Minoan landscape frescoes include representations of both plants and animals often in the presence of humans (Steel 2009). In fact, as Shaw (1993: 661) states nature is one of the most common themes that appear in Aegean art. Nature in this case includes flowers, trees, fields, mountains and caves, rivers, birds and animals. Plants include crocuses, irises, ivy, olives, lilies, myrtles, acacia, sea daffodils and papyrus, along with hybrid combinations that do not exist in real landscapes (Steel 2009 & Chapin 2004: 275). The most prominent animals are wild goats (often called agrimia), cats and monkeys, while the human figures most of the times represent females (Steel 2009 & Rehak 1992: 168-169). What did these images mean to the Minoans? One of the most prominent interpretations is that the frescoes have religious meaning and function. As the Minoan civilization is very often seen as a theocratic society, this interpretation is the one that is mostly put forward especially from the second half of the 20th century onwards.Chapin (2004: 56) discusses the presence of hybrid flowers that are depicted in Minoan frescoes but would never occur in real landscapes. As the Minoans were able to depict nature in very realistic forms (as can be seen in other frescoes depicting fauna and flora), Chapin suggests that the hybrid plants could have a religious meaning signaling divine presence like Near Eastern hybrid animals (griffins, sphinxes etc) did in similar artistic contexts. Nanno Marinatos (quoted by Chapin 2004: 57) has taken this argument one step further suggesting that such images –and in particular the one depicted in the Monkeys and Blue Birds fresco we will examine in greater detail later- are representations of an ideal Minoan spring connected with fertility and divine intervention in the processes of nature. Chapin (2004: 57) on the other hand suggests that this ‘ideal spring’ is more ‘an eternal, timeless landscape idealized to suggest a supernatural fertility of the earth’. In the combination of real and imagined plants, the Minoan artist was therefore trying to express both the natural environment of Crete in all seasons (by including plants growing during different months) and the magic of the divine power capable of creating new types of plants in an eternal landscape.Scholars, like Schäfer (1989) and Shaw (1993) make analogies with Egypt and suggest that some landscape frescoes could represent real sacred gardens. Connections with Egypt prevail in this discussion. According to Schäfer (1989: 84-85) flower gardens in Egypt were connected with ‘social and religious ritual’. The Minoans were aware of this tradition as contacts with Egypt have been established even from the Pre-Palatial period (Steel 2007: 459). There have been attempts to justify the idea of Minoan sacred gardens based on the architecture of the palaces. Graham (1987, quoted by Shaw 1993: 680) suggests that there were terraced gardens in the palaces of Knossos, Phaistos and Mallia. Shaw (1993: 680-685) discusses the possible existence of a rock garden in the palace of Phaistos in a relatively private area in the south eastern part of the complex next to the residential quarters. For both Shaw and Schäfer (1989: 86) the sacred garden was a real place in the Minoan palace; a place inspired by Egyptian prototypes and embedded with religious symbolism and probably ritual function. Inside them, there would be cultivated plants and domesticated animals, like monkeys that were imported from Africa, were used as pets and possibly had a religious symbolism as well (Shaw 1993: 675).
Wild landscapes when represented also seem to point to religious interpretations. Rehak (1992: 170-173) examines the iconography of frescoes from Knossos, Ayia Triadha and Thera and suggests that the mountainous topography and the presence of agrimia points to the representation of peak sanctuaries. These were mountain cult places important even from the earliest Minoan periods, where rituals were mostly taken place on the outside close to the natural landscape of Crete (Fitton 2002: 173). The inclusion of a religious sanctuary attributes a clear religious meaning to a work of art, as the image of a cross would do to a modern Christian believer. Rehak’s remarks are based on the close examination of the fresco from room 14 of the Agia Triadha villa. Picture 1 is a reconstruction of the wall painting created by Cameron and used by Rehak and –as long as it is accurate- depicts female figures in two seemingly calm landscapes –one natural and one manmade- and animals running wild in a third.
Reconstruction of the fresco from the villa at Agia Triadha, by M.A.S. Cameron. LM IA, c 1600-1500 BC
Human figures in these contexts are often interpreted as deities or priestesses. Rehak (1992: 168) concludes that ‘the pose and placement’ of the central figure suggest that she is a goddess presiding over the natural world. Shaw (1993: 673) agrees with Rehak’s suggestion that the central figure is a goddess, but on the other hand interprets the fresco as a deliberate distinction between a wild (where the animals run in the rocky landscape) and a tamed landscape (where the woman seems to be kneeling among cultivated plants). The first female could thus be an actual human in a Minoan sacred garden, while the goddess at the centre can be seen as bridging the gap between the tamed and the wild. Was this distinction important for the Minoan religion? The presence of a section dedicated completely to nature including both flora and fauna could denote ‘the importance of animal and plant fertility’ to Minoan religion (Rehak 1992: 171). It could also symbolize the uncontrollable wild powers of nature and the importance of their taming for the survival of the Minoan civilization. Thus, the sacred gardens were important in the Minoan society as a living symbol of a tamed environment where plants could flourish, animals could live next to humans and deities and rituals could be performed. The representations of such places in art could have magical purposes, aiming at reenacting the magic of nature and serving as a constant reminder of the ideal landscape.