Art Timeline  
  1 c. 15000 - 5000 BC Prehistoric Art
  2 5000 BC - 5ОО BC The Art of the Ancient Kingdoms of Egypt - Aegean Art
  3-4 5ОО вс - 12th century The Art of the Greeks
  5-6 5ОО вс - 12th century Italic Art
  7-8-9 12th century (1100-1199) The Early Christians  Art - Byzantine Art
  10-11 13th century (1200-1299) Gothic Art
  12 14th century (1300-1399) Gothic Art - International Style
  13 15th century (1400-1499) The Early Renaissance
  14 16th century (1500-1599) The High Renaissance
  15-16 16th century (1500-1599) Mannerism
  17-18-19-20 17th century (1600-1699) Baroque
  21-22 18th century (1700-1799) Rococo
  23-24-25-26-27-28-29 19th century(1800–1899) Neoclassical - Romanticism
    19th century (1863-1899) Impressionism Timeline
    19th century (1860-1899) Simbolism
    20th century(1900-1999) ART OF THE 20TH CENTURY
5000 BC - 5ОО BC

The Art of the Ancient Kingdoms of Egypt
Babylonia and Assyria
Syrian and Palestinian Art
Persian Art
The Indus Valley Cities
Aegean Art
see also:
Tomb of Tutankhamun
The Terracotta army
  Art in Pompeii & Herculaneum
Archaic Vase Painting
Ancient Greek Sculpture
Lysippos - Praxiteles
The Art of the Ancient Kingdoms of Egypt

Head of King Djedefre
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Djedefre
Red quartzite with remains of paint
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Between 3100 and ЗООО вс, the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united by a king named Narmer, who founded the first dynasty. This was effectively the first great state, with numerous cities including Memphis, where the king resided.
For the Egyptians, art was associated with the creative process of the universe. According to religious tradition, Khnum, the potter god with a ram's head, fashioned the world and modelled every living form on his potter's wheel. The Egyptians were also deeply influenced by magic and faith in transcendental forces, which had to be humoured or appeased in order to counteract their negative effects.

Relief of Itush
Fifth Dynasty, reign of Djedkare-Isesi
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Relief of Hesi-re
Third Dynasty, reign of Djoser
Acacia wood
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Egyptian Art

Testimony to the intense cultural activity that characterized the predynastic period (с.5000-З00вс) exists in the form of "palettes". These slate slabs, often decorated in relief, are thought to have been used originally for grinding pigments for eyepaint. By the Late Predynastic period, they had taken on a celebratory, official character, and their decoration was inspired by specific historical events. The palette of Narmer was a symbol of power and may have commemorated the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Its creation heralded the beginning of the historical age, subdivided traditionally into dynasties, in which the pharaoh was the emblem of political and religious power. The compositional elements found in the palette of Narmer were to remain constant in Egyptian art: the division of the background into registers, the greater dimensions given to the figure of the sovereign, and the pictorial value of certain images. The falcon is the personification of the king seizing the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt), which is represented by a papyrus with a human head. Objects are presented as they are conceived, not as they are seen.

The Egyptian artist aimed to reflect social and religious hierarchies in the composition and to assign proportions to the figures and objects whose relationships to one another were constant. For example, the pharaoh-god was greater than man and therefore had to be shown as such. The age of the first and second dynasties (с.2850-2650вс) saw the birth of monumental architecture, including the first mastabas - flat-topped tombs with sloping sides - and pyramids. During this period, the pharaohs had two royal cemeteries, one at Abydos, the other at Memphis; architectural elements from both sites have survived. From these seeds developed the awe-inspiring art of the Old Kingdom, third to sixth dynasties (с.2650-2150вс).

King Khafre seated
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

King Menkaure and a Queen
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Menkaure
Graywacke with faint remains of paint
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Triad of King Menkaure
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Menkaure
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Wall-painting from Thebes
showing Nebamun hunting.
British Museum, London

Pyramids of King Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, Giza

The Pyramids

It was a pharaoh of the third dynasty. Djoser, and his royal official Imhotep who created the complex of Saqqara. This was a vast area enclosed by a white limestone wall, inside which stood the Step Pyramid and several smaller structures. The project was impressive in its unprecendented use of calcareous stone instead of perishable materials, such as the bricks and wood that had been common in the preceding age. During the fourth dynasty, stepped structures, such as the rhomboidal pyramid of King Sneferu at Meidum, gave way to the uniformly smooth-walled pyramids of King Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure in the necropolis of Giza, near Cairo. Erected between 2550 and 2470bc, they were listed by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The grandiose dimensions of these funerary monuments, built to preserve the bodies of the dead kings for eternity, conveyed a sense of timeless-ness and immutability. In this, they were like the circumpolar stars towards which the pyramid sites were orientated and to which the pharaohs, departed from this earth, would return as gods to take their place among the divinities. The pyramids form part of a large complex, including mortuary temples, and mastabas, the burial places of priests, nobles, and high ranking officials.

The Great Sphinx



Scenes of everyday life are depicted in bas-reliefs and paintings in tombs and mastabas from all periods of Egyptian history. Carved or painted on sepulchre walls, figurative scenes re-create scenes of activity from the earthly life, with the aim of ensuring their continuation in the afterlife. Until the time of the New Kingdom, these did not portray specific events but were naturalistic renderings of generalized communal activities, such as ploughing, harvesting, breeding birds and livestock, hunting animals and birds, and fishing.
However, subject matter became increasingly varied during the New Kingdom (с.1550-1070вс). While daily life had previously been portrayed in a continuous succession of typical events, tomb paintings now included imagery evoking personal aspects of past life and extolling the status of the tomb's owner. The wall painting from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes, for example, is a good example of this kind of personal observation: here, we see detailed scenes of grape harvesting, wine-making, and the storage of wine in amphorae. Nakht, a noble and royal astronomer, was also the keeper of the king's vineyards.

Akhenaten Presenting a Duck to Aten
Dynasty 18, c.1345-1335 B.C.
Painted limestone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Painting and Sculpture

The most important paintings and sculptures of the Old Kingdom come from the mastabas. The frieze of geese in the tomb of Itet at Meidum was the lower part of a huge painting depicting the hunting of birds with nets, and is perhaps the oldest surviving wall painting on stucco. The function of bas-reliefs and paintings was to furnish the tomb with enduring pictures that imitated, transcended, and re-created nature. The need to guarantee the survival of the dead and to assemble in one single figure or object the fundamental elements for their magical re-animation lies at the root of the Egyptian iconographical repertory. The desire to show all the essential characteristics of the human figure in a single image led the Egyptian artists to present it in an unnatural way. The face was shown in profile with the eye to the front; shoulders and chest were viewed from the front, showing the juncture of the arms; and the legs were shown in profile to indicate the direction of movement. Each part was exhibited from its most characteristic angle in order to present the whole figure cm the flat surface.

