Lesson 24: Narrative

Mycenaean Pictorial Art and Pottery

  1. Frescoes
  2. Pottery


The most comprehensive, recent study of Mycenaean wall-painting is that by Sara Immerwahr (1990), a work which also surveys Minoan painting and therefore devotes considerable attention both to the differences between Minoan and Mycenaean fresco art and to the origins of figural wall- and floor-painting in the Aegean world. Much of what follows here is based on an earlier survey of Mycenaean wall-painting by Mabel Lang in her publication of the murals from the palace at Pylos (1969). Aside from Pylos, substantial numbers of wall-paintings are also known from Mycenae, Orchomenos, Thebes, and Tiryns. Mycenaean frescoes need not come from palaces, although the vast majority of them so far published do. There are, for example, post-palatial (i.e. LH IIIC) frescoes known from Mycenae, as well as frescoes of the palatial period from a private house in Argos and a “mansion” or possible mini-palace at Zygouries (the so-called “Potter’s Shop”). The earliest Mycenaean frescoes so far discovered come from dump deposits at Mycenae and probably date to the LH IIA period of the late 16th or early 15th century B.C.

The Pylos frescoes – those found in the ruins of the palace, whether actually in situ on walls or fallen from them, as well as those found in various dumps around the palace – may all be dated to the later LH IIIB period, ca. 1250-1200 B.C. These frescoes show:

(1) That much the same range of representational motifs appears in frescoes of ca. 1250 B.C. as can be found in frescoes of the period ca. 1750-1375 B.C. on Crete [Neopalatial and earlier Final Palatial pereiods] and in the islands. Thus the art of fresco painting is characterized on the Mycenaean Mainland by a tenacity of tradition that can be compared with that of oral formulaic poetry, particularly well illustrated in the poetry of Homer.

This tradition was established by the Minoans, although Cameron has observed a number of features in the depiction of large-scale female figures in Mycenaean frescoes of the LH IIIA-B periods which are to be derived from Theran (or generally Cycladic) rather than Minoan antecedents and which suggest that fresco art may have been transmitted to the Mainland from Crete through the Cyclades rather than directly. One result of the extreme conservatism of Mycenaean fresco art is that it is impossible to date Mycenaean murals by their subject matter alone. The repetitiousness of Mycenaean fresco iconography also suggests that “pattern books” of some sort may have been in circulation on the Greek Mainland during the later half of the Late Bronze Age.

(2) That fresco formulas, like the literary formulas in oral poetry, may in theory become misunderstood with the passage of time. Thus, for example, Mycenaean versions of bull-jumping differ so substantially from Minoan ones that modern authorities have questioned whether bull-jumping was still an activity actually practiced by the Mycenaeans. That is, the novel compositional aspects of such scenes could reflect misunderstanding of an artistic formula rather than a genuine change in the sport of bull-jumping.

(3) That the chronology of Mycenaean fresco art established by Rodenwaldt on the basis of the murals excavated at Tiryns by Schliemann and Dörpfeld is wildly optimistic. Rodenwaldt had maintained, for example, that in early frescoes ground lines and contour lines were avoided, that borders of simple bands were preferred to toothed borders, and that changing background colors were preferred to a constant blue backdrop. He had concluded that the earlier frescoes were simply better paintings. The contextual evidence from Pylos shows that such stylistic criteria are meaningless for the purposes of identifying chronological stages in the development of fresco art there. For example, at Pylos borders of simple bands are late while the toothed borders are early.

