ancient Egyptian village, Deir el-Medina, dating back to the period of the New Kingdom (between 16th and the 11th century BC). For over four centuries, Deir el-Medina had been home to highly skilled architects, temples and tombs builders, artists and various craftsmen staying in the service of the pharaoh. Thy lived there with their families but usually spent the entire week at work in the Valley of the Kings and Queens. A village artists must have been an author of the drawing probably representing one of girls living in the same community. Village women also served to the pharaoh but as dancers and singers in local temples. Egyptian Dancers played an important role in ancient Egypt. Not only was dancing a form of entertainment but it was mainly associated with religious ceremonies.
The depicted girl is a dancer. She is naked, except for a short black kilt with a decorative patterns on it and circular earrings of gold. The girl is probably performing an acrobatic somersault of a ritual dance. The artist is believed to have drawn first the body and then the head by rotation of the ostracon to a position where the profile could be done in the usual way. After a historian of art, William H. Peck, this way of making the drawing is suggested by the placement of the earring in defiance of the laws of gravity, and a rather unnatural way in which the neck was joined with the shoulders, with strongly elongated arms and legs. Also the shape of the dancer’s breast seemed to be sketched as if the artist imagined a woman’s torso in a standing position.
Egyptian style of art
Creating all the elements of the entire scene separately was very characteristic of Egyptian style of art. It is like in a case of a child drawing an object without a three-dimensional perspective, but in a way the object is perceived from their position of watching, with its major characteristics. Looking down on a puddle, they can see its shape and what is inside, but when they observe a tree, they see it in its vertical form, and not from the above (which is not possible without flying over the trees!). Now they put all these observed elements together, on one piece of paper and they receive a similar stylistically incoherent whole, created once by ancient Egyptians.
Crescent of the Goddess Nut
Representation of the Woman Dancer seems slightly naive, yet it is very subtle and graceful in its form, depicted with a great skill and imagination. The artistic quality of the design is exceptional and erotically charged. The bare-breasted female is bending nearly over reaching the floor with her stretched arms and despite the drawing’ simplicity, the young woman seems extremely flexible. You may have an impression she has been caught in a nimble and swift dance at the sound of vibrant music.
Her curly long hair touches the ground as her body is bending in a deep bow. As the author, Patrick Hunt has noticed, the Dancer’s pose looks like a reversal of the sky goddess Nut in her downward earth-nourishing bend. Nut connects the earth with the sky, and according to the Heliopolis beliefs, the goddess touches the ground only with the tips of her hands and fingers. Simultaneously, her body covered in stars takes the shape of a semi-circle, which immediately evokes a crescent and its associations with femininity.
Voices of Common Egyptians
Female dancers are usually depicted on tomb walls and temple walls. They are represented nearly naked with golden belts around their waits and collars around their necks. They are wearing jangling bracelets on arms, big earrings, and wings, unlike our Dancer from Deir el Medina who is represented with her natural hair. All of them are caught in various poses – in profile, in three-quarter profile and even en face, free from being frozen in a hieratic posture of the upper class. They seem simply comfortable and full of life.
I came across the Female Dancer drawing while studying for an exam in first year of studies of History of Art. It caught my eye from the very first moment, maybe because it was not created for formal purposes but probably for pleasure or training as a sketch. I don’t know why the artist chose to draw a dancing woman but its work tells a story of simple people who lived once in Egypt.
‘On the outskirts of Deir el-Medina, the villagers once had attempted to find a water source’, explains Joann Fletcher, an Egyptologist. ‘They dug down and eventually they reached more than fifty meters. They wanted to become self-sufficient in water but sadly for them they never did, and what the pit did become was a community dump, and as such became a mine of information. And when this pit and its surroundings were excavated by archaeologists, they made some remarkable discoveries, and the ostracon with the drawing was one of the findings among thousands of these pieces of pottery and stone: some with painted pictures, many with words giving us the real history of the village. These are their notes, reminders, love songs, laundry list, the very voices of common Egyptians.’
After a week of travelling around Mexico, from Yucatan and Chiapas State, and through Tabasco to Oaxaca, I experienced a special magic and a variety of cultures of the country, felt by Mexicans and foreigners alike.
