Skip to content

Toreador Fresco Descriptive Essay

The original Court of the Stone Spout was probably an open space; later two walls were built running east-west. The fresco fragments were found in the upper layers of débris in the south-west corner. Further fragments were found in 1902 when later rubble was cleared. The original fresco may have decorated a room above. The fragments belong to several within decorative frames. Each panel evidently depicted a scene from the bull-games. It was possible (or so believed) to restore one of the panels with confidence.

The painting combines observation of nature and a probable court and religious ritual. The great bull is shown in full charge with all four feet off the ground and the body fully stretched into a flying gallop, all artistic conventions to indicate the speed and fury of the animal's charge.

A closer examination shows that the artist has further distorted the bull's shape to emphasize its power, especially in the neck and shoulders, which are very thick in comparison with the stubby legs. The bull is painted more or less naturalistically in brown and white, while the human figures, large in relation to the animal to emphasize their importance, are painted white and red.

The use of red for men and white for women is another Minoan convention, and it leads to the suggestion that women dressed as men took part in the bull games. They are shown in profile but again the artist has distorted for effect. The figure over the bull's back at first glance seems to be in a perfectly natural position. It is only on close examination that the physical impossibility of the pose can be seen.

The decorative border of overlapping varicolored ovals is thought to represent Minoan free-form rendering of a rocky landscape. That the dangerous bull sports took place elsewhere than within the confines of the central court has been suggested, and this border is cited to support the supposition.

Exactly what is happening in this painting is not clear. Here is Evans's own description and interpretation of the scene:

    "Turning a back-somersault above [a] bull, are two female taureadors, distinguished not only by their white skin but by their more ornamental attire. Their loin-cloth and girdle is identical with that of the man but of more variegated hue: his is plain yellow, theirs are decorated with black stripes and bars. They wear bands round their wrists and double necklaces--one of them beaded--and, in the case of some of the figures, blue and red ribbons round their brows. But perhaps their most distinctive feature is the symmetrical arrangement of short curls over their foreheads and temples. Their foot-wear consists of short gaiters or stockings and pointed moccasin-like shoes.

    The girl acrobat in front seizes the horns of a coursing bull at full gallop, one of which seems to nestle under her left armpit. The object of her grips seems to be to gain a purchase for a backward somersault over the animal's back, such as is being performed by the boy. The second female performer behind stretches out both her hands as if about to catch the flying figure or at least to steady him when he comes to earth the right way up. The stationing of this figure for such an act raises some curious questions as to the arrangements within the arena.

    Apart from this, certain features in the design have provoked the scepticism of experts acquainted with modern "Rodeo" performances. A veteran in "Steer-wrestling", consulted by Professor Baldwin Brown, was of opinion that any one who had anything to do with that sport would pronounce the endeavour to seize the bull's horns as a start for a somersault as quite impossible "for there is no chance of a human person being able to obtain a balance when the bull is charging full against him." The bull, as he further remarked, has three times the strength of a steer, and when running, "raises his head sideways and gores any one in front of him."

    That a somersault was performed over the back of a charging bull seems evident and does not seem to present much difficulty, but surely if the bull were at full gallop the athlete would not alight on its back, but on the ground well behind it ?

    All that can be said is that the performance as featured by the Minoan artist seems to be of a kind pronounced impossible by modern champions of the sport."

Frescoes are the source of some of the most striking imagery handed down to us from the Minoan civilization of Bronze Age Crete (2000-1500 BCE). Further, without written records, they are often the only source, along with decorated pottery, of just how the world appeared to the Minoans and give us tantalizing glimpses of their beliefs, cultural practices and aesthetic tastes. 

Techniques & Colours

Inherent problems with frescoes are their fragility, incompleteness and artistic anonymity. In addition, in archaeological sites they are often found removed from their original settings, making them extremely difficult to date. Perhaps, restoration has at times been over-imaginative but nevertheless, the overwhelming impression given by this art form is the Minoan’s sheer joy in fluid, naturalistic and graceful forms represented in an impressionistic manner. There are also many surviving fresco fragments dating from the second phase palaces of 1550 to 1450 BCE, when the Mycenaeans began to take over the Minoan sites. However, as these are stylistically very similar to earlier Minoan frescoes, they are discussed as one in the following remarks.