Similar conventions governed the plastic arts. Enclosed in its cubic structure, the funerary effigy of Khafre is the prototype of pharaonic statues, with its immobile, hieratic, imperturbable pose - the very essence of royalty. Standing or seated, in wood or in stone, such figures, in spite of their rigid attitudes, are independent and vivid entities that immortalize the individual. At Saqqara, the statue of Djoser was positioned inside a stonebuilt chamber next the Step Pyramid, where it could "watch" the performance of rituals for the dead through tiny apertures in the walls.
While it cannot compare to the Great Prvamids in monumentality, its sculpture and painting reveal great clarity and compositional rigour. Typical of Middle Kingdom royal statuary are the colossal red granite sculptures of Sesostris III and the maned sphinxes of Amenemhet III. which personify the pharaoh and his power. Freer of the conventions of official art are the small sculptures in painted wood in which the artists skilfully and naturalistically capture aspects of everyday life. The Second Intermediate Period (13th-17th dynasties, c.1778—1570bc) witnessed much internal unrest and the waning of centralized power. Virtually defenceless against the incursions of the Hyksos from Western Asia. Egypt was nonetheless to rise phoenix-like from the ashes to enter its most splendid period of artistic achievement - the 18th dynasty.

Reserve head Fourth Dynasty
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Reserve head Fourth Dynasty
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


The Egyptians considered earthly life to be a fleeting moment, the prelude to eternal happiness. Man. absolved of all his sins after death, would continue to live among the blessed in the Fields of lalu, identified symbolically with the god Osiris. At the end of the Old Kingdom, this privilege, once reserved for the pharaohs, became the prerogative of all. Essential elements of the death ritual were mummification, the "opening of the mouth", and the protection of the corpse. To assist the dead person in his or her transition before the tribunal of Osiris was the Book of the Dead, a roll of papyrus containing religious and magical texts. It included the representation of the tribunal of Osiris and answers to the questions posed by the 42 deities sitting in judgment. In order to verify the "negative confession", the heart of the dead person was placed on one pan of a scale, under the supervision of the god Anubis, while on the other was placed an ostrich feather, symbol of Maat. the goddess of truth. The sarcophagus preserved the mortal remains, which were necessary for eternal life. In the Old Kingdom this was decorated with brief texts and. occasionally, panelled decoration. In the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms, it was covered in magical religious inscriptions and images of the protecting divinities.

Book of the Dead
of the Scribe Hunefer, 19th dynasty.
British Museum, London


Horus on the left and Anubis, the god of cemetaries and embalming



The pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, originating from Thebes, chose the left bank of the Nile as their heavenly resting place. Beyond the long line of funerary temples, which extend to the edges of the cultivated land, is the winding Valley of the Kings, with its tombs of the sovereigns of the New Kingdom cut into the cliffs. While the plan of the early tombs was asymmetrical, that of later tombs was symmetrical - best exemplified by the tomb of Seti I. The room where the sarcophagus was placed was originally painted in yellow, with the mummy housed in a gold coffin - the unalterable nature of the metal was believed to guarantee the incorruptibility of the mummy. In the square, columnar hall, were placed the royal chariot and funerary equipment. Walls and pillars were decorated with texts and scenes symbolizing the transformation of the dead king into the sun and the transmission of power to his successor. To the south of the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens, resting place of queens and other members or the royal family: a large private necropolis accommodates the tombs of the nobles.

Stela of King Qahedjet
Third Dynasty
Fine-grained limestone
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Relief block with the figure of Aa-akhti
Late Third Dynasty
Fine-grained limestone with traces of paint
Musee du Louvre, Paris

The Golden Age

With the re-establishment by the Theban princes of pharaonic authority and the tradition of the king's divine descendancy, Thebes became the magnificent capital of the New Kingdom (18th-20th dynasties, с. 1570-1069вс). The splendour and extravagance of the art of this period is exemplified in an exceptional variety of pictorial and plastic forms. The descriptive realism that had marked the configurations of the Middle Kingdom was revived, particularly in funerary painting, which now depicted naturalistic scenes of daily life. Although still inspired by the traditional style, figures were released from their ancient static rigidity and painted more freely than ever before. The portrayal of the land of Punt (an area on the coast of eastern Africa) in the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri devotes minute attention to the plants, homes, and people of Punt, sealing forever the memory of the expedition to that exotic place. Scenes and reliefs of an official and commemorative nature are much more conventional. From the reign of Hatshepsut's successor. Tuthmosis III. is the the oldest surviving monumental relief - on the south wall of the seventh pylon of Karnak.

The classic scene of the victorious pharaoh defeating the many enemies of Egypt is treated here on a gigantic scale, ascending the full height of the pylon. Carved in relief, the group of Asiatics, whom the king is dragging by the hair, is structured in an ordered, almost graphic manner, with some heads shown in profile and others frontally. Courtiers, plants, and sacred animals appear alongside religious symbols and hieroglyphs in the polychrome reliefs of the chapel of Tuthmosis III, dedicated to the goddess Hathor. Typical of the decoration of such sanctuaries, it places repeated emphasis on ritual sacrifices offered by the king to the gods. After the political and religious revolution that characterized the age of Amenhotep IV (ruled 1379-1З62вс) and the ensuing restoration under Tutankhamun, the Ramesside pharaohs (19th-20th dynasties.) moved the capital to Pi-Ramesse in Lower Egypt. They nonetheless continued to erect temples and sanctuaries in the region of Thebes and Nubia. Building activity was intense during this period: at Abydos, the city sacred to Osiris, Seti I began the construction of a vast temple complex, which was completed by his son, Ramesses II. There, for the last time, space was given on the interior wall decorations to bas-reliefs; this would soon be replaced by less costly sunk reliefs. Ramesses II, the greatest builder of the New Kingdom, was responsible for the forest of columns in the hypostyle hall of Karnak, the Ramesseum at Thebes, and the temples of Abu Simbel -works that are still breathtaking to visitors for their sheer majesty. The reliefs that cover the walls represent an entirely new concept in Egyptian art: they deal with historically identifiable events in which the king, no longer portrayed as a generic ritual figure, acts in a specific context. Statuary of the time is also notable for its monumental proportions. Perhaps the most impressive piece is the seated effigy in black granite of Ramesses II, with his wife Nefertari and eldest son carved on a smaller scale.
Stories of the battle with the "Sea Peoples" (who tried to invade Egypt from the north) are recounted in the temple of Medinet Habu, near Thebes, built by Ramesses III, the last powerful ruler of the New Kingdom. This complex, which appears as an impregnable fortress, marks the ideal conclusion to the first cycle of Egyptian art.

Ritual Figure, Dynasty 12
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Slab stela of Prince Wep-em-nefret
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khufu
Painted limestone
Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley

Painted limestone relief showing
Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the princesses under the rays of Aten.
Staatiche Museen, Berlin


Artistic production acquired new strength during the brief 17-year reign of Amenhotep IV, following the death of his father, Amenhotep III. in about 1379 bc. In his fifth year of rule, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten to accord with the religious changes that he initiated. He was a heretical monotheist who eliminated the cult of the god Amun, recognizing the solar disc of Aten as the supreme divinity and establishing Akhetaten (present-day Tell el-Amarna) as the new capital. The secularization imposed by the sovereign resulted in a new realism of artistic representation, evident both in statuary and carvings. Figures were rendered with extreme naturalism, and individual features were emphasized. In relief carving and paintings, artists depicted tender scenes of domesticity, showing the king with his wife Nefertiti or bouncing his daughter on his knee. The delicately rendered portrait of Queen Nefertiti, found during excavations at Amarna in 1912, is arguably the most memorable work of art from New Kingdom Egypt.