Around 4000 recorded archaeological sites …
The state of Oaxaca is a mountainous area broken by wide fertile valleys and it represents one of the bastions of indigenous cultures having been developed for thousand of years in Mesoamerica. Apart from the country’s most energetic and colourful festivals, various arts, well-developed crafts, delicious cuisine and vibrant colonial architecture of the capital, the region also boasts a number of pre-Columbian sites and artefacts left behind by mysterious peoples.
There are around 4000 recorded archaeological sites in Oaxaca, mostly known as settlements of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, occupied up until the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century. The all sites differ in time and characteristics, however, all include a mystery: Lambityeco and Zaachila have got interesting tombs, Dainzú and Yagul – important ball game courts, and San José el Mogote is said to be one of the most ancient settlements in Oaxaca. Among all, though, Monte Álban and Mitla were two of the most important.
‘Place of the Rest’
Mitla is located about an hour drive from Oaxaca City and it was presumably the main religious center of the region. The word Mitla itself comes from Mictlan, the name for the ‘underworld’ or the ‘place of rest’ in Zapotec, the language which is still relatively widely spoken, especially in villages. The walls at Mitla are covered with spectacular geometric mosaics which are unique in Mexico, as much as its bright red painted walls. We stopped there on our way to Oaxaca City, driving along the range of Sierra Madre mountains. It was around 3 PM and a blast of hot air struck me full when I was getting off the air conditioned car.
The site looked amazing with geometrically designed upper parts of the buildings, covered in intricate mortar-less mosaics. My attention was also caught by walls painted bright red. Once Mitla was inhabited by the people, called by the neighbouring Aztecs in Nahuatl – the Zapotecs. Yet they called themselves differently, either simply The People in their own language or more mysteriously – the Cloud People.
Just in in the heart of Oaxaca state, along the western coast of the Pacific Ocean, which is at once a mountainous and hard-to-reach area, the Zapotec culture probably began to take shape around the third century AD. Some scholars assume that the Zapotecs had already appeared when the Olmec civilization was on the verge of decline, that is presumably around 400 BC. and existed in the region till 1500 AD. Anyway, any exact dating is uncertain here; the Zapotecs probably came to modern Oaxaca areas in the period before Christ, yet it took several centuries for them to develop their characteristic cultural features, which were initially composed of mixed elements of various origins, from Teotihuacan and the Olmec to the Maya cultures. At the Zapotecs’ height, the population in the Valley of Oaxaca peaked at around one hundred thousand.
The ruins of Mitla are the quintessence of the Zapotec architecture. Yet, the city also witnessed the Zapotec-Mixtec symbiosis, which had been visible in the culture of this region since the fourteenth century AD. Its traces can be seen especially in Mitla, whose geometric motifs of mosaic fretwork cut in stone slabs are usually ascribed to the Mixtecs. Yet, another theory says the ornaments were made my the Zapotecs and then adopted and embellished by the Mixtecs. Such patterns are called grecas in Spanish; meanders, diamonds, zigzags and various braids cover not only the outer walls of significant buildings, but also their interiors, usually with three horizontal stripes of frieze, each with a different type of ornament.
It has been calculated that over eighty thousand polished stone slabs were used to adorn the walls in such geometric friezes. The [stones] are [all] fitted together without mortar; [all the] pieces were set against a stucco background painted red [and] are held in place by the weight of the stones [surrounding] them. […] None of the fretwork designs is repeated exactly anywhere in the complex [or elsewhere] in Mesoamerica” (Mitla” 2021). In the wall painting, frescoes and sgraffito made on red stucco, depicting deities and mythological animals, there are also many Mixtec motifs, which are younger than sculpted decorations.
As in the case of the Zapotecs, little is known about the Mixtecs; they are primarily famous as great craftsmen and artists. The Mixtec contributed to the culture of the region, especially in the field of goldsmithing; they were excellent at processing gold, copper and silver, they mastered lost-wax technique, they could solder and pull delicate wires. They knew the inlay and covered the wood or bone with small tiles of jade or turquoise, mother of pearl and rock crystal. The Mixtecs were also the authors of famous painted codices, mainly of historical content. Those were pictorial stories written or actually painted on long strips of wood-fiber or leather paper, created before the Spanish invasion, and also after it. Most of them, however, were unfortunately destroyed by the invaders.
