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Pompeii of the Aegean: The Wall Paintings of Thera

The Saffron Gatherers, circa 1600 BCE, Prehistoric Thera Museum, Santorini, Greece. Detail.

Ancient Greece

Pompeii of the Aegean: The Wall Paintings of Thera

The wall paintings of Thera (Santorini) reveal the bustling civilization that existed on the southernmost island of the Cyclades circa 1600 BCE. Around that time the island suffered a devastating earthquake along with a volcanic eruption which caused part of the island to submerge into the sea. It is believed that the tsunami that followed reached Crete, and wreaked havoc there as well. Akrotiri, a harbor town on Thera, was preserved as if in a time capsule, buried in layers of pumice and volcanic ash. In 1967, Spyridon Marinatos began excavations in the ‘Pompeii of the Aegean’, unearthing multi-storied buildings that housed magnificent frescoes.

The wall-paintings from Akrotiri are distinguished by the originality of their iconography, the freedom in the design and rendering of the figures, and the richness of their colors. Their perfect state of preservation, thanks to their burial in volcanic ash, has allowed the identification of several different artists working within a Theran tradition under the influence of Minoan Crete.

How the wall-paintings were made

Spring Fresco, circa 1600 BCE., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece.
The Wall Paintings of Thera: Spring Fresco, circa 1600 BCE., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

The stone walls were first covered with a mixture of clay and straw in order to seal the wall against moisture and guarantee the endurance of the frescoes, then came layers of plaster. The painter applied the colors to the wet surface using twine and a pointed tool. Painting on a wet surface also enhanced the endurance of the work. Lastly, some details were added on a dry surface.  

Spring fresco

Spring Fresco, circa 1600 B.C., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece
The Wall Paintings of Thera; Spring Fresco, circa 1600 BCE., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

The wall painting of Spring is the only one that was found in its entirety, covering the three walls of a room. It shows the Theran landscape before the volcanic explosion. Upon the rocky landscape, red lilies with yellow stems bloom and sway in a gentle breeze. In the sky, swallows alone or in pairs play, announcing the coming of spring.  

The boxing children and antelopes

The Boxing Children, circa 1600 B.C., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece
The Wall Paintings of Thera: The Boxing Children, circa 1600 BCE., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Wikipedia.

Two young boys are locked in a boxing match. Their tanned bodies inform us of their gender. The boys are naked apart from a loincloth and boxing gloves. Their heads are shaved, apart from a few long locks. The blue space on their heads suggests the shaved parts. The boy on the left wears an impressive amount of jewelry, a necklace, a pair of earrings, and an anklet, probably to show his higher social status.

Antelopes, circa 1600 B.C., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece
The Wall Paintings of Thera: Antelopes, circa 1600 BCE., National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

In the same room as the boxers, the other walls were decorated with images of antelopes. Alone or in pairs, the animals are represented with thick black lines on a white background. Τhe antelopes along with the boxers form a larger symbolic composition of young humans and animals.  

Boxing Children and Antelopes at the National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece.
The Wall Paintings of Thera: Boxing Children and Antelopes at the National Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece.

Fisherman

Fisherman, circa 1600 B.C., Prehistoric Thera Museum.
The Wall Paintings of Thera: Fisherman, circa 1600 BCE, Prehistoric Thera Museum, Santorini, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

A young man is holding two batches of fish in each hand, tied with yellow string. He is tanned and his head is shaved like in the fresco of the boxing children. The fisherman fresco was found in the northeastern corner of room 5 in the West Ηouse. There have been suggestions that he is performing some kind of ritual because we see him move towards the northwestern corner of the room where excavations unearthed an offering table.

It is possible to distinguish the hands of different painters in the Theran wall paintings. The austerity and simplicity of the fisherman, balanced with grace and vitality in the design of the figure, resembles that of the boxing children. Perhaps both frescoes were made by the same hand.

Saffron gatherers

The Saffron Gatherers,
The Wall Paintings of Thera: The Saffron Gatherers, circa 1600 BCE, Prehistoric Thera Museum, Santorini, Greece. Saffron Express.

Saffron is one of the most delicate and interesting ingredients to cook with and has been since the times of prehistoric Thera. In this fresco, two women gather the plant from the rocky landscape. There seems to be a difference in age and status between them. On the left, there is an older woman, possibly the teacher. She gathers the saffron using only one hand while holding a basket. On the left we see a younger woman, the apprentice, using both hands. Because of the stern expression on the teacher’s face, she is probably reprimanding her apprentice for her sloppy technique.

The Saffron Gatherers, detail.
The Wall Paintings of Thera: The Saffron Gatherers, circa 1600 BCE, Prehistoric Thera Museum, Santorini, Greece. Detail. Saffron Express.

Both women are painted with white alabaster skin, a symbol of their sex, to show that, in contrast to the men, they do not spend much time under the blazing Greek sun. Their clothes and jewelry are ornate and beautifully designed. The landscape and the figures are handled freely and more painterly, reminding us of the ‘Spring’ fresco and suggesting that both came from the hand of the same painter.

Monkeys

Monkeys,circa 1600 B.C., Prehistoric Thera Museum.
The Wall Paintings of Thera: Monkeys, circa 1600 BCE, Prehistoric Thera Museum, Santorini, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.

In a playful scene, a troop of monkeys is quickly climbing the volcanic rocks of the island to get away from two dogs. The fresco is fragmented but the cheerful and colorful animals still fascinate the viewer. Monkeys were not indigenous to the island. However, monkeys must have lived on the island before the explosion, possibly imported from the Middle East or North Africa, because during the excavations, a monkey’s skull was found.


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Art Historian, she graduated from the Department of History and Archeology of the University of Athens and has a Masters degree in Art History from the University of Sussex. She is a member of the Association of Greek Art Historians.

She has worked in the National Gallery of Art in Athens and in the 4th Athens Biennale AGORA (2013). She has taught Art History in the Municipal Art School of Aghia Paraskevi and in the digital university Iversity (Berlin). She was the assistant curator of the exhibition Inferno of George Pol. Ioannidis in the Italian Institute of Culture in Athens (2017-2018), where she presented the painter’s work in a lecture at the Institute. Her articles have been published in Ta Nea tis Technis and avopolis.gr. Recently, one of her short stories was among the winners in the 2nd short story competition of Ianos bookstore and was published.

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