The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations are considered to be the two greatest civilizations in the Greek Bronze Age. The Minoan civilization, named after the legendary King Minos, was based on the island of Crete, and was the earlier of the two civilizations. The Mycenaean civilization, which was based on the mainland of Greece, was named after the primary settlement of Mycenae. Both civilizations possessed a feature unshared by other civilizations, which was an architectural complex of great proportions called a "palace." The palace housed the rulers that presided over the city or settlement. It was on the walls of these palaces where numerous frescoes were created.

The earlier of the two civilizations, the Minoan, was at the height of existence between 2200 and 1450 BC (end of the Early Bronze Age). Its richest and finest period was around 1725 BC, after the old palace period ended with the destruction of most of the existing palaces by a powerful earthquake. The more notable Minoan palace was at Knossos. The palace offers a rich source of frescoes throughout its walls.

Many of the wall paintings discovered in the Aegean region were produced between 1550 and 1450 BC. The Mycenaean civilization began around 1450 BC. Mycenaean artists adopted many styles from the Minoan civilization. The style of the findings were consistent throughout the region, with the only difference possibly being the less spontaneous and grander expression of Mycenaean artists than that of their Minoan counterparts.

The subjects of the frescoes generally fell under two categories: nature scenes and palace life. Nature scenes consisted of landscapes, animals, birds and marine life, and were painted with an impressionistic style. Palace subjects included religious festivals and processions, and court ceremonies.

More recently, archeologists have discovered a lost existence on Thera. The excavations at Akrotiri on Thera, now modern Santorini, provides much knowledge about this rich settlement. Thera was made up of wealthy houses c.1500 BC. Soon after these homes were built, they were destroyed by lava in a huge volcanic eruption. Much of the settlement has been recovered by the Greek Archaeological Service. Here, among the debris, excavators uncovered extraordinary frescoes.

Artists from the area created wall paintings with a style that set them apart from the Cretan artists. Though they possessed an execution similar to the artists of Crete, the Theran artists expressed their stylings through coarse application and depiction of life on the island. Theran artists used brilliant colors in their work, as evidenced in an elaborate scene from the room of the blue monkeys. Other subjects of frescoes found included fishermen, boxing children, crowd scenes, antelopes, and landscapes as they appeared prior to the island's devastating volcanic eruption.

The following timetable outlines a brief historical background of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations:

Pre-Palace Period :

Early-Middle Minoan / Early Bronze Age
c.3100-1925 BC


Old-Palace Period :

Middle Minoan / Early-Middle Bronze Age
c.1925-1725 BC


New-Palace Period :

Middle-Late Minoan /
Middle-Late Bronze Age
c.1725-1380 BC
Birth of Mycenaean civilization
c.1450 BC


Post-Palace Period :

Late Minoan and Middle-Late
Mycenaean / Late Bronze Age
 c.1380-1000 BC


c.1000 BC:

The end of Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations



Pottery is the most common find in almost all archeological digs. As a result, painted vases are possibly the greatest source for providing chronological evidence of civilizations and of information relating to ancient depictions of life, taste and myth.

Early-Middle Minoan pottery (c.3100-1725 BC) was highly regarded for its bright decorative designs. Three styles were introduced during this period; Floral, Pattern and Marine. The Floral Style subject matter included lilies, palm-trees, tulips, and reeds. Pattern Style designs used curvilinear abstract and geometric patterns consisting of thick horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines and spirals joined by tangents. Marine Style utilized sea-life such as fish, dolphins, octopuses, seaweed, and corals. The New Palace Period (Middle-Late Minoan; c.1725-1380 BC) introduced a toned-down style of vase painting. Referred to as the Palace Style, the designs were mainly black and white. An artist occasionally used colors of yellow or red, but only sparingly. The style of Late Minoan pottery (c.1380-1000 BC) continues with little recognition as the marketability of the Mycenaean civilization's pottery flourishes.