The labyrinth of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs
The Zapotecs were called the ‘nation of builders’, however, if alternative researchers’ opinion is taken into consideration, most of the buildings of Monte Alban (the original name of the city is unknown) and some structures of the nearby Mitla would rather be the product of older civilizations with great skills of shaping architectural space. Such structures, adopted or overbuilt by the Zapotecs would have originally provided a proper background for religious ceremonies or for other purposes, most likely related to astronomy.
In Mitla, there are three groups of buildings situated at low platforms and concentrated around a ceremonial courtyard, to which extensive stairs still lead. One of the most impressive constructions of Mitla is a ‘palace’ dating from the twelfth to the thirteenth century; it has three square, interconnecting courtyards, rebuilt with buildings standing on low platforms. In the ‘residential’ part of the city, there is a very small courtyard surrounded by four shallow buildings. The inner galleries must have been exceptionally dark, covered with low wooden roofs.
The rooms around the second courtyard may have served official functions. They gained their size thanks to the alignment of monolithic columns supporting the ceiling beams. Under the rooms of the third complex, which was probably used for religious ceremonies, there are cross-shaped crypts. These crypts are a continuation of the development of the Zapotec tombs, initiated in Monte Alban, where the niches had already been shaped like a cross. The walls and floors of the crypts were covered with a thick layer of white plaster, on the smooth surface of which cult scenes were painted. Such decorations are later than architecture and were probably made by artists of the Mixtecs who lived in Mitla after the Zapotecs left. Endless halls, corridors and underground crypts criss-cross beneath the central plaza, giving the impression of a labyrinth whose architectural character resembles the so-called palace of Knossos in Crete. Possibly, hence, the city’s name standing for the underworld.
The residence of the high priest in Mitla was the largest covered structure not only in Mitla but also in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The unpreserved ceilings, probably wooden, were supported by massive monolithic pillars weighing up to twenty-three tons. The decoration of walls with strongly marked horizontal divisions is primarily made of the mentioned above geometric ornament.
Missing stone anomaly
We were standing in the middle of a great courtyard when an old man with a walking stick approached us. He looked a little tired with the heat but his face expression was revealing his passion for the site and his happiness to share it with us. He was an experienced archaeologist working in Mitla for years and he seemed to know every excavated corner of it.
He spoke only in Spanish to us gesticulating energetically with hands, surely to express his ideas more clearly. Soon, we started following him up and down the stairs leading to Mitla’s constructions one after the other, to take a closer look on elaborate patterns of the mosaics. Despite our guide’s difficulties with walking, he and his staff were much quicker than us in climbing the steep and narrow steps.
‘Oh, you see … each course of stones is composed of a certain number of stone elements’, he said once on top, while counting every element protruding from the wall and composing a particular pattern of the mosaic.
‘Here, they made a mistake!’, he noticed, eager to show us his discovery.
At once, all started counting other stones in hope, they would find another anomaly as well.
Who was there first … ?
I left my friends at this stage of competition and went exploring the site on my own. I noticed a few tall basalt columns between two to three metres high as well as the size of giant cut blocks on top of the walls, forming the so-called lintels, weighing from six to eighteen tons, whereas elsewhere within the same construction there was relatively crude work composed of much smaller irregular stones of different shapes with big amount of mortar used. When we compare both, the latter looked like common rubble.
I got an impression that different parts of constructions had been here reassembled. Accordingly, there are differences in construction style: here and there very large, regular tight-fitting stone slabs at the base, and massive header blocks made of basalt, now and then perfectly positioned down at the foundation with quite crude and rough work in between. The same feature is typical of many megalithic sites not only in Mexico but also in different parts of the world I have visited. After some alternative researchers, such as Brien Foerster, Mitla had been constructed first with greater stones, and then it was uncovered by the Zapotecs, who adopted the older structures and overbuilt the site using their own but much simpler techniques within their building possibilities. The same author suggests that it might have been the result of some sort of a cataclysm that destroyed the original buildings of high technology a long time ago before the Zapotecs occupied it, followed then by the Mixtecs. To go further, the basalt of Mitla had been quarried from the place which is over three kilometres away (with no trees to be used as log rollers).
In the depths of the complex of Mitla, red domes of the Baroque Catholic church of San Pedro are visible; its walls seem triumphant over the Pre-Columbian ruins, but perfectly integrated into the whole ancient landscape. The church was built in the colonial era by Spanish invaders surely to show their victory over the pagan cultures of Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the building was partially composed of the already cut stones that were found by the Spanish locally, and reused for its construction.