Lang feels that at least the Pylos frescoes, if not all Mycenaean wall-paintings, were more often decorative than functionally significant in some other sense. There is, in her opinion, no reason to believe that any of the Pylos paintings show true representations of everyday life in the form of hunting or combat, processional or religious scenes. Since the subject matter of all these paintings is derivative, they need not reflect contemporary activities. In this sense, then, there is a pronounced contrast with Minoan palatial fresco art, which in its choice of scenes certainly seems to have concerned itself primarily with real activities conducted on a regular basis in or around the palace building (i.e. bull-jumping, dancing, boxing, and processional scenes). However, it must be kept in mind that the purely decorative character of the wall paintings at Pylos may simply reflect the individual tastes of the local dynast, as do a number of the architectural peculiarities of that palace. At other palaces on the Greek Mainland, murals may have played a rather different functional role, and hence Lang’s conclusions about the use of frescoes as “wallpaper” may not be applicable to all or even most Mycenaean fresco art. Yet even if the Pylos frescoes are conceded to be largely decorative in function, certain motifs and themes are clearly considered appropriate for specific architectural locales: large lions and wingless griffins, for example, occur only in rooms with large ceremonial hearths, while processions of large-scale human figures decorate the walls of the porch and vestibule immediately preceding the throne room. As in Minoan painting, marine creatures typically decorate floors rather than walls (although a frieze of nautili appears on at least one Pylian wall), in marked contrast to the situation in the Cyclades (e.g. the extensive use of marine motifs on the walls of Room 5 in the West House at Akrotiri).


Categories of Subject Matter


“Pylos has little to show of nature for nature’s sake.” There is nothing at Pylos comparable to such scenes as the “Springtime Fresco” from Akrotiri, the frescoes showing blue monkeys picking flowers or romping about in a troupe from Knossos and Akrotiri, or the famous mural showing a cat stalking a bird from Ayia Triadha. Indeed, at Pylos many living forms including bluebirds, dogs, and nautili are reduced to the status of lifelessly repeated motifs employed in continuous friezes. The only plant forms which remain natural at Pylos are the flowers sometimes carried by women.


Animals have varied roles in the Pylos frescoes, but all animals are depicted primarily in terms of their interaction with human beings. Scenes within which only animals appear in a naturalistic landscape are extremely rare. In the hunting scenes, animals are man’s victims. They are included in other scenes as his property or his helpers (horses, dogs, a bull). Animals also figure importantly as symbols, presumably of royal power, in the form of alternating lions and wingless griffins. Only once at Pylos does an animal appear in a natural setting, in the form of a life-size deer in a fragmentary scene which includes a papyrus plant, found in Stairway 36 east of the main megaron and either fallen from a room on the second storey or, more probably, decorating the wall of the throne room opposite the throne itself.

The employment of animals in anthropocentric settings appears to be common to all Mycenaean wall painting and not a characteristic of the Pylos murals alone. Compare, for example, such well-known scenes as the boar hunt from Tiryns (known also in a virtually identical rendering at Orchomenos), the deer hunt from Tiryns, the bull-jumping panels from Mycenae and Tiryns, and the appearance of horses hitched to chariots at both Tiryns and Mycenae.

Disconnected Vignettes

In two distinct areas within the palace at Pylos (the inner propylon; fallen into Room 20 from the second storey), a broad medial frieze framed above and below by narrow friezes of nautili features various unconnected, small scenes scattered across a solidly colored background that alternates from blue to light tan or white. The individual small scenes, or vignettes, including shrine facades, individual grazing animals, and gossiping pairs of ladies, probably recurred again and again over this medial frieze in much the same fashion that the motifs of contemporary wallpaper are endlessly repeated.

Somewhat similar, but seemingly less regular and repetitive, and so likely to be thematically significant rather than purely decorative, are the figures of the lyre player accompanied by a bird, two distinct pairs of men at a smaller scale seated at tables feasting, and a much larger bull (possibly part of a sacrificial scene) which decorated the wall in the throne room just to the spectator’s right of the throne. These three sets of figures have been argued by McCallum to be part of a single composition in which a bull is being led into the palace first for sacrifice, and the for consumption in the royal hall hall by the king and his retainers. A noteworthy feature of the feast in the megaron is the singing of a bard reciting epic poetry to theaccompaniment of music he plays on a lyre. If McCallum is correct, a further peculiarity of Mycenaean fresco art at this site would be the radical discrepancy in scale between the various elements of this larger composition, a discrpancy that appears to have nothing to do with any attempt to indicate spatial depth or distance.

