Late Minoan Painting, Frescoes, Pottery, and Other Representational Art

Original of one of the Taureador frescos, probably ceremonial, from Knossos Palace, Crete, c.1450 BCE / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

By Dr. Jeremy B. Rutter
Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies
Sherman Fairchild Professor Emeritus in the Humanities
Dartmouth College

Late Minoan Pottery


The transition from Middle Minoan (MM) to Late Minoan (LM) is marked in pattern-painted pottery by the shift from a preference for the light-on-dark technique to one for a dark-on-light treatment. The LM I period as a whole is that during which Minoan influence throughout the southern Aegean (Peloponnese, Cyclades, Dodecanese, southwestern Anatolia) reaches its apogee. In the later part of LM IB, but seemingly not at its very end, all Cretan palaces except Knossos were violently destroyed, together with an extremely large number of villas and towns. Most of these sites were re-occupied, but usually not until the LM IIIA period, while not one of the destroyed palaces was rebuilt as such. Pottery of the short but critically important LM II period has been found at relatively few sites (Chania, Knossos, Kommos, Phaistos, Rethymnon) but exists in quantity at Knossos, especially in rich deposits from the recently excavated and published “Unexplored Mansion”. LM IIIA is sometimes further subdivided into 1 and 2, the point of division between the two falling shortly before a major destruction horizon at Knossos in which the palace itself was burnt. The distinction between LM IIIA and LM IIIB is rather fuzzy and the transition from one to the other is not marked by any significant historical event. LM IIIC, on the other hand, begins at about the same time as the Mycenaean palatial centers on the Greek Mainland are being destroyed in a relatively short space of time, never to be rebuilt. Whether or not the palace at Knossos continued to function as such after the destruction of early LM IIIA2 is, after a debate that is now some twenty-five years old, now approaching resolution (most authorities would now agree that it remained a functioning palatial center into the 13th century B.C. or LM IIIB period), but no one has ever maintained that it survived as a major administrative center into the LM IIIC period. In general, it is fair to say that the pottery of post-LM II Crete, although always retaining certain distinctively Minoan characteristics such as a preference for one- rather than two-handled drinking vessels, becomes more and more just one of several regional Aegean ceramic schools which are basically variations of a single “Mycenaean” tradition.

Late Minoan IA

Vapheio cups. Gold with repoussé decoration, LHII. From the Vapheio tholos tomb. / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

(until recently dated ca. 1550-1500 B.C.; now perhaps to be moved back to ca. 1675-1600 if the explosion of the Santorini volcano is to be dated ca. 1625 B.C.)

Most Popular Decorated Shapes – straight-sided (= Vapheio or Keftiu) cup, semiglobular cup, bridge-spouted jar, beaked jug, ewer.

Most Popular Motifs – spirals (frequently with details in added white) and floral motifs (foliate band, reed or grass pattern, rosette) in particular, but also the ripple pattern continuing from MM IIIB.

Late Minoan IB

Cretan Clay askos with ‘Marine Style’ decoration / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

(once dated ca. 1500-1450 B.C.; now perhaps to be moved back to ca. 1600-1500 B.C.)

The bulk of LM IB pottery cannot be easily differentiated from that of the preceding LM IA phase, not even if pattern-painted pottery alone is taken into consideration. However, the products of a number of superior ceramic artists who worked initially at Knossos but spread their stylistic innovations either by themselves travelling to other sites to produce their pottery or by training apprentices to do so, both on Crete and on the Greek Mainland, are distinctive. Such vases occur in sufficient numbers that most substantial deposits of this period throughout the southern Aegean contain either whole or fragmentary specimens, some clearly imported from Knossos while others are just as clearly local (or at least non-Knossian) products. At least two distinct styles of vase-painting peculiar to the LM IB period, the Marine Style and the Alternating Style, may be isolated among these extremely fine vases, which many authorities feel represent the acme of Minoan ceramic art. The Marine Style, characterized by densely packed, naturalistically portrayed marine motifs, may be somehow derived from a branch of fresco art which was particularly at home in the Aegean islands (especially Thera). The ceramic style may thus conceivably have been developed in Crete by refugee Cycladic artists in the immediate aftermath of the explosion of the Santorini volcano. The Alternating Style, a sparer and more disciplined approach to ceramic decoration in which two isolated motifs alternate around the body of a vase, may be somewhat later in date than the Marine Style since it hardly occurs in typical LM IB destruction contexts on Crete. Alternatively, it may have originated in western Crete at Chania and may not have reached those areas of Crete, especially in the east, which were hardest hit by the LM IB destruction horizon because of geographical rather than chronological constraints. These two LM IB styles are found together in the same deposits at island sites such as Kastri (Kythera) and Ayia Irini (Keos), so they clearly overlapped to some degree. Many of the shapes decorated in these styles are specialized ones – for example, rhyta (fillers) of several different varieties are particularly common in the Marine Style – and it has therefore been suggested that Marine Style vases may have been designed specifically for religious purposes.

