East of the Peloponnese region of Greece, the small island of Aegina was home to a variety of artworks from the Middle period of Minoan civilization. The collection is known today as the Aegina Treasure and dates from about 1850 to 1550 BCE (British Museum Collection Database). One piece from the Aegina Treasure is the Master of Animals pendant, a gold medallion of a nature-god surrounded by water birds and lotus flowers. The pendant’s features are clearly guided by preceding cultures due to “the region’s penchant for seafaring” and “constant influx of new concepts” (Betancourt 6). A close visual analysis of the Aegina Treasure Master of Animals Minoan pendant exposes the stylistic influences of previous cultures on Minoan artwork and society.
Aegina Treasure Master of Animals Minoan pendant, from Aegina, Greece, ca. 1850 BCE - 1550 BCE
Map of modern Aegina, Greece
Among the elements that most evoke previous cultures is the application of heraldic composition in the Master of Animals pendant. The nature-god is flanked by a water bird on either side. This composition is reminiscent of a similar image on the bull-headed lyre plaque from excavations at the royal tomb of Ur where a man has his arms wrapped around the bodies of two heraldically-positioned bulls (Penn Museum Collections). The figural composition, creation dates, and Minoan tendency to adapt other cultural ideas suggest that the heraldic elements of the pendant derived from the lyre fragment plaque from Ur or another similar work from the Ancient Near East.
Bull Headed Lyre of Ur, from city-state of Sumer, Tomb 789, ca. 2550–2450 BCE
The Aegina Treasure pendant is “plainly influenced by Egyptian work,” notably through its portrayal of the Egyptian canon, composite perspective, and hierarchy of scale (Higgins 44). A painted hunting or “fowling” scene from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom Tomb of Nebamun illustrates these elements as they compare to the representation of the Master of Animals nature-god. Like the Minoan nature-god, middle-ranking official Nebamun is shown with a frontal torso, profile head and legs, and both arms raised on either side of his body. Nebamun’s painting and a mastaba painting of Ti, a high-ranking official from the Egyptian Old Kingdom, establish hierarchy of scale as the largest figures in the compositions -- also seen with the nature-god in the Aegina Treasure pendant. Minoan art drew on Egyptian representations of the human body to identify the nature-god as the most important figure in the artwork.
Fowling scene, tomb of Nebamun, from Thebes, Egypt, Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1400 BCE - 1350 BCE
Mastaba Painting of Ti, from Saqqara, Egypt, Dynasty V, ca. 2450 BCE - 2350 BCE
Minoan representation of animals is another aspect of influence from and comparison to previous cultures. By the beginning of the Minoan Middle period in 1550 BCE, animals were in the middle of the domestication process and were viewed differently than, for example, people from the Sumerian city-state of Lagash, where the Stele of Vultures was found. The Stele of Vultures shows the relief of a large deity -- not unlike the Minoan nature-god who is shown holding onto the necks of two water birds -- grasping the neck of a vulture and preparing to smash it against a stone. While the Sumerian image represents dominance, the Minoan culture was known to be a peaceful, non-dominant society. Despite the nature-god’s grasp on the birds’ necks, the pendant likely represents peaceful animal domestication over forceful control. While the stylistic elements of the pendant may draw from the images on the Stele of Vultures, the message of the work is likely entirely different.
Stele of Eannatum / Stele of Vultures, from Girsu (Telloh), Syria, ca. 2600 BCE - 2500 BCE
Minoan artists also had a powerful sense of symbolism that is clearly seen with the presence of two pairs of stylized bull horns to “underline the divinity of the male figure” (Metropolitan Museum of Art 104). In the Ancient Near East, the Akkadians knew the importance of a headdress for a figure’s status. The bull horn helmet in Victory Stele of Naram-Sin dated between 2254 and 2218 BCE is a prime example of horns symbolizing a close relationship to god or the gods. Two bull heads on the Palette of King Narmer The Minoan from Predynastic Egypt symbolize the Egyptian god Hathor. Hathor’s appearance on the palette suggests that Narmer was chosen to be pharaoh by the god. Minoan culture is explicitly influenced by this symbolism with the presence of bull horns in the Aegina Treasure pendant to show the nature-god’s divinity.
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, from Susa, Iran, ca. 2254 BCE - 2218 BCE
Another example of Egyptian influence is in the “ground line with lotus flowers emerging from circular elements” depicted in the Minoan pendant (Metropolitan Museum of Art 114). For the Egyptians, the lotus flower was a symbol of Upper Egypt, the sun, creation, and rebirth. This symbol emerged as the capitals for engaged columns at the Egyptian Old Kingdom mortuary precinct of Djoser along with alternating papyrus capitals to symbolize the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. This symbol for life and harmony must have seemed to Minoan artists a perfect fit for an artwork that embodies the relationship between the heavens and the natural world.
Facade of the North Palace of the mortuary precinct of Djoser, from Saqqara, Egypt, Dynasty III, ca. 2630 BCE - 2611 BCE
The Aegina Treasure Master of Animals pendant and Minoan culture as a whole were clearly influenced by the spread of ideas through travels in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. Artwork from past Egyptian kingdoms and Ancient Near East city-states proved particularly influential to the stylistic and symbolic representation of humans and animals for the Minoan Middle period. These styles exist in harmony with details that are “purely Cretan” (Higgins 44). The elements in the Master of Animals pendant distinguishes Minoan society as not only accepting of other cultures, but also as an organized, peaceful, and worshipful culture itself.
I hope you learned something new about these fascinating ancient civilizations. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!
Thank you for reading,
Betancourt, Philip P. Introduction to Aegean Art. INSTAP Academic Press, 2007.
Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1997.
British Museum Collection Database. British museum, 23 Jan. 2010, www.britishmuseum.org/collection.
Penn Museum Collections. B17694B. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, www.penn.museum/collections/object/4466.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2008.