Eventually, I did not share my thoughts about previous lost builders with others. Such assumptions may have been too controversial for academics’ ears and I was sure what their response would be like. Anyway, all these building anomalies can be seen very easily, still only if one does not turn a blind eye to the architectural facts.
Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!
Book of Isaiah 18:2
Saint Anne is a Nubian wall painting estimated to have been painted between the 8th and 9th centuries, by using the technique al secco with tempera on plaster. This early Christian painting was discovered by a Polish archaeological team led by the Professor Kazimierz Michałowski during a campaign undertaken in the 1960s under the patronage of UNESCO (the Nubian Campaign) in Faras. The image itself belongs to a unique collection of wall paintings and architectural elements from the Faras Cathedral, discovered by an archeological mission. Faras Gallery is the only permanent exhibition in Europe featuring Medieval Nubian paintings from the Nile River Valley south of the First Cataract. The collection of over 60 paintings from the 8th to 14th centuries came from the cathedral in the city of Faras, a large urban centre in the Medieval kingdom of Nobadia, in present-day Sudan.
Nobadian rulers controlling the Nile Valley from the first to the third cataracts converted to Christianity around 548 AD influenced by missionaries sent from Constantinople by the Empress Theodora.
The first cathedral was erected in the 7th century, when the city was still known as Pachoras, and likely stood at the exact site where Polish archaeologists taking part in the Nubia Campaign discovered the subsequent 8th century cathedral. The Nubia Campaign was an extensive international mission to preserve ancient legacies threatened by flooding from the imminent construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the resulting formation of the artificial reservoir, Lake Nasser. Since 1964 the painting is in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, of which the image has been used as a logo.
Saint Anne, of David’s house and line, was the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus according to apocryphal Christian tradition. Mary’s mother is not named in the canonical gospels. In writing, Anne’s name and that of her husband Joachim come only from New Testament apocrypha, of which the Gospel of James (written perhaps around 150 AD) seems to be the earliest that mentions them. In the painting, St Anne places her finger against her mouth, asking for silence, which may allude to the ‘divine silence’. The finger on the mouth could also indicate that the saint is praying.
This gesture is rarely visible in Christian art and probably it refers to the tradition of Egyptian Christians (the Copts) who did so while praying undertone. It was believed to ward off evil powers trying to break into a human heart. Personally, I also understand this gesture as a synonym of a mystery and unuttered truth, which remains in silence. Also it is likely that Nubian women, similar to all women in the Christian world, directed their prayers towards St Anne requesting a child and a successful labour.
Featured image: Saint Anne (fragment) (9th c. AD). Nubian wall painting. By unknown author. The National Museum in Warsaw. Public domain (image cropped and modified). Source: “Saint Anne (wall painting)” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
High density of palm trees and a heavy breath of tropical climate were the first impressions that had touched my foggy senses since my arrival in Sri Lanka. Confused and exhausted, I crawled out of the airport dragging my suitcase behind me and carrying an unnecessary winter jacket over my shoulder. The flight was long and a nightmare, but a thought about staying on a warm island during the European winter slowly gave me a new strength to live.
Pyramid in the hands
Before travelling to Sri Lanka, I was planning, reading and watching a lot about that corner of the world, including the preparation of a bucket list things to do during my journey. I knew from experience that similar plans are subject to verification in the field. There were most famous monuments usually mentioned in tourist guides, especially Sri Lanka’s old state and religious capitals – the milestones of the island’s history. The official website of the Sri Lankan governmental organization CCF (Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka) connected all of them by means of a line creating an equilateral triangle, placed almost in the very centre of the island.
The figure of the triangle was additionally covered by a pair of hands, as if in a gesture of protecting cultural heritage. This pyramid-shaped graphic sign contains three ancient capitals of Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy. Inside the triangle field, the majestic Sigiriya and Dambulla with temples carved in the rocks were enclosed. Although they are indeed the most visited places, which are must-sees according to tourist folders, and at the same time extremely important places for the Buddhist community, it does not mean that the number of important places in Sri Lanka should be limited to the mentioned heritage triangle. On the contrary.