Alternating Style jug / Archaeological Museum of Herklion, Crete

Marine Style

Most Popular Shapes – rhyta (conical, piriform), bridge-spouted jug, stirrup jar; very few cups.

Most Popular Motifs – murex (whorl-shell), nautilus (argonaut), octopus, dolphin, seaweed, sea anemone, star.

Alternating Style

Most Popular Shapes – semiglobular, bell, and stemmed cups; beaked jug; bridge-spouted jar.

Most Popular Motifs – Figure-of-eight shield, double axe, sacral knot, sea anemone, trefoil rockwork.

Late Minoan II

The Ephyraean Goblet / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

(once dated ca. 1450-1415 B.C.; now perhaps to be moved back to ca. 1500-1450 B.C.)

Although some have theorized that LM II pottery is simply a ceramic style characteristic of either late LM IB or early LM IIIA1 rather than evidence for a distinct period, the stratification of recently excavated deposits at Knossos and Kommos makes clear that a distinct LM II phase does indeed exist. New vessel shapes appearing at this time are the Cretan form of the Ephyraean goblet, the horizontal-handled bowl, the krater, and the squatalabastron, of which two or three have solid Mycenaean ancestries. Also Mycenaean in character are certain decorative developments, such as a trend away from naturalism and toward abstraction in individual motifs and a greater tendency for symmetrical and zonal compositions. These latter changes in syntax are best seen on a series of large jars found mostly in the palace at Knossos which constitute the bulk of the evidence for the so-called “Palace Style” of LM II-IIIA1. The Mycenaean flavor of much of what is new in LM II ceramics should be correlated with the appearance of Mycenaean tomb types (especially shaft and shaft-niche graves) and a Mycenaean emphasis on the deposition of large quantities of wealth in tombs (especially in the form of weapons, metal vases, and jewelry) at about the same time. Most authorities view these features, all of which occur together in the so-called “Warrior Graves” found in several distinct cemeteries around Knossos at this time, as evidence for the presence of a resident Mycenaean population in the Knossos area, probably in the form of a militarily dominant but numerically insubstantial warrior aristocracy of some kind.

Late Minoan IIIA

Minoan stem kylix with ibex / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

(once date ca. 1415-1340 B.C.; now perhaps to be moved back to ca. 1450-1340 B.C.)

The pottery of the LM IIIA period develops smoothly from that of the preceding LM II phase with increasing abstraction evident in the motifs and an enhanced emphasis on zonal compositions confined for the most part to vessel shoulders. Ceramic continuity is best documented at central Cretan sites in both the north (e.g. Knossos) and the south (e.g. Kommos), whereas in the east there is a discontinuity evident between the material from the LM IB destruction deposits and the earliest “re-occupation” pottery of LM IIIA. Whether the absence of LM II material from the east signifies a drastic decline in population in this part of the island in the period ca. 1450-1400/1375 B.C. is presently a topic of considerable debate. Certainly the pottery of the LM IIIA period is more standardized throughout the island than it had been in LM I, an indication that a regionally differentiated Neopalatial ceramic tradition had given way to a more centralized one by the early Post-Palatial period. Whether or not such a change in ceramics reflects the emergence of Knossos as the cultural, hence arguably socio-political, capital of the entire island after a less centralized period when several distinct regions had been individually administered from as many independent palatial centers during the LM I period is another much debated question. As time goes on, the range of painted motifs declines in number. A good marker of the later LM IIIA2 phase is the appearance of the plain or solidly painted, short-stemmed, one-handled goblet or “champagne cup”, a form which can be interpreted as a compromise between the one-handled flat-based cup traditionally preferred as a drinking vessel by the Minoans and the two-handled stemmed goblet preferred by Mycenaean Mainlanders.

Most Popular Decorated Shape – semiglobular cup; kylix; stirrup jar; piriform jar; amphoroid krater.

Most Popular Motifs – foliate scroll, flower, scale pattern, trivurved arch and zigzag (both with a variety of fills).

Late Minoan IIIB (ca. 1340-1190 B.C.)

Minoan ceramic pottery / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

Once again, no truly significant break is detectable in ceramic development as LH IIIB succeeds LM IIIA. Indeed, Minoan ceramic specialists are so hard-pressed to distinguish between LM IIIA2 and LM IIIB that many deposits are simply dated “LM IIIA2/IIIB”. For the first time, the horizontal-handled, or deep, bowl becomes as common an open shape as the kylikes and semiglobular cups continuing from LM II-IIIA. Both the deep bowl and panelled decoration, hallmarks of the advent of the LH IIIB ceramic phase on the Greek Mainland, are indicative of LM IIIB on Crete and attest to a continuing dependence of Minoan Crete on the Mainland for some ceramic innovations. Large, rather coarse stirrup jars labelled with painted inscriptions (“dipinti”) in Linear B, evidently transport vessels for the shipping of wine or oil, are probably restricted to the LM IIIB period and were produced mostly, perhaps even exclusively, in western Crete. Most other shapes are much the same in LM IIIB as in later LM IIIA, but the motifs which decorate them tend to become even more abstract. Particularly common on Minoan closed shapes (stirrup jars, amphoroid kraters) of this period are highly stylized octopuses.