Mycenaean pottery (c.1450-1000 BC) was heavily influenced by Cretan works. In its early development, we see the use of the aforementioned Palace Style, though the decoration used by the Mycenaean artists is more controlled and monumental in style than that of the Minoan potters. The Mycenaean artists confined decoration to specific areas on the pottery, and a single pattern would form its main design. This was quite a contrast to the free-flowing and almost eccentric use of designs by the Minoan artists prior to the New-Palace Period.

As the Palace Style evolved we see the incorporation of the Pattern Style. However, the Pattern Style decoration here becomes more and more simplified as the period progresses, to the point that the design becomes no more than a squiggle. Another style was introduced during this period, called the Pictorial Style. Here artists clearly copied fresco art onto pottery. In many cases, the artists added chariots to the scenes being depicted. It is with this style that human figures are introduced to vase painting.

Much of the unearthed vase paintings in post-Minoan/Mycenaean Greece depict narrative scenes, especially during the Archaic and Early Classical periods. The subject matter of the paintings often match the use of the pottery. Wine cups, for instance, may depict aggressive characters to coincide with the result of the aggressiveness found in an over-imbiber.

The following timetable outlines the periods following the end of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations:

Geometric Period :
Orientalizing Period:
Archaic Period:
Classical Period:

10th - 8th century BC
8th - 7th century BC
6th century BC
5th - 4th century (323 BC)

The Geometric Period begins about 900 BC, after the end of the Dark Ages, which came on the heels of the virtual extinction of the Mycenaean civilization. This period got its name due to the geometric decorations used as art on the vases. Figures modeled after the human form started to resurface in vase painting during the Orientalizing Period, c.750 BC. Also, at around this time the first narrative portrayals surfaced on vases in Attica, which was located in central Greece and was dominated by Athens after previously being heavily populated by the Mycenaeans. Further, Attic vases depicted human figures as a main theme from the 8th through the 4th centuries BC.

The great mercantile city of Corinth was the leader in pottery manufacturing during the 7th century BC. The artists developed a technique called black-figure painting. This method required the artist to paint a figure on an unfired vase. Then details were carved into the clay. After the vase was fired in the kiln, the final result showed the black figure (where painted) and the remains of the light color of the clay (where carved). The unpainted and uncarved portion of the pottery remained the earthy red color of the clay itself.

Most of the style used by the Corinthian artists was ornamental, with Oriental motifs and animal friezes, due to the influence of Eastern art introduced through the development of trade with the East back in the late 8th century BC. Artists from Attica adopted the Corinthian black-figure technique. Because of the popularity of narrative scenes in lieu of ornamental animal friezes, and with the continued demand for black-figure vase-painting, Attica became the new leader in exporting pottery by the middle of the 6th century BC (the Archaic Period). Later in this century, c.530 BC, Attic vase-painters carried their marketability to new heights with their introduction of a technique called red-figure. This method was basically the reverse of the black-figure technique. The background was painted black while the figures remained untouched and were the red color of the clay, with the exception of light color produced by the carved details.

The Archaic Period is considered the greatest period of creativity relative to the depiction of mythology in Greek art. The first sight of mythical scenes began to surface in Attic vases at this time, and mythical themes are carried over through the 5th century BC. These themes involved a gamut of topics, from common life events such as courtship, love, marriage, death and burials, to wild feasting, drinking and sex orgies, all portrayed through mythical stories and individuals detailed in narrative scenes.

The 5th century BC, which has been viewed by most experts in the archaeological field as the pinnacle of Greek and Roman civilizations, is known as the Classical Period. Scholars consider this period the apex of Greek art. The artists in the first half of this century brought an array of styles to their work. We see work still practiced from the prior century (Archaic Period), tamer styles of the current century and new ideas in methods and styles by yet other inventive artists. Towards the late 5th century, we start to see escapism in the artists' style, probably due to the subsequent decline of Athens.

By the time of the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the production of Attic vases, with their highly informational narrative scenes, came to a close. That year also marked the end of the Classical Period.


As with frescoes and pottery, artists of ancient Greece were able to express themselves through sculptural reliefs, friezes, and statues.