A similar sign of the pyramid enclosed in the hands, this time carved in the granite rock, can also be found elsewhere – in a place that is already outside the line of the geometric figure mentioned above, at the ancient site, called Mihintale. It is believed to have also been made by the same government organization to mark the place of Sri Lankan cultural heritage in the same way as it is represented in its famous logo. But why did the CCF choose a place for this sign beyond the delineated triangle? Why did they choose a less known site of Mihintale? The author of a series of articles devoted to the puzzling history of Sri Lanka, Vladimir Kovalsky (Chapter 4 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya), draws attention to yet another triangle … It is formed by ancient cultural-religious complexes suspended on rocks, and simultaneously, unknown Sigiriya’s sisters.
Seat of gods suspended in the sky
The main symbol of the island constantly appears on postcards, folders and on more or less successful paintings hung on the walls of hotel rooms. The massive monolith from magma rock shoots from the ground in the very center of the island to the height of 180 meters.
If you remember the tales about turtles, so big that their shells seem to be islands covered with thick woods, you can easily compare them to the bulk of Sigiriya. The rock seems to bend under the weight of secrets that it wears on its steep back covered with tourists: “Lion Gate”, “Mirror Wall”, frescoes of women whose bodies are drowning in flowers and jewellery, and disappearing in clouds (see: Al Fresco vs al Secco and Controversial Examples of Murals), megalithic constructions worked out in hard granite of unknown purpose … And there is only one written note about this giant in the archives preserved on the island:
He betook himself through fear to Sīhāgiri which is difficult to ascend for human beings. He cleared a roundabout, surrounded it with a wall and built a staircase in the form of a lion… Then he built there a fine palace, worthy to behold, like another Alakamanda, and dwelt there like the god Kuvera.
Culavamsa CH 39 v2-4 (circa 1200AD)
The main character of this fragment tells about a builder of Sigiriya who, according to the record, was called the King Kassapa. He is believed to have ruled on the rock in the 5th century A.D. (477-495).
The fragment above comes from the chronicles called Culavamsa (Lesser Chronicles), which are a sequel to the much older chronicles of Mahavamsa (Great Chronicles). Mahavamsa covers the period from 543 to 300 BC, while Culavamsa deals with the period from the 4th century up to 1815 A. D. Over the centuries, the chronicles have been repeatedly transcribed and compiled, which greatly obscures the original history of the country. The text on Sigiriya itself appeared 700 years after the reign of the King Kassapa. There is no other evidence of the age of the Sigiriya complex. And this is indeed a multipart construction, as it is not limited to the rock itself, but it also covers a significant area around the monolith. First, the road to the top of Sigiriya leads through the so-called “Water Terraces” and before it starts to steeply roll around its protruding belly, it climbs up the stairs that wind through the corridors created by the formations of huge granite boulders. These, in turn, faithfully guard the passage to the famous “Lion’s Gate”, flanked by two paws armed with claws … but are these really the remains of a lion, as it is described in the fragment above?
If the chronicle does not lie, Kassapa had only 18 years to create the entire complex. Taking into account the material used, the impetus of the construction and quality of the tools available at the time, it seems rather unlikely. What’s more, after completing the feat, the king did not use its significant potential of defence, as if he had ignored the primal function of the fortress and the workload involved in its construction. In order to fight the final battle, he abandoned his insurmountable rock and faced heavy defeat at its feet. Besides, the circumstances of Kassapa’s death are also shrouded in mystery and have different versions. Finally, the victorious brother of the beaten king moved the capital back to Anaradhapura, and Sigiriya fell into the hands of Buddhist monks and with time it became a pilgrimage and tourist centre. Probably the Buddhist followers had inhabited the rock much earlier, precisely around the 3rd century BC, as soon as the Buddhism appeared on the island.
Sigiriya is not a lonely island
In the same period, Buddhist monks undoubtedly formed monasteries in the caves of the Pidurangala rock, which is located a few kilometres north of Sigiriya.
Both rocks are the monoliths created as a result of volcanic activity, and their stories are related to each other. Pidurangala’s peak resembles the form of a slanted, flat triangle, as if someone had cut the top of the rock across with the same ease with which the butter is sliced.
From the top of Sigirya, you cannot see this characteristic triangle, or a heart to be more poetic, because it lies on the other side of Pidurangala. The entrance to its summit is even more strenuous than in the case of the nearby Sigirya, but the view from there is magnificent, particularly on the famous neighbour, who is stormed by the crowds of tourists.