Staatiche Museen, Berlin


Nut greeting Tutankhamun;
Opening of the Mouth ritual, performed on Tutankhamun as Osiris by Ay

In 1922, the English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered in the Valley of the Kings the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, complete with its fabulous hoard of treasure. The royal mummy, its face covered by a mask of gold, was placed inside three priceless coffins in a burial chamber adorned with paintings. In an adjoining room were golden statuettes, necklaces, and jewelled coffers. The furnishings were of a richness that exceeded anything displayed in tomb and chapel decoration since the end of the fourth dynasty. Chairs, beds, and couches exhibited a wealth of magic symbolism: the legs of these pieces, sometimes inlaid with gold and ivory, were carved in the form of animal feet.
intended to serve the dead person as a celestial vehicle for eternity. The throne of Tutankhamun is a work of masterly refinement, covered with gold, silver, and vitreous paste. The back-rest is adorned with figures of the young royal couple, and the armrests are protected by a winged uraeus (the sacred cobra symbol). The reign of Tutankhamun, who succeeded Akhenaten and restored the cult of Amun, represented a transitional phase in ancient Egypt, and this is evident in the repertory of figures and choice of subjects. Alongside the tender discourse of the royal pair on the throne is a coffer with battle scenes that depict the pharaoh fighting the Asiatic and Nubian foes.

see also:
Tomb of Tutankhamun

Gold death mask

Tutankhamun's outer coffin

The "Golden Throne"


The cradle of homogenous yet diverse cultures. Mesopotamia nurtured a wealth of native art forms that cast their influence well beyond the country's geographical boundaries. The city-states of Ur, Lagash,
and Mari were established after the long protohistorical phase of the fourth millennium, during the Early Dynastic period (2800-2350bc). The theocratic organization of Sumerian (Southern Mesopo-tamian) society affected ever}' aspect of artistic activity. Architecture found its principal outlet in temples and sanctuaries. The temple, constructed of brick, was the city's religious and economic centre: adjacent to it were storerooms, workrooms, and administrative offices. A central courtyard, as in the temple or Sin at Khafajeh, was reached through a monumental entrance and up an imposing staircase. Plastic art gave pride of place to the figure of the worshipper. Craftsmen produced statuettes in limestone, alabaster, and terracotta, endlessly repeating the image of a traditional, anonymous model. Ranging from small statues of gods, priests, and the faithful as found at Tell Asmar, to the naturalistic seated figure of the temple superintendent Ebih-il, statuary portrayed the act of dedication, symbol of the perpetual honour that must be paid to the divinity, thereby guaranteeing the eternal presence within the temple. The hands clasped against the chest, the rapt expression, and the large attentive eyes outlined in bitumen all proclaim a close relationship with the god in an attitude of humble reverence. The generally small dimensions, far removed from the colossal size of Egyptian effigies, are explained partly by the fact that such durable material as stone was hard to obtain and partly because of different religious beliefs: the power of the monarch was conveyed by the monumental nature of the overall architectural and decorative design. The Sumerians also made a number of seals, which are examplary of their inventive fantasy, narrative flair, and lively realism. The seals were enlivened by rams and oxen and scenes of fighting animals.

Statuette of a Man,
about 3000-2500 B.C.
Limestone and shell
Museum purchase



A masterpiece of the Early Dynastic period, the Ur Standard was probably once displayed in a palace or temple. It consist of two rectangular panels of wood joined by trapezoidal ends. The two sides are ornamented in mosaic with limestone, shell, and lapis lazuli, set in black bitumen paste.
On each panel historical figures are depicted in three rows, or registers: one side shows peaceful activities, the other scenes of war. The registers are framed with coloured friezes that enliven the surfaces. The standard was discovered by the English archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who excavated Ur during the 1920s and '30s. He identifed. among other things, the tombs of the city's early rulers. Ur (Genesis 11:31 ) was the land of Abraham, founder of the Hebrew race.

The Royal Standard of UR 2600bc
"Peace" side
British Museum, London

The Royal Standard of UR 2600bc
"War" side
British Museum, London



Prosperous from local agriculture and traffic control on the River Euphrates, the Mesopotamians built their temples and palaces with rows of rooms opening onto one or more inner courtyards. The only difference between the two was that the temple accommodated an altar. Particularly impressive was the enormous residence of the reigning dynasty at Mari during the period that followed Akkadian rule. This was added to by successive rulers, the last of which was King Zimri-Lim. Built mainly of mud-brick, it was arranged around two courtyards and contained 300 rooms. It was 200 metres (650 feet) long and 120 metres (390 feet) wide and covered an area of two and a half hectares (six acres). The rooms in the palace included the private apartments of the king and his queens, domestic quarters, and diplomatic record offices. The existing fragments of the wall decorations provide testimoniy to both style and subject in Mesopotamian painting. Among the identifiable subjects are sacrificial scenes and Zimri-Lim's investiture at Mari by the goddess Ishtar. There are also geometric compositions, glimpses of landscape, and lively representations of contemporary society dress and customs.

Detail from fresco of sacrificial scene.
Palace of Mari, c.1800bc.
Aleppo Museum, Syria

Tiglath-pileser III in triump
From Nimrud, about 730bc

Neo-Sumerian Period

Akkadian Rile ended with the invasion of the Guti (c.2150bc). Order was restored by the kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and central power returned to the south (c.2112-2004bc). Neo-Sumerian artistic activity consisted mainly of monumental religious architecture. One notable example was the impressive ziggurat of Ur-Nammu, which consisted of a system of superimposed terraces, at the top of which stood the temple dedicated to Nanna, god of the moon. Religious statuary, too, enjoyed a renaissance, recovering the strength and imaginative power of earlier Sumerian art. The effigies of Gudea, governor of Lagash, in the garb of a worshipper, seated or standing, are finely modelled in green or black diorite, a naturally smooth, shiny material. The conquest of Sumer by the Amorites led to the formation of a series of independent states, whose history is documented in the royal archives of Mari.

Babylonia and Assyria

After his conquest of Mari, Larsa, and Eshnunna, Hammurabi, king of Babylon, reunited the whole of Mesopotamia and proclaimed himself universal monarch. The art of the Old Babylonian period (c.19OO-1595bc) retained Neo-Sumerian motifs and styles, including a wealth of fantastic animals, bulls, and lions, posted as guards to the palaces and temples. In sculpture, repetition of compositional structure and subject are revealed in the relief carved at the top of the stele inscribed with the code of Hammurabi. The king stands in worship before the seated god of the sun and justice, Shamash. Around 1595bc, the political geography of the Near East was once again thrown into confusion as the kingdom of Babylon crumbled under the onslaught of the invading Hittites from Anatolia. In the first millennium bc, Assyrian might was reflected in the creation of an immense empire. Assyrian art, for the most part secular, found expression in the narrative reliefs that once adorned the walls of their palaces. These bas-reliefs provide visual evidence of conquests, with scenes that illustrate military techniques and the exploits of the king, as valiant in his hunting of wild beasts as on the battlefield. Ashurnasirpal II (883-859bc) was the first Assyrian monarch to decorate the lower part of the throne room and other areas of his palace at Nimrud with a frieze in relief on hundreds of white limestone slabs.

