My newest piece, The Saffron Gatherers is inspired from an ancient fresco painting known by the same name.
It is 40x30 inches, using drawing, painting, inkjet transfers and many, many layers of acrylic medium to create a distressed, encaustic-like effect.
I was interested in recreating, but not duplicating, the figure of one youthful saffron gatherer, who I have taken to calling “My Girl".
The Beautiful Frescos of Thera
Ancient Thera was occupied by the same people who lived on Crete, a people we call the Minoans.
The Pompeii of the Aegean
Around 1600 BCE, Thera blew its top.
It Was Kind of a Big Deal.
Although it may not have destroyed the Minoan civilization, it probably weakened it to the extent that they were eventually taken over by the mainland Greek civilization of Mycenae. It may have even caused a volcanic winter that reached as far away as China.
Actually, there were a series of eruptions before the caldera collapsed. One of the first eruptions blew ash into the air and covered Akrotiri, which is why the fresco have been preserved.
The Frescos of Akrotiki
Minoan Art- The Stuff of Dreams
As I said, the paintings from the Minoan civilization have sparked our collective imagination and inspired not only archeologists, but poets, artists, spiritualists, and pseudo-sociologists. It captures our imagination with such fervor, that it has led to a fair amount irresponsible scholarship. There has been wild speculations as to the beliefs, values and societal structure of the Minoans. Laymen and scholars alike have projected their fantasies of a peaceful, woman-centered society onto the vestiges of this long-past civilization-- a sort of ancient Age of Aquarius.
And Who Can Blame Them?
How much of this wishful thinking is actually true?
No one knows.
Yet, there is something truly unique about the art from the Minoans that cannot be denied.
Most art during that period, such as the ancient Egyptians or the Babylonians, was beautiful, but schematic and completely formalized.
The art produced for these and other civilizations were “instruments of propaganda... To serve either the reputation of the immortals or the reputation after death of their earthly representatives”*
In contrast, “the freedom of movement and the sense of vitality which emanates from Minoan art, an art which is the creation of a less rigid society... adapted to a habitat in which motion contrast and sudden change predominate.." **
In short, the art of the Minoans is often winsome, spontaneous, individualistic, and even funny.
Painting the Murals
First, let’s talk about some of the conventions in the paintings of Thera. Because of the technology and pigments available at the time, they had a limited amount of colors to work with, only black,red, blue and yellow ochre. They got the most out of this limited palette by juxtaposing colors, along with only a bit of mixing. There was no use of green that is discernible.
Then, let’s talk about how they signified the identities of the figures.
People of different ages had different hairstyles. Mature men and women have long, luxuriant black hair. Maturity is also expressed by a double chin and rolls of flesh on the stomach (very realistic!)
Young adults have short, curly hair.
Children had shorn heads, which is indicated by a blue scalp. As they grow a little bit older, little sections of hair would be allowed to grow. So, they have little pigtails (or, what in the 1980’s we used to call rat-tails) coming out at sort of odd intervals.
Boys are often portrayed nude, while the girls are always clothed.
The Story of The Saffron Gatherers
The Saffron Gatherers is in a building called Xeste 3, and wraps around the walls of a room on the second floor called Room 3a. The north wall shows a majestic female figure seated on a dias. She is dressed magnificently and has a snake going up her back and over her hair. She is accompanied by what seems to be a Griffin. In front of her, a young woman and a monkey (monkeys are depicted doing human things on Thera- what fun!) pour crocuses out in offering to the woman. (This figure has been identified as the Goddess of Nature, the Potnia.)
But my image does not concern this scene. My girl is on the east wall.
She is one of the most famous figures from this archeological complex, and is often the image that is used on the cover of books or magazines devoted to art from the Minoan period.
The next figure is who I depict, and that seems to be so loved by people around the world.
I love the fact that in the same room that depicts a Goddess, there is also a scene where an older girl is telling a younger girl to hurry up.
I was interested in recreating, but not duplicating, this lovely, young gamine.
When drawing from some source material, a typical technique for an artist is to use a grid.
After creating a grid for the original image, you simply make a corresponding grid on the blank art substrate or page. This helps your eye to “map” where points are in the original image, and to objectively observe the shapes.
The rhythm of the original fresco is beautiful and I wanted to capture it, so I added diagonal lines that help describe the general shape and movement of the figure, and create a kind of underpinning, or ley lines.
The frescoes of Thera did not come intact. They were unearthed in tiny pieces, and methodically reassembled off-site, like a puzzle. When I see an image of The Saffron Gatherers, I'm viewing a heavily distressed image. I have no wish to "clean it up" and reproduce what I think it originally looked like. The fresco's partial destruction and the passage of time add to its appeal for me.
The next series of steps was to create layer after layer of effects, attempting to express this aesthetic of distressed beauty.
An Amalgamation of Elements
I got playful with the imagery with some additions.
At the top of the panel, I painted in a blue strip. I thought it would be either a blue sky, or a glimpse of the sea. This is a way to express that My Girl lived on an island. She would have been surrounded by sea and sky (this is Santorini, after all!) Borrowing from a different Thera fresco, the mural from Room 5 in The West House, I painted dancing dolphins.
I find it fascinating how the lively elements of My Girl, the dancing dolphins and saffron flowers, create a striking contrast with the immense destruction from this catastrophic event.
One of my finishing touches was to take the powdery crumbs of a bright orange pastel and sprinkle it various places, to signify the saffron. I doubt they would willingly disperse the precious crop so wastefully, but I felt it would be another whimsical element, adding to the magical atmosphere of my imaginings.
The Tiny Book of Thera
At the time of this entry, the book is a work in progress. If you click HERE, you can see a short blog entry about the book, and see a video of me flipping through the pages.
In the future, I may start another large work based on some of the images in the book- who knows?
* Christos Doumas, The Wall Paintings of Thera, (Kapon Editions, 1992) Pg 22
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