Are these really just fairy tales …?
Before I came to Sri Lanka, in my imagination Sigiriya dominated the plain as a lone monolith. Now it turned out that it is just one member of the team of rocks monoliths that form an enigmatic whole.
Together with already mentioned Pidurangala, Sigiriya points out a peculiar top of the pyramid with two other peaks at its base: Mihintale – in the northwest of Sigiriya and Yapahuwa – in the southwest.
Like Sigiriya, Yapahuwa has a flat bevelled top and steep walls. In the 13th century, there was a capital of the state and a religious centre with a famous Buddhist relic, which is now kept in Kandy. Mihintale, in turn, is a rocky table that carries huge blocks of granite. However, nature did not pull them up there. According to legends, the Mihintale summit once served as a place for anchoring aircraft, vimanas, described by Vedic texts such as Mahabharata.
The aforementioned Sri Lankan oldest chronicle, Mahavamsa, describes the arrival of Mahinda to Sri Lanka from India. Mahinda was a Buddhist missionary and a famous monk who was also the son of the ruler of India, Ashoka. With his coming he brought the new faith to Sri Lanka. Every tourist arriving on the island hears this story as a testimony to the beginnings of Buddhism there. I have heard it myself as well, but never in a full version of the story described by the chronicle. Namely, according to the full text Mahinda came to the island by landing in his vimana at the top of Mihintale, and his flight from India would have taken him less than a day …
As if I heard a modern report on an airplane journey from India to Colombo … The summit of Mihintale is also linked to the monk by his name – Mihintale means in Sinhalese as much as the “Mahinda Plateau”. According to ancient epic stories, both Sinhalese and Tamil, before the arrival of the monk, the same rock was called Sagiri, while the name Sigiriya is pronounced in the Sinhalese language as Sigri (Cf. Vladimir Kovalsky). Such similarities certainly testify to the relation between the rocks.
Of course, similar content about ancient flying machines is treated as a fairy tale. Still it is quite illogical that the record compiled in the 11th century on the history of Sigiriya is widely accepted as an irrefutable fact, and some of the content that comes from much older sources is cut off in order to pass on only what the human mind is able to fully accept.
Ah, those ever-present pyramids…
On the stone in Mihintale, there is a carving of the already mentioned glyph of a pyramid or triangle covered by the hands. The top angle of the figure contains a smaller pyramid, as if an Egyptian pyramidion crowning the top of the main pyramid. The above-mentioned author, Vladimir Kovalsky (Cf. Chapter 4 of a Detailed Photo Essay on Sigiriya), draws attention to this sign when he mentions a triangle made of rock monoliths: Sigiriya (Pidurangala) – Yapahuwa – Mihintale. The axis of symmetry of the triangle, from the top of Sigiriyia to its base, i.e. the horizontal line joining Mihintale and Yapahuva, meets with the axis of symmetry of the triangular peak of Pidurangala. As we all remember Pidurangala’s summit itself had once been shaped as a triangle. Couldn’t it be symbolically represented as a pyramidion of the pyramid carved in the Mihintale granite rock?
And who was Kuvera?
Kuvera or Kubera, mentioned above in the fragment of the Younger Chronicle (Culavamsa), was a god and legendary ruler of Lanka, today Sri Lanka. His half-brother Ravana (or Raavan) took power over him and became an undisputed ruler with his royal seat on Sigiriya (Alakamanda). There are other written sources telling of those events, namely Ramayana and Mahabharata.
They belong to the epic Sanskrit of ancient India which was written on the basis of oral tradition, first formed during the Vedic period, namely in the first millennium BC. Ramayana focuses mainly on the armed conflict between Ravana and Rama, ruler of India, which was to take place millennia ago. Ramayana, meaning ‘the Way of Rama’, is one of the greatest Indian poems that has been adapted to many films and theatrical plays. Its authorship is attributed to also a legendary poet, Valmiki (see: Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge). Indian eposes describe the time of flying vehicles – vimanas, an advanced technology and a nuclear war … Even today, inhabitants of Asia take those stories as actual records of their lands and ancient rulers … Although it is still impossible for western scholars to explain certain phenomena or purpose of major constructions scattered around Sri Lanka (likewise everywhere in the world), similar records are only treated as a bunch of legends created by people with a vivid imagination, just as an ancient genre of sci-fi.