The narrative, which depicts chiefly mythological scenes and images of fertility rites, is told in juxtaposed episodes that build up independently towards a climactic event not shown. In the reign of Shalmaneser III (858-824bc), the gates of his royal palace at Balawat were decorated with bas-reliefs on bronze sheets. The gigantic palace of Sargon II (721-705bc) in the city of Khorsabad was encircled by massive walls. Figures of bulls with human heads, designed to ward off evil spirits, stood guard at the entrance gates. The use of five feet for the winged monster made it possible for the spectator to see the bull either as immobile (when viewed from the front) or in movement (when viewed from the side). After the fall of Nineveh in 612bc, the revival in southern Mesopotamia was marked principally by its architecture. During the reign of the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, this was exemplified in temples, imposing palaces with hanging gardens, and ziggurats standing more than 100 metres (330 feet) high -inspiration for the biblical Tower of Babel. In 539RC, Babylonia was taken by Cyrus and became part of the vast Persian Empire.

Human-headed bull
Musee du Louvre, Paris


Nowhere are the descriptive and symbolic intents of Neo-Assyrian relief carvers better exemplified than in the decorations of the palace of Ashurbanipal (669-626вс) at Nineveh. The depictions of the exploits and everyday occupations of the king had the double effect of extolling the glory of the sovereign and of astonishing the observer. This art is fresh and lively, and the spirit of the landscape is impressively conveyed. Traditional hunting scenes are animated by realistic and dramatic episodes in which wild beasts leap up at the king's chariot or fall wounded by his arrows. Men and animals are strongly portrayed: the artist is eager to emphasize the powerful physique of the monarch and his warriors, and his rendering of animals is also exceptionally naturalistic. The war scenes are crowded with people: accounts of miltary activity include the army crossing rivers and attacking fortresses. There are also episodes of minor significance: daily life in camp, a horseman calling to his companions who have climbed a hill, and an Elamite noble who, handed over to the enemy, spits in the face of his own king.

Stone panel from the north-west palace of Ashurbanipal II - 883-889bc

Stone panel from the north-west palace of Ashurbanipal II - 883-889bc

Stone panel from the north-west palace of Ashurbanipal II - 883-889bc



The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century вс) describes with admiration the new Babylon created by King Nebuchadnezzar IL "Apart from its size, its beauty is unequalled by any other city we know."
The seven-terraced ziggurat, dedicated to Marduk, god of Babylon, dominated the city and was entered by way of a long processional street that began at the gate of Lshtar, goddess of love and war. The gate, the most splendid of all Mesopotamia's monuments, opened in the centre of walls so massive that, according to Herodotus, a four-horse chariot could turn on them. The enormous gate is a fine example of the technique of brick construction prevalent in ancient Mesopotamia. On a blue enamelled background were relief decorations of bulls, dragons, lions, and stylized symbolic images. The marvellous reconstruction of the gate in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, gives an idea of its colossal dimensions and the colourful effect of the original bricks. The decorative art of relief on enamelled bricks was widespread in the East, one example being the palace of Darius at Susa.

Statue of King Idrimi of Alalakh
c 1500bc
British Museum, London


Syrian and Palestinian Art

Bordered at one end by Anatolia and Mesopotamia and at the other by Egypt is a Mediterranean coastal strip that acts as a centre of lanes of communication linking three continents. The geographical situation helps to explain its enduring political fragmentation. From as early as the third millennium bc, successive Semitic-speaking populations -known as Canaanites bv the Hebrews who had followed them to the Promised Land -fell under the sway of powerful neighbouring states. Architecture from the third millennium onwards provides evidence of sophisticated levels of urban civilization, notably in the palaces of Ebla (royal palace G) and Alalakh (level VII). The palace of Yarim-Lim at Alalakh (18th century ne) shows similar originality in its design. It was built on three successive floors, the lowest of which was designed for public use, with orthostats in basalt, similar to those that appeared later in Anatolia and Assyria. Entrance to the principal room was through a smaller room with an opening supported by columns, anticipating the bit hilani, the princely dwelling that was to appear in the first millennium. In the realm of figurative art, originality appears in designs on the seals used in royal correspondence. Formal sculpture, too, was of a high quality, as represented by the head of King Yarim-Lim. The palace was destroyed by the Hittites, but the fortunes of the city revived under Idrimi in about 1500BC, although his statue is less sophisticated than that of his predecessor. Decorated with hunting scenes and bulls, gold bowls from the nearby city of Ugarit are the precursors of Phoenician bowls of the first millennium bc.

Both Alalakh and Ugarit were destroyed during the invasion of the "Sea Peoples" (c.1200bc). leading to massive migrations. The influx of Hebrews from the south and Arameaens from the north left only the coastal strip to its former inhabitants. The Phoenician city-states, as they should now be called, sought new trading outlets and established Punic colonies throughout the Mediterranean. They are renowned for the manufacture of glass, metal bowls, carved ivories, and jewellery. The Phoenicians were eclectic artists who were open to cultural influences. They borrowed motifs from both East and West, skilfully incorporating them into-their own designs. They were thus able to combine the Mesopo-tamian love of symmetry and the Aegean taste for galloping animals with the Syrian taste for groups of fighting animals - not to mention the sphinxes and griffins of Levantine origin. Production of small bronzes, which had Syrian precedents, were also revived in the first millennium bc. Evidence of Egyptian influence can be found in the statuette of Heracles-Melqart (shown in the typical pose of the "warrior god"), most notably in the short skirt and headgear. The vitality of the Phoenician merchants did not cease with the conquest of their territory by the armies of Persia: the Punic colonies they founded on the coasts of the western Mediterranean and, above all, the city of Carthage, would keep their heritage alive for centuries to come.


An important urban centre in northern Syria, Ebla (modern Tell Mardikh) flourished in the third millennium bc and may have extended its rule into Mesopotamia. Destroyed by Sargon I after a phase of decline, Ebla was rebuilt during the first decades of the second millennium. Protected by massive ramparts of up to 22 metres (66 feet) high, with a ring of stones and jagged rocks at the base, the city's most important buildings were the temples, including that of Ishtar. and the royal palace E. Temple D consisted of three successive rooms, axial in plan, built along lines that were later to be developed by the Phoenicians in their construction of the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

In the lower city was the royal necropolis (18th-17th century bc): of the three hypogea excavated, the tombs of the Lord of the Goats and of the Princess contained vessels, jewellery, bronze weapons, and ivory amulets. Finds of ritual basins, rectangular in shape and comprising two sections, proved important for their stone carvings. They testify, both in their form and subject matter — banqueting scenes and animals shown from side and front views — to considerable autonomy in the treatment of common models derived from Mesopotamia.

Lioness Attacking an Ethiopian in a Papyrus Grove,
ivory plaque with gold overlay revealing Egyptian influence,
ninth to eighth century bc. British Museum, London.


Precious because of its scarcity, ivory has always been a symbol of a high social status, making it a suitable material for both ritual and private use. From the second millennium bc, there were flourishing schools of ivory engravers across the Syrian-Palestinian region. Particularly famous are the spoons, combs, boxes, and decorative plaques for furniture from Megiddo (12th century bc). These traditions were revived by the Phoenicians and Syrians in the first millennium bc. Ivories were produced in a series of workshops in a variety of styles, and letters incised on the backs of some indicate that they belonged to palaces. The Assyrians plundered the cities of the Levant and seized craftsmen, who produced ivories for their new masters. The storerooms excavated at Nimrud were full of ivories and others have been found in wells, where they were thrown during the sack of the city in 612bc. When the wells were excavated in the 1950s, the ivory of the Lioness Attacking an Ethiopian in a Papyrus Grove was found. In addition to the gold leaf decoration, the work was inlaid with pieces of lapis lazuli and carnelian.