Human Activity

Two classes of such scenes may be differentiated on the basis of varying scales and subjects. Scenes on a small or miniature scale at Pylos include scenes of the hunt, of battle or of the preparation for battle, of offering and sacrifice, and of banqueting. Hunting and battle scenes on this small scale are also known from Mycenae, Tiryns, and possibly Orchomenos. The subject matter of these frescoes is thus far not well paralleled at this scale in Minoan painting (except possibly in the miniature frescoes from Tylissos that depict, among other things, boxers), but does appear to have had antecedents on a miniature scale in LM IA frescoes from Ayia Irini on Keos and Akrotiri on Thera. Scenes featuring life-size human figures of both sexes are common enough at Pylos but all appear to be processions of one sort or another. Similar scenes occur at both Tiryns and Thebes, and all such scenes are of course closely comparable to LM II-IIIA antecedents in the Corridor of the Procession and on the Grand Staircase at Knossos.



The development of Mycenaean pottery can be broken down into four major stages as follows:

Late Helladic I-IIA (ca. 1675/1650 – 1490/1470 B.C.)

The fine wares decorated with lustrous paint which constitute the basis for the differentiation between distinct LH I and LH IIA styles are heavily dependent on Minoan prototypes for both shapes and painted patterns. There is, at the same time, a considerable Middle Helladic “hangover” which takes the form of a persistence of Matt-painted wares and Middle Helladic shapes. For at least the first half-century of the period under discussion, the component of Mycenaean ceramics inspired by Minoan models constitutes only a small fraction of the total amount of pottery in early Mycenaean contexts. There is currently a good deal of debate as to where the first recognizably Mycenaean (as opposed to Middle Helladic) style of the Late Helladic I period arose. Some see this development taking place in the northeast Peloponnese (probably in the Argolid, in the vicinity of Mycenae), but equally compelling evidence suggests that this style appeared first in the southern Peloponnese, probably in Laconia, as the result of Minoan potters, possibly from Kythera, taking up residence at coastal sites on the Greek Mainland such as Ayios Stephanos

Late Helladic IIB-IIIA1 (ca. 1490/1470 – 1390/1370 B.C.)

With the collapse of Minoan palatial civilization and the possibility that Mycenaeans were temporarily in control of the palace at Knossos, the Mainland ceramic tradition begins to break away from Minoan stylistic domination. The lengthy process by which Mainland Greek potters concocted increasingly more abstract versions of what were originally naturalistic Minoan forms of ornament begins in earnest in this phase and is soon transmitted to Crete itself.

Late Helladic IIIA2-B (ca. 1390/1370 -1190 B.C.)

Shortly after this stage begins, the palace at Knossos suffers a major destruction, after which Mycenaean cultural forms become as dominant throughout the southern Aegean as Minoan forms had been earlier, if not indeed more so. During this period Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt for the first time come into close and intense contact with the Aegean, as masses of imported Mycenaean pottery from sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean reveal. The Mycenaean pottery style of the first three-quarters of this two-century-long era has been termed the “koine style” (from Greek koinos = “common, shared”) after its remarkable uniformity, both technical and stylistic, over a vast area of the eastern and central Mediterranean. It becomes virtually impossible during this century and a half to distinguish where in the Mycenaean world a particular vase is likely to have been made. Pottery from the Lipari islands north of Sicily in the west to that from Cyprus and the Levant in the east forms a stylistic continuum and regional traits are extremely difficult to detect.

In the second half of the 13th century B.C. – that is, the advanced LH IIIB period that is actually known as LH IIIB2 in the northeastern Peloponnese – this stylistic uniformity begins to break up at more or less the same time as Peloponnesian exports to Cyprus decline dramatically.

Late Helladic IIIC (ca. 1190-1050 B.C.)

Within twenty years of the destruction of the last Mycenaean palaces, ceramic regionalism becomes moticeably more apparent, presumably reflecting the progressively more severe breakdown of trade and international contacts during this troubled period. Pottery noew begins to deteriorate in quality and, in spite of a brilliant but brief renaissance in various areas of the Aegean around the third quarter of the 12th century which produced a series of regionally distinct ceramic styles of high quality and considerable art historical interest (e.g. Close Style, Octopus Style, Pictorial Style, Fringed Style), this decline in the ceramic art continues inexorably until, at the end of the LH IIIC period (equivalent to so-called “Submycenaean” in some areas), Mainland Greek pottery sinks to a nadir in both technical and artistic terms after which it can only improve. The pottery of this final period is characterized by a poverty in the repertoires of shapes and painted patterns which indicates that the production of pottery may have been reduced to little more than a household industry, in contrast to the large and productive workshops which had been supported in better times by the palatial economies of a sizable number of flourishing Mycenaean kingdoms.


