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Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context: New Discoveries, Old Finds Reconsidered
January 2017 (121.1)
Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context: New Discoveries, Old Finds Reconsidered
Edited by Hariclia Brecoulaki, Jack L. Davis, and Sharon R. Stocker (Meletemata 72). Pp. 403, figs. 196, table 1. National Hellenic Research Foundation, Institute of Historical Research, Athens 2015. €120. ISBN 978-960-9538-34-3 (cloth).
This comprehensive and colorful volume is based on a workshop held in Athens in February 2011 and is devoted to the largely neglected matter of Mycenaean mural painting. Instead of thematic, iconographical, and other comparative studies, the main focus of the contributions is placed on the presentation of selected material from various sites of the Mycenaean mainland, as indicated by the subtitle of the book. Most of the articles are devoted to fresco material from one distinct site, be it a mural composition or a group of painted plaster fragments from a particular findspot. Given our hitherto fragmentary knowledge of Mycenaean wall painting per se, this is a well-chosen strategy. The book thus does not aim at providing an overview or a systematic study of Mycenaean mural painting, nor does it enable us to gain a clear understanding of the development of this prominent Mycenaean iconographical medium, nor does it contain an analysis of the pictorial programs of Mycenaean palaces. Nevertheless, the contributions in the book significantly increase our knowledge of Mycenaean plaster painting by presenting new iconographical material. Moreover, a great merit of this volume is the high quality of the color images and the appealing layout.
The preface is followed by 14 chapters grouped into five sections; the first section, “Conceptual and Geographical Contexts,” comprises articles giving stimulating contextual insights as well as studies of paintings from Akrotiri on Thera and Ayia Triada, the last ones dating to the “Mycenaean” period of Crete. The other four sections are grouped according to regions and sites on the Mycenaean mainland: Mycenae (painted plaster figurines, the Petsas House, and the West House), Tiryns and Argos, Messenia (Iklaina-Traganes, Pylos), and finally Boeotia (Thebes, Orchomenos, Gla). This already demonstrates the greatest merit of this volume: the publication of selected old and more recently discovered material; the bulk of fragments from Argos and Orchomenos are presented here for the first time. The diachronic character becomes apparent especially in the presentation of material from Iklaina (Late Helladic [LH] IIB–LH IIIA1) as well as Argos and the Petsas House at Mycenae (LH IIIA2), although these paintings basically do not seem to differ from later ones.
As the limited frame of this review does not allow for a discussion of the individual contributions, I will briefly give a few general impressions in order to underline the high value of this volume in shaping our understanding of Mycenaean wall painting. It becomes clear that Mycenaean mural images were more opulent in the depiction of terrain motifs, vegetation, animals, and seascapes than one could previously assume. As fragments from Iklaina, Pylos, and Orchomenos demonstrate, naval scenes were also more widespread. It becomes obvious that the Mycenaean iconography of processions exhibited a higher degree of variability and liveliness than hitherto assumed. The material from Argos illustrates that female figures were not always depicted in procession scenes or as goddesses but occurred also in more lively activities. The involvement of (white-skinned) women in hunting scenes such as in Tiryns is now reinforced by their occurrence in the hunting friezes from Mycenae and Orchomenos. Interestingly enough, as examples from different Mycenaean sites now well demonstrate, the scale of the human figures in one and the same composition may vary to a higher degree than is the case in Minoan mural paintings. Alternating male skin colors such as red and white in Argos (216, fig. 2) or red and yellow in Orchomenos (367, fig. 24) seem to have been a more widespread pictorial formula (of Egyptian origin) used for depicting a series of stereotypical men, as already postulated by the reviewer for the fresco of the so-called Captain of the Blacks from Knossos (“Afrikaner in der minoischen Ikonographie? Zum Fremdenbild in der bronzezeitlichen Ägäis,” Egypt and the Levant 12  84–91). Possibly leaving aside the ritual procession scene with parasols from Tiryns as well as wild goats and scorpions on fragments from Argos, the material presented here for the first time does not exhibit any basically new or widely unexpected features. This does not, in any way, mean that the volume merely presents “more of the same”; instead, this observation could demonstrate that the thematic and iconographical range of Mycenaean mural painting known to date gives us a reliable repertoire, a statement that hardly can describe the iconography of Minoan Crete which, even today, frequently takes us by surprise.
Although this volume presents material uncovered during a period of 130 years, from the late 19th century (Tsountas’ excavations at Mycenae) to 2010 (Iklaina), in the articles one might occasionally gain the impression that no fresco finds were made before Blegen’s excavations in Pylos starting in 1939, such as those at the citadels of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Thebes (published by Rodenwaldt and others). Thus, what is glaringly excluded from this volume are the highly important early finds, which must be restudied as well. Furthermore, only very few articles contain deeper analytical and synoptic studies; among those few should be highlighted the skillful contribution by Palaiologou on painted plaster figurines. That iconographical analyses were of less importance than the presentation of the new Mycenaean material itself is also exemplified by the selection of illustrations that, while excellent, exclude iconographical comparanda in other mural paintings, seal images, and additional artistic media, including from Neopalatial Crete. Nonetheless, these few points of criticism and reservation are certainly due to the limitation and the practicability of editing a book focused on the presentation of unpublished Mycenaean material.
This important volume closes a large gap and brings our knowledge of the find-material of Mycenaean wall painting to a state conforming to that of other artistic media of the Aegean Bronze Age. Once again it has to be emphasized that the aim of the book is neither to give an introduction to or an overview of Mycenaean mural painting nor to define its position in Aegean arts. For this, we still have to use the excellent book by Immerwahr (Aegean Painting in the Bronze Age [University Park, Penn. 1990]) even 25 years after its publication. Without any doubt, the book under review sets new standards not only in the presentation of new iconographical material but also in the documentation of Aegean mural paintings. This material brings us one step further in shaping a more adequate image of Mycenaean mural painting, an accomplishment that certainly will make this publication an indispensable compendium of Mycenaean mural paintings for many years to come.
Department of Classical Archaeology
University of Vienna, Austria
Book Review of Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context: New Discoveries, Old Finds Reconsidered, edited by Hariclia Brecoulaki, Jack L. Davis, and Sharon R. Stocker
Reviewed by Fritz Blakolmer
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 1 (January 2017)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/3370