Late Minoan IIIC (ca. 1190-1125/1100 B.C.)

Deep Minoan bowls from the Mameloukou Trypa cave, Perivolia Kydonias, Crete / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

Yet again, the transition from one ceramic phase to the next is gradual rather than sudden, despite the fact that there is a fairly dramatic shift in settlement pattern around this time from low-lying sites near the coast to more easily defensible locations, whether near the sea (e.g. Kastri near Palaikastro) or far removed from it (e.g. Karphi, above the Lasithi Plain). The deep bowl is now the dominant open shape in settlement contexts, while the most common motifs are paneled patterns and antithetic spiral compositions. In the advanced LH IIIC period, as elsewhere in the Aegean at about this same time, a relatively elaborate but regionally restricted decorative style is developed, known as the “Fringed Style” from the popularity of rows of short bars attached as outlines to major motifs. The general development of shapes during the LM IIIC phase parallels that apparent throughout the Aegean at this time.

Late Minoan Frescoes

Original of one of the Taureador frescos, probably ceremonial, from Knossos Palace, Crete, c.1450 BCE / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

All known Minoan figured frescoes are of Neopalatial date. Very few frescoes have been found at either Mallia or Phaistos. Most of the Minoan fresco corpus comes from Knossos and Ayia Triadha, although a fair number of paintings also come from villa sites such as Amnisos (House of the Lilies) and Tylissos. Although the large numbers of frescoes from Akrotiri on Thera, Ayia Irini on Keos, and Phylakopi on Melos are heavily indebted to Minoan traditions of wall-painting, they should not be viewed as purely Minoan but rather as representative of one or more distinct Late Cycladic schools of fresco art.

Within the palace at Knossos, the following subjects are most common:

(1) Bull-leaping and bull-catching compositions, both ordinary frescoes and painted stucco reliefs, on a variety of different scales.

(2) Boxing and wrestling scenes, mostly (if not entirely) in the form of painted stucco reliefs.

(3) Heraldic griffin compositions, again both as ordinary frescoes and as painted stucco reliefs.

(4) Processional scenes in architectural settings where the painted processions on the walls are likely to be mimicking real-life processions in those same spaces (e.g. Corridor of the Procession, Grand Staircase). Hood considers scenes of this type all to be Post-Palatial in date and to be a concession to the tastes of the Mycenaean overlords of Knossos during this period. The artistic source for such scenes is likely to be Egypt.

Other types of scene are found outside the palace at Knossos or at other sites, but the pictorial repertoire within the Knossian palace in particular would seem to have been a restricted one.


The following broad divisions of Minoan mural painting can be isolated:

Painted Stucco Relief Frescoes

“Prince of lilies” or “Priest-king Relief”, plaster relief at the end of the Corridor of Processions / Knossos Palace, Crete

(a) “Priest King” (from near south entrance to central court of palace at Knossos)

(b) Bull (from above North Entrance Passage of palace at Knossos)

(c) Scenes of boxing, wrestling, and bull-jumping/grappling, together with frieze of heraldic griffins flanking isolated columns (from East Hall of palace at Knossos)

(d) Lion seizing prey (from southeast corner of palace at Knossos)

(e) Seated women or goddesses (from Pseira)

Frescoes with Human and Animal Representations


Procession Fresco from the Palace at Knossos / Knossos, Crete

(a) Procession Fresco (from Corridor of the Procession in palace at Knossos)

(b) Cat stalking a bird (part of larger composition from probable shrine within “western villa” at Ayia Triadha in which a

kneeling woman picks flowers while a second female, perhaps a goddess, stands in front of a possible shrine)

(c) Partridge Frieze (from Caravanserai at Knossos)

(d) “Saffron Gatherer” or Blue Monkey Fresco (from palace at Knossos)

(e) Bluebirds and monkeys in a rocky but flower-covered landscape (from House of the Frescoes at Knossos)

Under Life-size but not Miniature

The Palanquin Fresco / Palace at Knossos, Crete

(a) Taureador Fresco (from Court of the Stone Spout in palace at Knossos)

(b) Palanquin Fresco (from south edge of palace at Knossos)


The Grandstand Fresco / Palace at Knossos, Crete

(a) Grandstand Fresco (from Early Keep at northwest end of central court in palace at Knossos)