Detailed Survey of Mycenaean Ceramic Developments, Period by Period

Late Helladic I (ca. 1675/1650 – 1600/1550 B.C.)

The pottery of this period varies considerably from area to area. In general, the further south the site, the greater the degree of Minoan influence. The ware which most closely distinguishes the pottery of this phase from that of the late Middle Helladic period is a fine ware painted with patterns in lustrous paint in a dark-on-light style (the so-called “LH I style”). Both the shapes (the favorites being the Vapheio cup, the semiglobular cup, the alabastron, and the piriform jar) and patterns of this ware are largely derived from LM IA pottery. Also appearing at this time is a fine ware coated all over with paint varying from red to black in color, depending on firing conditions. This ware, Mycenaean monochrome painted, is the direct descendant of Gray and Black Minyan, which disappear during the course of LH I, and the most popular single shape is therefore not surprisingly the goblet. The Yellow Minyan of late Middle Helladic merges imperceptibly into Mycenaean unpainted ware, the favorite shape again being the goblet. A variety of Matt-painted wares continue from late Middle Helladic into LH I. For example, most of the large closed vessels of LH I which bear any painted decoration at all are Matt-painted. Large bowls and kraters decorated in two colors of matt paint in styles known as “Aeginetan Bichrome” and “Mainland Polychrome” are also typical of the LH I period. Some Minoan and Cycladic shapes, such as Vapheio and Panel cups, are manufactured in Mainland wares (e.g. Matt-painted, Gray Minyan, Mycenaean unpainted).

Late Helladic IIA (ca. 1600/1550 – 1490/1470 B.C.)

The amount of fine pottery decorated with lustrous paint increases dramatically in this phase, and there is increased uniformity, both in the painting style and in other aspects of the overall ceramic assemblage, throughout the Peloponnese. Central Greece, however, is still characterized by pottery more Helladic than Minoanizing, a clear indication that the shift in ceramics caused by Minoan influence travelled gradually rather than suddenly, from south to north and probably from the coast toward the interior. The shape range of the LH IIA decorated style expands beyond that typical of LH I to include goblets, jugs, and jars. Although heavily dependent on LM IB models for its motifs, this LH IIA style includes relatively few close imitations of the distinctively Minoan Marine and Alternating styles of the period. Matt-painted wares become much less common and Gray Minyan has by now disappeared.

Late Helladic IIB (ca. 1490/1470 – 1435/1405 B.C.)

The hallmark of this period is the Ephyraean style, most commonly represented on goblets but also attested on ewers and jugs, a style quite possibly to be interpreted as a Mainland spin-off of the LM IB Alternating style. The restricted shape range of the Ephyraean style suggests that potters may have exploited it only for producing matched drinking sets of jugs, goblets, and dippers (or high-handled cups) plus the occasional krater [or mixing bowl]. The total stylistic dependence of Mainland Greek pottery on Minoan ceramics is now at an end. Indeed, the pottery of LM II Knossos, in particular the Minoan version of the Ephyraean goblet, shows that artistic influence was now travelling in the reverse direction, from the Mainland to Crete. Typical painted patterns are ivy, lilies, nautili, and blotchy stipple. Matt-painted pottery is by now very rare and has to all intents and purposes disappeared by LH IIIA1.

Late Helladic IIIA1 (ca. 1435/1405 – 1390/1370 B.C.)

The early Mycenaean goblet now begins to lengthen its stem and to have a shallower bowl on its way to becoming the late Mycenaean kylix. The Vapheio cup, a hallmark of early Mycenaean pottery, is transformed into the later Mycenaean mug and becomes much rarer in this form. The stirrup jar first appears in appreciable quantity. The most popular patterns are fine stipple and curve-stemmed spirals, while naturalistic motifs become both less popular and more stylized. In the monochrome painted and fine unpainted wares, the goblet also begins its metamorphosis into the kylix.