A view of the cliff at Naqsh-e Rustam, showing the tombs of
Artaxerxes I (464 - 424 BC) on the left, and Darius (522 - 486 BC).
In the centre at the base of the cliff is
a Sassanian relief showing Shapur I (AD 240 - 72)
triumphing over the Roman Emperor Valerian.


Persian Art

Palace of Darius, Susa.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.

When Alexander the Great invaded Persian territory in 331bc, he was captivated by the grand scale of the Achaemenid palaces and their decoration. In the southwest region of the Persian plateau, the Elamite civilization, with its capital of Susa, had flourished since the fourth millennium bc, when its handmade ceramics were decorated with geometrical patterns (triangles, lozenges, crosses, concentric circles, and swastikas) and animal and plant motifs. Human figures were rarer and, although stylized, displayed a lively naturalism. In the second half of the third millennium bc, the kings of Elam went to war against Sumer and Akkad, and the influence of Meso-potamian culture is clearly visible in the statue of the goddess Innin (analogous to the Babylonian Ishtar) and in the production of stelae. A new phase of cultural autonomy marked the rise of the Elamite state (13th—12th century bc). The gracefully monumental bronze statue of Napir-Asu, wife of King Untash-Khuban of Susa, the ziggurat of Choga Zanbil, and the reliefs of Kurangan, which herald the figurations of the Achaemenid palace, are all significant manifestations of art from this period.

During the first millennium bc, the expansion of Iranian-speaking Mede and Persian peoples altered the political aspect of the region. The ephemeral Median Kingdom, with its capital of Ectabana founded in 722bc, was overthrown by Cyrus II the Great and came under Persian rule in 539bc. Cyrus, having overthrown Astyages, king of the Medes, laid the foundations of his future empire, the bounds of which would extend from the Nile to the Indus. Persian art continued in the great Mesopotamian tradition, inheriting its fundamental characteristics. Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and other Persian kings vied with the magnificence of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the embellishment of their main cities, Pasargadae, Susa, and Persepolis. The gates of the palaces were protected by statues of animals like those found in Mesopotamia, while Persian sculptors derived the bas-relief from Assyrian art. In 518bc. Darius I initiated the building of Persepolis, which was to become the hub of the Persian empire. Conceived as the symbol of universality, the focal point where heaven and earth met. the palace of Persepolis was decorated with reliefs and monuments proclaiming the power of the dynasty. The spacious throne room and reception rooms boasted parallel rows of fluted columns more than 20 metres (64 feet) high. The axial plan was continued throughout the palace, the pivot of which was the columned apadana, or audience chamber. Processions of dignitaries and nobles decorated the staircase that led to the great hall. The Persians had succeeded in transforming the dramatic force of their Mesopotamian models into a serene magnificence that was to be the hallmark of their art. In 331BC, Alexander the Great, following his victory over the last of the Achaemenid kings, Darius III, decreed the end of the empire and opened a new chapter in history: for the first time East and West were united under the rule of a single overlord.

Detail of three of the immortals,
Palace of Darius, Susa.
Musee du Louvre, Paris.



The political, diplomatic, and administrative capital of the Persian Empire, the city of Susa enjoyed its period of greatest splendour during the reign of Darius I. The king was responsible for the construction of all the Achaemenid buildings in the city, and he employed workmen from far and wide. The royal palace, built on raised ground, was similar in style to the Babylonian palaces, with its three large inner courtyards surrounded by offices and residential quarters. Next to the palace was the apadana (audience chamber), with 72 columns, almost 20 metres (64 feet) tall, supporting the ceiling. These columns were the pride of Achaemenid architecture; more slender than their Greek prototypes and adorned with capitals featuring the foreparts of animals, they seemed to multiply until they merged with the side walls. The full length of the walls was taken up by a procession of soldiers flanked by benevolent spirits in the guise of winged lions and bulls: these were the so-called "Immortals", faithful guards of the king's person who formed a symbolic garrison.

Anatolian marble idol
Kusura-Beycesultan type, c. 2700 - 2100.
Private Collection, Germany

Anatolian Art

Often classified as peripheral to Mesopotamia!! culture, the art of Anatolia exhibits original features that have their roots in the pre-Hittite period. An initial burst of artistic activity saw modelling in gold, silver, and bronze, evincing a high level of workmanship from as long ago as the second half of the third millennium. The advanced state of urban development is shown by the city of Beycesultan on the Maeander river. The lower part of the imposing palace (mid-19th century bc) was constructed of stone and the upper part of mud reinforced with wooden beams. The palace, with its painted decorations, consisted of a series of courtyards flanked by rooms. The advance of the Hittites, an Indo-European people, altered the appearance of the region The Hittite state had a strong central structure, at least in its second imperial phase (1450-1200bc). and this was reflected in the supremacy of Hattusas (present-day Bogazkoy) over the other cities. Capital of the empire and centre of military and political power, its palaces and walls reflect the Hittite ambition for power and the urge to glorify the king. A double fortification with towers encircled the city, following the contours of the hillside, and the monumental arched gates, often compared to that at Mycenae, were guarded not only by sphinxes and lions, as in the Babylonian temples, but also by an armed divinity. On the north side of the King's Gate, the orthostat with the god perfectly demonstrates the link between sculpture and architecture. Special importance was attached by the Hittites to monumental carving, as seen on the walls of the major cities. The Hittite relief was essentially a form of commemorative art, in which, in contrast to the friezes in Mesopotamian palaces and Egyptian temples, the artist did not try to tell a story.


Anatolian bronze donkey
circa 7th Century bc

The ostentation and affirmation of power were conveyed not in a historical description of warlike events but in the representation of divinity and the ritual ceremonies, in which the king was the protagonist. At the end of the second millennium, the invasion of the "Sea Peoples" overthrew the Hittite empire (c.1200 bc), and the colonies established in Syria were all that remained of Indo-European power. A new cultural and artistic phase now originated with the fusion of Hittite and Semitic traditions. On the Hittite relief illustrated below, for instance, the king wears a Hittite robe and carries a curved stick as his royal insignia. He faces the Syrian version of the Storm-god, who, characteristically, has his hair in a long curl, wears a kilt with a curved sword in his belt, brandishes a weapon, and holds lightning. However, his kilt, with its curved hem and his tall, horned headdress, is Hittite in style, and the Storm-god in the chariot behind him also derives from Hittite tradition. Sphinxes and lions continued to guard the city gates, but the sphinxes often betray the Egyptian influence that was widespread in the Levant. The Assyrians campaigning in Syria in the ninth century bc saw these figures and reliefs and created their own versions to decorate their palaces. In the late eighth century bc, the Assyrians annexed the city-states of Syria and imposed their own art and architecture.

A gold pin w/vessels on top
"Priam's Treasure"
Pushkin Museum, Moscow


Pioneer of the discovery of Mycenean civilization, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann identified and excavated the site of Troy. A dedicated reader of Homer, he explored the places described in the Iliad-And the Odyssey. He-was convinced that the objects in gold, silver, and amber found in the second level of Troy were associated with the legendary King Priam. Attributable to the middle of the third millennium hc, the jewels are nevertheless of an earlier date than that which Greek historians give for the Achaean expedition led by Agamemnon. (The dating of Troy Vila, to which the Homeric account of the war may refer, is believed to be between 1300 and 1230bc.) In any event, the jewels testify to the culture and prosperity of Trov. a fortified city.