In the sixth century sculptors began to develop skills in reproducing the human body through stone. As with frescoes, the artists' objective was to provide a depiction of life as it was at that time. Throughout the century the artists' skill and style advanced greatly. By the end of the Archaic Period the work evolved considerably in its realistic representation; quite a contrast to the rigid figures with abnormal proportions and unnatural characteristics exhibited in the beginning of the century.

The art of the fifth century, or Classical Period, consisted of three distinct stages: the first half of the century, the second half of the century, and the last quarter of the century.

The art of the first half of the century was known as the Severe style. During this period, leftover Archaic forms lingered among the emergence of Early Classicalstyle. The style brought a simplification of forms and treatment of drapery, together with subjects caught in motion or expressing emotion. During this period, there were apparent contrasts between what may be considered ideal and real. Many works possessed old-fashioned composition mixed with advance depictions of characters in a scene alongside monumental figures.

The second half of the century, specifically in the period of Periklean supremacy (460-429 B.C . ), brought the emergence of a dynamic style. During this High Classical style, the human form was idealized. The majority of work produced exhibited men and women as creatures of optimum perfection. Old age and undesirable features were absent. Known as the Phidian style, statues produced at this time began to look alike; perfect straight noses, blank glances, shapely mouths, and beautiful muscular bodies give the work a feeling of superficiality and unattainable excellence of appearance. Lacking was the sense of naturalism and emotion provided earlier by the Severe style.

Many prolific sculptors gained notoriety during the transitional Classical/Hellenistic art periods. One such sculptor was Lysippos. He introduced true three-dimensionality to sculpture. He accomplished this with his use of open forms which allows the viewer aspects of the piece from more than one vantage point. Lysippos was recognized more as a Hellenistic Period artist than that of the Classical Period.

After his death in 323 B.C . ,Alexander the Great's expansive empire was divided up into many different kingdoms by his generals. As a result, there was a great diversity of the people and emergence of individuality with regards to ideas, relationships, and tastes. The great art centers that were once in mainland Greece now spread to the surrounding islands. There is no date or marker to identify the end of the Classical Period art style and the beginning of the Hellenistic Period art style. The transition was gradual; towards the end of the Classical Period, the style spilled over to the end of the fourth century. Artists' work began to vary. The style started to relax. Attention to detail, particularly with drapery, became elaborate and intricate. Clinging drapery, or wet-drapery style, became most evident at this time. Artists' representations became more individual and realism overpowered idealism. Emotional states of mind became the focus of style. Naturalism continued to increase. New art was demanded by the people. The wealthy classes carried their hunger for art as decoration to new heights. Rich art collectors began to make a powerful impact in the art world. The new cities were unquenchable in their desire for abundant numbers and styles of new sculpture, thus allowing vast opportunities to artists. Natural subjects and attraction to realism were in high demand.

As the Hellenistic age progressed, numerous monuments were erected. The most celebrated monument of the Hellenistic age was the Pergamon Altar, created by Greek artists for King Eumenes II. Erected c. 180 B.C . , the altar stood as a memorial to the victories of Attalos and was dedicated to Zeus and Athena. A high podium enclosed the altar. The immense monumental frieze that decorated the podium depicted the battle between gods and giants. Examples of many Hellenistic characteristics were seen in this piece, with tremendous action and drama unfolding among magnificent details. The tragic and tortuous expressions on the giants' faces offered an emotional complexity unsurpassed by any prior work. Further, notwithstanding the gruesome battle scene, the bodies of individual subjects possessed exceptional beauty.

Heading into the Late Hellenistic Period, Classical art of the fifth and fourth century began to influence artists' work. The reason for this was twofold; 1) Romans at this time felt that Classical art of the fifth and fourth century produced the greatest Greek sculpture work, and 2) earlier period pieces were favored along with modern tastes. Artists created pieces with a high intensity of technical skill. Much of the realism was surrendered in order to make a statement in a scene. The style became dramatic in a theatrical sense. Eroticism became a marketable commodity and was evident in new works. Towards the end of the Hellenistic age sculptors began to incorporate elements of Archaic style into their work. This style use was seen in pieces as late as the second half of the first century A.D., past the end of the Hellenistic age and into the early Roman Period.