Late Helladic IIIA2 (ca. 1390/1370 – 1320/1300 B.C.)

The kylix is now the dominant open shape in settlement deposits, while the stirrup jar, piriform jar, and alabastron are the most frequently found shapes in tombs. Two new motifs are introduced which soon dominate pattern-painted decoration: the whorl-shell and the LH III flower, both in stylized rather than naturalistic forms. The large deposits of Aegean pottery from Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, particularly in terms of the closed forms, provide an excellent illustration of the contemporary shape range. Monochrome painted ware by this time has a shape range restricted largely to kylikes and stemmed bowls, although in some areas such as Attica there are also a number of closed shapes, especially jugs, in this ware. Fine unpainted ware has a vast range of both open and closed shapes.

Late Helladic IIIB (ca. 1320/1300 – 1190 B.C.)

The pottery of this period is distinguished from that of the preceding LH IIIA period by the presence of the deep bowl in both painted and unpainted wares and by the appearance of the unpainted conical kylix. Panelled patterns are also indicators of a LH IIIB or later date. It is not long before the deep bowl ousts the kylix as the most popular decorated shape, although the kylix retains its dominance in unpainted ware until the early LH IIIC period, after which unpainted ware appears to decline drastically in popularity. Two subphases within the LH IIIB period have been distinguished in the Argolid:

(a) LH IIIB1: characterized by an equal mix of painted deep bowls and kylikes, the kylikes being mostly of the “Zygouries” type and the deep bowls all being of the “Group A” type.

(b) LH IIIB2: characterized by the complete absence of pattern-decorated kylikes and by the appearance of the “Group B” and “Rosette” types of deep bowl.

It is unclear how long the first sub-phase is relative to the second, but the palaces of Mycenae and Tiryns, as well as the citadel at Midea, are destroyed at the end of LH IIIB2. The palace at Pylos and the site of the Menelaion near Sparta are also destroyed late in LH IIIB, although it is not currently possible to date their destructions precisely with relation to those in the Argolid.

Late Helladic IIIC (ca. 1190-1050 B.C.)

The growing ceramic regionalism characteristic of this period reflects the collapse of a strongly centralized political system and of the efficient communications network which accompanied it. Thanks to the relatively large number of site-wide destructions suffered during these troubled times, it is possible to subdivide it into several different phases:

Early Phase

The “Medium Band” type of deep bowl appears. Linear decoration only is characteristic on most painted shapes. Occasional new shapes, such as the carinated cup, appear, and new arrangements of decoration, or decorative syntaxes, on specific shapes (e.g. linear banding on semiglobular cups and kylikes) distinguish new versions of old shapes from their LH IIIB predecessors. An odd, handmade and burnished class of pottery lacking an ancestry within the Mycenaean world appears in contexts immediately post-dating the great destructions of the Argive palace sites and major citadels. This non-Mycenaean pottery has close parallels with pottery from Troy VIIb1, southern Italy, and Sicily, where, however, such pottery appears to be equally alien to the established local ceramic traditions. Although the original homeland of such pottery has been hypothesized perhaps most convincingly to be the Middle Danube region of central Europe, there is as yet no scholarly consensus on this subject.

Developed Phase

There is a renaissance in pattern-painted pottery, much of it bearing representational rather than purely abstract motifs, in a variety of regional styles: Close Style (Argolid), Octopus Style (eastern Attica, Cyclades, Dodecanese), Pictorial or Fantastic Style (Lefkandi), Fringed Style (Crete). Non-Mycenaean handmade and burnished pottery disappears at some sites but appears to persist at others. Scenes depicting warriors become increasingly popular, both as foot-soldiers (e.g. the famous Warrior Vase from Mycenae) and as chariot-borne troops.

Late Phase

The pottery of this phase is thus far poorly known. However, it is clear that the exuberant decoration of the Developed Phase has disappeared. Patterns are very simple when they do occur. Most of the pottery, in a very restricted range of shapes, is decorated either with simple bands or with a solid coating of paint. The phase known as “Submycenaean”, attested principally in Attica and the Argolid, is simply the last stage of this final sub-phase of the LH IIIC period.


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