Highights of "Priam's Treasure"
Pushkin Museum, Moscow

The Indus Valley Cities

The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro (now in Pakistan), were the main centres of the urban civilization that developed along the Indus river, which flows from the Himalayas through Kashmir and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Formality and rationality governed the development of these cities in their early stages, the major sites being made up of individual rectangular areas measuring some 200 x 400 metres (650 x 1,300 feet). Straight thoroughfares ran from north to south and from east to west, with smaller streets branching off to the sides, and a walled acropolis overlooking the cities. Wealth and power were expressed in the overall structure and appearance of the city itself rather than in individual buildings. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence of the temples, grand palaces, or royal tombs that are so characteristic of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. There were, however, private houses made of baked brick and wood based on a central courtyard giving access to rooms, baths, and other areas. Sensible use of the land and a constant struggle against the implacable force of the rivers, so vital to life, enabled the civilization of the Indus valley to develop over a long period (third-second millennium bc). With the help of an effective irrigation system, farmers harvested wheat and cotton and raised livestock. Improved hydraulic techniques made it possible to create drains, pipes for drinking water, dykes, and brick wells that were shared by groups of houses. The quality of life, materially, culturally, and intellectually, was unusually advanced for its time. There was cultural and ideological unity, with unified systems of measurement and writing, and a centralized structure of political organization.

Ceramic sculpture of a small cart with vases and tools pulled by oxen,
from Mohenjo-daro



Necklace in gold and semiprecious
stones, from Mohenjo-Daro.
National Museum, New Delhi.

Excavations of Indus jewellery reveal a high level of craftsmanship in their working of precious metals and stones. These small ornaments may be of seemingly little importance when compared with the wealth of treasures piled up in Egyptian and Mesopotamian tombs; however, they possess intrinsic value because of the sophisticated technology required to produce them. As well as gold, semiprecious stones, such as jasper, serpentine, alabaster, and steatite, were frequently used. A deep interest in artistic creation is revealed in the manipulation of raw materials through the use of chemical processes. Thus, agate was heated to obtain carnelian, and an elaborate production system was developed in order to obtain the desired form of stoneware.
Valuable objects such as jewels were undoubtedly handed down through generations, but they have rarely been found in funerary furnishings. In fact, very few personal ornaments have been recovered, which indicates an attitude towards death that was quite different from those of other ancient urban cultures.

Art of the Indus

Evidence of the artistic output of the Indus valley reveals great skill. Pottery worked on the wheel was of an exceptionally high standard. The rounded vases were decorated mainly in black on a red background or in polychrome on a lighter background. Geometrical motifs, rows of parallel lines, and chequered, circular, and spiral designs were joined with naturalistic subjects; stylized plants and animal or human figures were often combined to fill available space.

Typical of the Indus culture were seals moulded in steatite. Square in shape and with a raised surface, their subjects were repetitive in pattern and based exclusively on the animal kingdom. Elephants, bison, rhinoceros, antelopes, zebras, and unicorns are the most frequent images. These animals are depicted standing before particular objects, the functions of which are sometimes unclear. Above them is a short inscription of four or five signs. The unicorn, a fantastical creature with an equine body, is always shown opposite a vessel consisting of a stem, a bowl, and another vertical piece. There are also a few specimens of bronzes, statuettes, and stone carvings. The latter are best exemplified by a splendidly expressive votive portrait of a priest from Mohenjo-daro, with its detailed rendering of the beard, delicate moulding of the face, and slight incline of the head. The Indus civilization collapsed in the 16th century bc. and the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were abandoned for rural villages. However, the Harappan style of pottery was to live on.

Fragmentary vase with ibex decoration, from Mohenjo-Daro.
National Museum. Karachi

Seal in steatite with unicorn figure and vessel
National Museum, New Delhi

Seal in steatite with buffalo and writing
National Museum, New Delhi

Ancient Chinese Art

Jade funeral garment of Prince Liu Sheng.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking

Although the Neolithic culture of China dates from the seventh millennium bc. according to ancient written tradition it was not until the 21st century bc that the Hsia (Xia) founded the first of the Chinese dynasties. While little is known of the art of the Hsia, art found its most perfect expression in ritual bronzes under the rule of the Shang dynasty (1700- 1025bc). Designed for the presentation of offerings and sacred libations, there was a variety of different vessel types. The decoration consisted of idealized animal forms that may have had a totemic function: the t'ao-t'ie (mask of the glutton seeking to devour man), the dragon, the phoenix, birds, and fantastic monsters often stand out in relief from a background of ornamental motifs, such as meanders, intermingled triangles and parallel lines, clouds, and spirals. The imprisonment of the animal effigy or totemic creature in a ritual object may have been to harness its power and transfer its control to the shaman. The link between political and religious power, and the exercise of both by a priestly class, meant that the sovereign was responsible for the rites of worship and relations with the supernatural. They believed that earthly order needed to be reflected in heavenly order, and that control of the world of magic and the harmony of cosmic forces were essential for good government.

When the Chou (Zhou) 1025-221bc)succeeded the Shang the social and political conditions of the state underwent considerable change, and philosophical and religious systems, such as Confucianism, appeared. Ait objects of jade, bone, and ivorv, and anthropomorphic earthenware statuettes full of vivacity and movement were created to accompany the dead to the next world. Bronzes gradually lost their function of transmitting magical and divine forces, and their decoration became more abstract in style. The metal surfaces were covered with long inscriptions, perhaps to celebrate an event exalting a family or clan or to honour ancestors. A new ornamental element that comprised interlacing dragons became widespread in the "Spring and Autumn" period (c.770-476BC). during which the state took on an increasingly feudal character, and nobles often rebelled against the central power. Civil wars led to a crisis in Chou authority and brought the subsequent restoration of order in the Ch'in (Qin) dynasty (c.221-206bc). followed by the Han dynasty (206BC-ad220).


Zoomorphic example of a yu,
a ritual wine vessel, Shang dynasty.
Cernuschi Museum, Paris

There were notable achievements in science, agriculture, and craftsmanship, and commerce was revived thanks to Chinese control of the Silk Route. Small bronzes were produced in the form of fully rounded figures of animals. Their physical features are barely sketched but reveal an acute sense of observation in their lively poses and expressions. The same characteristics were evident in many terracotta pieces - statuettes of animals or people continued the tradition of the small funerary images that characterized the Chou period. Among the most notable are the hollow brick slabs of the tombs featuring relief decoration of hunting scenes. An exceptional find from one tomb was the funeral garment of the prince Liu Sheng. made of 2.498 pieces of jade held together by 1.1kg (2,5 lb) of gold thread. The corpse was wrapped in the jade, a material that is both precious and enduring, to ensure that the body and spirit should be preserved for all eternity.

Terracotta tile with bulls pulling plough,
Han dynasty.