As a technique, true fresco painting (buon fresco) is the painting of colour pigments on wet lime plaster without a binding agent.

As a technique, true fresco painting (buon fresco) is the painting of colour pigments on wet lime plaster without a binding agent and when the paint is absorbed by the plaster it is fixed and protected from fading. That the Minoans employed such a technique in their buildings is evidenced by string impressions in the plaster and by the depth of the paint employed. Fresco secco, which is the application of paint, in particular for details, onto a dry plaster was also used throughout the palaces as was the use of low relief in the plaster to give a shallow three dimensional effect. Colours employed were black (carbonaceous shale), red (haematite), white (hydrate of lime), yellow (ochre), blue (silicate of copper), and green (blue and yellow mixed). There are no surviving examples of shading effects in Minoan frescoes, although interestingly, sometimes the colour of the background changes whilst the foreground subjects remain unchanged. Although the Egyptians did not use true fresco, some of the colour conventions of their architectural painting were adopted by the Minoans. Male skin is usually red, female is white, and for metals: gold is yellow, silver is blue and bronze is red.

Fresco Subjects

The first examples of fresco in Crete are limited to simple monochrome walls, most often red but sometimes also black. With improvements in the quality of plaster and pigments, the advent of monumental Minoan architecture and possibly through influence from Egypt and the Near East, the technique was employed to decorate the walls (either in their entirety, above windows and doors or below the dado), ceilings, wooden beams and sometimes floors of the palace complexes, depicting first abstract shapes and geometric designs and then later, all manner of subjects ranging in size from miniature to larger than life size.

As in earlier seal and ring engravings, popular scenes for frescoes - and perhaps indicative of the role of the palaces in Minoan society - were of rituals, processions, festivals, ceremonies and bull sports. Celebrated examples include two seated priestesses on either side of a shrine, a grove of olive trees with dancers and audience, two boxers, young men in a procession carrying rhytons, and a scene of both male and female figures in various stages of bull leaping - grasping the horns or somersaulting over the back of the animal. On occasion, fresco was also used to imitate architectural features, for example, veined alabaster slabs painted on the lower portions of walls.

Natural subjects included flowers such as lilies, irises, crocuses, roses, and also plants such as ivy and reeds. Indeed, the Minoans were one of the earliest cultures to paint natural landscapes without any humans present in the scene; such was their admiration of nature.

Animals were also commonly portrayed, most often in their natural habitat, for example, monkeys, birds, cats, goats, deer, sea urchins, dolphins and fish. Although Minoan frescoes were often framed with decorative borders of geometric designs (spirals, diagonals, rosettes, and ‘maze’ patterns), the principal fresco itself, on occasion, went beyond conventional boundaries such as corners and covered several walls, surrounding the viewer.

Other objects which received the fresco treatment include the celebrated limestone sarcophagus from Hagia Triada, a rare example of a fresco surviving complete. Within decorated frames, different sides of the coffin show two goddesses, each in a chariot, one drawn by goats and the other by griffins, a scene of a bull sacrifice and a funeral scene.

Legacy

The Minoan style in frescoes was influential both with contemporary cultures such as in the Cyclades (e.g. Akrotiri on Thera, Phylakopi on Melos and Hagia Irini on Keos) and with later cultures, especially the Mycenaean, albeit with slightly different subject matter such as shields and other martial paraphernalia and perhaps with a lesser importance given to naturalism. Indeed, as far afield as Tel el Dab’a in Egypt, frescoes have been discovered which are notable for their similarity in style to the Minoan.

Our editorial team reviews every submission for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards, while being easy to read with students and the general public in mind.


Help us write more

We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Each article costs us about $50 in history books as source material, plus editing and server costs. You can help us create even more free articles for as little as $5 per month, and we'll give you an ad-free experience to thank you! Become a Member