(b) Sacred Grove Fresco (from Early Keep at northwest end of central court in palace at Knossos)

(c) Boxers (from Tylissos)

Formal Patterns or Heraldic Animals on a Large Scale

Frieze of Figure-of-Eight Shields / Palace at Knossos, Crete

(a) Frieze of Figure-of-Eight Shields (second floor of “Residential Quarters” in palace at Knossos)

(b) Frieze of rosettes, with overpainted frieze of spirals (“Queen’s Megaron” in palace at Knossos)

(c) Heraldic griffins flanking throne (Throne Room in palace at Knossos). Often considered unusual for its strict symmetry and heraldic style, this fresco has been thought by some to reflect Mycenaean tastes since it belongs to the period when Mycenaean Mainlanders are for other reasons thought to have been in charge at Knossos. However, a similar composition in painted stucco relief from the area of the East Hall dates well before the period of the Mycenaean “occupation” (Hood, APG 74 fig.56C), so the theme is perfectly at home in Minoan Neopalatial wall-painting.

Decorated Floors

Dolphin Fresco / Palace at Knossos, Crete

(a) Dolphin Fresco (from area of “Queen’s Megaron” in palace at Knossos). Restored by Evans in a vertical position high on the wall of the ground floor of the “Residential Quarters”, this fresco is more plausibly identified by Hood and Koehl as the decoration of a collapsed floor from an apartment on the second storey.

(b) Marine scene (from shrine at Ayia Triadha). Consisting of fish and an octopus, this painted floor is of uncertain date, either LM I (preceding the local LM IB destruction) or early LM IIIA (roughly contemporary with the famous sarcophagus).

General Characteristics of Minoan Mural Painting


Minoan painting used red for males and white for females / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

  1. Specific skin color conventions exist for the sexes, probably adopted from Egyptian wall painting but possibly indirectly through Syria (e.g. Tell Atchana): red for male, white for female.
  2. While genre scenes are common, there are no unmistakably particularized scenes, whether historical or mythological.
  3. Scenes from nature are realistic in terms of the movements of animal or human participants. The artists were keen observers of action. Likewise, flowers and birds are portrayed “naturalistically”, although specialists knowledgeable in the fields of botany and ornithology have often shown that the plants and animals in question have no true counterpart in nature but merely appear to be represented accurately. By contrast, the backgrounds in Minoan frescoes are often obviously “fantastic”, represented as if seen from above and characterized by gaily painted rocks which sometimes resemble stalactites and at other times look like Easter eggs. There is no attempt to indicate depth by means of perspective or diminution of figure scale with distance.
  4. The range of colors is remarkably varied.
  5. There is a comparatively wide variety of scenes and individual motifs in Minoan painting as a whole. Fresco was a major art form which often influenced pottery and possibly seal-cutting as well. The decline of ceramics as a major art form at the end of the Protopalatial period may well be due to the appearance for the first time of figured mural painting at the beginning of the Neopalatial period.
  6. With the possible but dubious exceptions of cross-hatching on the bellies and forelegs of the wingless sphinxes from the Throne Room and of parallel chevrons on the centerpieces of the figure-of-eight shields from the second floor of the “Residential Quarters”, there appears to have been no attempt to indicate relief by means of shading in Minoan fresco art. One of the female bull-jumpers in the Taureador Fresco has lines on her body and legs seemingly intended to indicate musculature, but this too is an isolated case, in this instance of the employment of so-called “relief lines”. As Hood notes, when the artist desired to indicate relief, (s)he chose to reproduce it physically in plaster, although only in large-scale figures.
  7. The appearance of two or more registers in a mural (e.g. Procession Fresco, Camp Stool Fresco) may be an indication of Post-Palatial date, indicative of Egyptian influence and perhaps of Mycenaean taste. Hood considers the same to be true of all procession frescoes.
  8. Underwater scenes may have been restricted to the decoration of floors. The use of marine motifs for the decoration of plaster floors was later adopted by the Mycenaeans in the palaces of Tiryns and Pylos.

Note the absence of hunting scenes and scenes of warfare, both to be extremely popular in Mycenaean art. Chariot scenes are also relatively rare, although two fragmentary examples are known from Knossos and chariots appear twice on the LM IIIA Ayia Triadha sarcophagus. Some commentators have noted that, in its choices of the specific time within an action, Minoan pictorial art tends to focus on the moment immediately preceding violent action (e.g. the cat stalking the bird from Ayia Triadha) or on that immediately following (e.g. the hobbled bull on the “quiet” gold cup from Vapheio; the victorious boxer standing over his fallen opponent on the Boxer Rhyton from Ayia Triadha). This observation may have some truth in it, but one cannot deny that the Minoans occasionally depicted the instant of maximum violence, especially in bull-jumping scenes (e.g. the goring of the jumper on the Boxer Rhyton).