Among the most original products of the Indus civilization are the lively and exuberant terracotta statuettes. The subjects most often represented, on seals of steatite in particular, include animals such us tigers, buffalo, and oxen, which are shown either alone or yoked to small carts. Moulded with great realism, it is possible that these articles may have been used as toys. Small, everyday scenes - for example, a bird escaping a snare or a mother suckling her baby — were also captured with refreshing naturalism. The heads of female figurines are characterized bv their richly elaborate and varied hairstyles. Typically wrapped only in a short skirt, their bodies are adorned with necklaces. It is believed these figures were intended to portray the Mother Goddess. Mastery of three-dimensional modelling and a shrewd observation of anatomy are features of all Indus sculpture. These skills can be seen to great effect in the artists' application of pieces of clay to depict the fine details of the face and body.

Four terracotta figurines from Mohenjo-daro, mid-third millennium bc.
National Museum, New Delhi.
Clockwise from left:
small cage with a bird at the door; bull;
female figurine (possibly representing the Mother Goddess):
and toy animal with wheels and sheep's head.


Rhinoceros in bronze from the King of Zhongshan's tomb,
late third century bc. Museum of Chinese History. Peking.

The technique of inlaying gold and silver, as distinct from that of gold-leaf application, was developed in the Warring States period (475-221BC). Originally executed by forcing cold strips or gold, silver, or other precious metals (iron at an early stage) into the body of the object, craftsmen then elaborated this new technique. They adapted inlaying to the age-old methods of mould-casting by preparing the cavities where the inlay was to be inserted ahead of casting. In the case of the winged monster from Pingshan. the silver decoration helps to emphasize the ferocity and power of the animal figure with its gaping mouth and sharp claws. A rhinoceros-shaped wine jug from the steppes achieves a synthesis of the inlaid and animal styles. "I'he body is sprinkled with cloudlike shapes and spiral patterns, and the inlaid threads of gold and silver wire imitate its thick bristles; on the back is a small lid, and on the right side of the mouth is a long, thin copper tube for pouring the wine.

Winged monster in bronze from the King of Zhongshan 's tomb, fourth century bc.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking

see also: The Terracotta army

Terracotta soldier in armour.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking


The artistic impulses of the Ch'in era are best revealed in the terracotta statues of soldiers that were discovered in 1974 on the site of the mausoleum of Ch'in Shih-huang-ti (Qin Shihnangdi) at Lintong in Shaanxi province. The 10.000 warriors, which have individual faces, represent even- rank in the army and numerous different racial types. The army is equipped with complete military outfits: archers, infantrymen, charioteers, and horsemen cany sharp-bladed weapons of the finest material. The height of each figure varies from 1.75 to 1.9" metres (6 to 6,5 feet), and the foot soldiers are flanked by more than 130 wooden chariots and 500 horsemen. The various bodily parts of the figures, produced in series, are of different colours. The terracotta army represents the power of the great Ch'in dynasty, whose founder. King Cheng, created the first centralized and multinational empire. In celebration of this accomplishment, he adopted the name Ch'in Shih-huang-ti, the First Emperor. He also initiated the building of the great monument of Chinese unity", the Great Wall, which extends 2.000 km (1,240 miles) from the China Sea to the northwest border of the country.

Terracotta battle horse.
Museum of Chinese History, Peking.

Aegean Art

The Aegean Sea, with its many islands, was the cradle of pre-Hellenic civilization. A widely diffused culture had appeared in the Cycladic archipelago by the middle of the third millennium bc. This early phase of Cycladic art was characterized by ceramics decorated with zigzags, running spirals, and ship motifs that symbolized the marine activity of the region. The islands abounded in marble, which provided the ideal material for the sculpture of vases and of idols, the most typical of which were female figures (possibly fertility goddesses). Also known are kouratrophoi (women with babies in their arms), musicians (lyre and pipe players) and hunter-warriors. These figures varied both in size -from a few centimetres to a metre or so in height - and in type. Examples include schematic figures, violin-shaped or with a rounded lower body, and even the more naturalistic ones have the head reduced to a plane surface relieved only by the nose. The artists worked to a canon of proportions: all features are formalized, faces (nose, eyes, and mouth) at best simply delineated, though details were also picked out in paint. In the course of the second millennium. Crete, to the south of the Cyclades, became dominant in the Aegean Sea and its islands. The prosperity of this civilization, named Minoan after the legendary King Minos, is evident in the construction of the palaces at Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia. These first palaces were all damaged in about 1700bc, and were at once rebuilt.

Fresco fragment with hunting scene,
from the palace at Tiryns
c. 1250BC
National Museum, Athens

Surviving art shows the development of original forms and styles with an interest in nature. This is manifested by items such as the precious metalwork and carved stone vases of the second palaces. Some of these are decorated with bull and lion heads, from which liquids were poured at ritual occasions. Even much earlier, decorative vitality was illustrated in the mottled surface colourings of Vasilki ware (the result of skilful painting and kiln control), and also in the seals enlivened by linear plant and animal motifs. A large number of high-quality ceramics were produced during the time of the first palaces (2000-1700bc). The Kamares style involved often refined wares in a variety of forms, featuring schemes of white and polychrome patterning on a dark background, often complex in the ordering of both geometric and natural motifs. After 1700BC, magnificent new palaces arose in urban settings, and an extensive building programme took place in the countryside. The pottery of this period developed slowly: simple, formalized renditions of flowers (daisies, delicate lilies, branches of foliage) and animals (leaping dolphins) were featured in white on a brown-black ground. They were developed from Kamares wares but had some original features. Soon, natural elements abounded, depicted in black set against a light brown ground and greatly inspired by floral and marine subjects. Swimming octopi with clutching tentacles covered the surfaces of vases, interspersed with argonauts, starfish, corals, shells, and jagged rocks. The technical brilliance of Minoan art is best seen in its products in miniature. Bronze cast figurines show male votaries wearing loincloths and the women wearing long skirts and open bodices that expose their breasts. The statuette of the snake goddess is more elaborate, typical of the Minoan faience, or highly coloured earthenware. An attentive observation of nature is clearly evident in images in frescos and on vases made of a variety of materials (many of a serpentine-related matter, others in obsidian, rock-crystal, and porphyry). Among those portrayed is the bull captured at full speed in its charge.

Snake Goddess
Faience statuette from Knossos
c. 16OObc
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion,Crete
The goddess carries a
panther or a leopard on
her headdress

The stone vases, with their relief carvings, are deservedly famous: one pear-shaped rhyton (horn-shaped drinking vessel) shows a bustling procession of reapers with pitchforks led by a priest wearing a scaled jacket, and four singers, one playing a sistrum (a rattle of Egyptian origin). The artisan conveys depth by superimposing bodies and crossing the forks; the narrow waists of the figures minimize the contrast of the frontal view of the torso and the side view of the legs. Even with the more stylized models of domestic animals, such as bulls, sheep, wild goats, and birds, this interest is maintained. Bulls are especially prominent, as they are enshrined in the legend of the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull. This compositional exuberance and freedom is contrasted with the tense formality that increasingly pervades portrayals after about 1450bc - following the arrival of the Mycenaean overlords in Crete. These mainlan-ders, whose local culture in central and southern Greece had been transformed under the spur of Minoan culture, now took advantage of Cretan weakness to establish control first there and then throughout the Aegean. Such stylistic changes are readily observed in the processional frescos that adorn the palace of Knossos, as well as the limestone sarcophagus from Hagia Triada, dating from about 1400bc, which is decorated with religious scenes of sacrifice and worship. They are also evident in the ceramics: for example, the octopus is now placed vertically, while surviving floral and marine motifs are arranged stiffly and symmetrically. The social organization of places like Mycenae, Tiryns, and Orchomenos revolved around a class of military leaders, often identified with the legendary Achaeans, celebrated by Homer. They built their palaces on elevated positions, later protecting them with immense, Cyclopean walls. Those at the citadel of Tiryns range in thickness between 5 and 17 metres (16 and 55 feet). Towers may have strengthened the walls, and water supplies on the outside were reached by underground passages. The majestic Lion Gate of Mycenae was built of simple, massive blocks. The two lions, created in heraldic pose, are positioned over the lintel, guarding the entrance; they are among the earliest examples of monumental sculpture on the Greek mainland.

The heart of each royal seat was the palace, centred on the enclosed megaron, a reception area surrounded by storage rooms, archives, living quarters and courts; it was smaller than its Cretan counterpart, with its open central courts. Just as Mycenean architecture borrowed from Cretan but diverged significantly from it, so the artistic styles developed along their own paths. Frescos depicting ritual scenes, as well as more violent pursuits such as battles, adorn the walls. Stone vases, metal weaponry, and jewellery all produced new forms. The decoration of ceramics grew progressively more stylized and simple, with banded zones reducing the patterned area; however, a pictorial element consistently remained.

Seated Harpist
Marble statue from Keros, Cyclades,
National Museum, Athens
The cleanness of line in this and other pieces has influenced artists in modern times

painted relief plaster from the palace at Knossos,
c. 1425bc.
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

A catastrophic earthquake in about 1700bc left the magnificent palace at Knossos in ruins. However, impressive and extensive reconstruction work produced an even more glamorous successor. This second palace was built on the terraced mound around a central court, with the surrounding quarters -up to four storeys high in places — spreading out in a design more concerned with practicality than symmetry. Among many imposing features were monumental entrances, staircases, colonnaded halls, lightwells, lustral basins, and extensive storage facilities. Lavish use was made of wooden columns, tapered at the base, which contributed to the light, airy atmosphere. The frescos took much of their inspiration from nature: flowers and animals mingle with humans in symbolically charged settings. Colours were bright, if not always strictly realistic, species were at times hybridized, and human anatomy was carefully portrayed. Occasional scenes of court life exist, such as ritual dances, as well as sporting events, such as bull-leaping. After about 145Obc, development towards a more static and formalized style (found also in pottery) is evident in friezes, such as the Campstool and Cup-Bearer frescos: reliefs like the Lily-Prince retain the older, naturalistic style.

Head of a charging bull, detail of painted relief from Knossos, c. 1600bc.
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

Remains (extensively restored)
of a lustral basin
from the palace at Knossos


At some point between l620bc and 1500bc (scholarly opinion differs), a terrible volcanic eruption devastated the island of Them (modern-day Santorini). The disappearance of part of the island possibly inspired Plato's myth of Atlantis, his Utopian island that was swallowed by the sea. On Thera, the marvellous wall paintings of the great city at Akrotiri have survived in the rock and ash. Geometrical patterns and marbled stones exist, as do plant motifs such as crocuses, lilies, and myrtles; animal motifs such as monkeys, swallows, antelopes, lions, and dolphins; and scenes of life in town and countryside, which range from images of marching soldiers to peaceful cattle. Painted on plaster, all are represented in a simple yet meticulous manner, and the artists have paid close attention to colour. Episodes of a single, apparently continuous narrative appear in the miniature frieze of the West House. The detailed topography has persuaded some that the frieze portrays an actual event associ ated with the houses occupant — possibly a sea voyage, via Crete, to North Africa.

Detail of frieze West House
Akrotiri, Thera, Greecec

Flask with octopus decoration
c. 1450BC
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete



Aegean art, from its earliest days on Crete and the Cyclades. only seldom featured grandiose or overtly royal figures - more the norm in the Near East. However, mythological, symbolic, and ritual concepts permeated every aspect of daily life. One regularly depicted symbol was the bull - featured in the abduction of Europa by Zeus, and as the father of the Minotaur on Pasiphaë, queen to Minos. The animal may-have stood for the more remote figure of the god-king, its horns used to mark out the sacredness of a place. In later Greek myth, the Titaness Metis (or Counsel) assisted Zeus in administering the potion by which Cronos was made to disgorge Zeus' siblings. Zeus dethroned his father and took Metis for consort. Alarmed by a prophecy that a second, male child would depose him, Zeus swallowed the pregnant Metis by trickery. Eventually, his daughter Athene was born fully-formed. The octopus, being apparently a large head with many arms and being able to change colour at will, became a symbol for the divine wisdom of the two goddesses and stood for clear thinking.

Kamares vase
c. 1800bc
Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete



Named after the cave sanctuary on Crete's Mount Ida, where the first substantial amounts of Kamares pottery were found, such wares combined refined technique and creative flair. It is believed this style of pottery was produced for the first palace centres of Knossos and Phaistos between the 20th and 19th century bc. Decoration of the vases consisted of balanced and often repeating patterns of linear and spiral-based motifs, with many naturalistic elements as well as stylized humans, all painted in white, yellow, orange, red, and crimson-mauve on a metallic-looking black or brownish ground. Stamped motifs, such as shells and flowers, added relief elements. Such shapes decorated all manner of plates, fruit stands, jugs, jars, bowls, and cups - some with walls as thin as eggshell, others quite heavy.



This work, pan of the Taureador fresco from the east side of the Palace at Knossos. shows a sport invoking three figures and a bull. From Persia to Egypt. the bull was an important animal in ancient symbolism, and was often ritually sacrificed. In Crete, contests pitting bull against athletes (in a ritual activity termed taurokathapsia, or bull-leaping) arc portrayed in various media: the danger seems to apply solely to the humans. This painting, made with pigments on lime plaster, features a beautiful palette of subdued colours, including ochre and blue. Like many of the works found by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos, the fresco was badly damaged and in need of restoration.

Wall-painting on lime plaster
15th century bc
Archaeological Museum. Herakliou. Crete.


Following his earlier excavations at Troy, Heinrich Schliemann, the romantically-minded archaeologist, turned his attention to Mycenae, the city of the legendary King Agamemnon, who was murdered by his wife and her lover. He believed that he had found the remains of the unfortunate king and gave the royal name to a magnificent gold mask, found in one of a group of shaft graves that had been encircled by a stone perimeter and enclosed within the later citadel walls. The strong features and accentuated lines of the mask, together with the retold story by such figures as the Greek travel-writer Pausanias. evoke the memory of the tragedy. The mask did not actually belong to Agamemnon, but the funeral trappings and the profusion of gold indicate that the graves did contain royalty. As well as the masks, there were vessels of metal, stone, and clay; smaller personal items of metal, ivory, and stone; vases of faience; and many metal weapons, some with intricate inlay. Chief of these are the dagger blades, set with heavily Minoanized scenes of the hunt, of animals and flowers; these are all cunningly built up from individually prepared stamps of gold, silver, and copper.

Gold Agamemnon mask,
Mycenae, c. 1500BC
National Museum, Athens

Dagger blade with decoration showing a lion hunt, Mycenae,
c. 1550bc
National Museum, Athens