If you have been thinking of traveling to Crete to see the treasures of ancient Minoan culture, don’t bother. They’re here in Manhattan.
Well, not all. There are still a few masterpieces in the Herakleion Archeological Museum, but a lot of that museum’s best objects are on temporary display in the exhibition, "From the Land of the Labyrinth, Minoan Crete 3000-1100 BC," which has been on view in New York City since March.
This extraordinary display, in which most of the pieces have never been seen in the United States before, is possible because of the closing of the Herakleion Archeological Museum for refurbishment and the generosity of that museum and several other museums of Crete -- and especially New York’s Onassis Cultural Center, which has organized and is presenting the show.
The Minoans created the first highly developed civilization in Europe. Extensive remains from more than two centuries demonstrate its increasing wealth, social stratification, sophistication and eventual decline, probably due to volcanic eruptions on near-by Thera and the expansion of Mycenean culture from mainland Greece. (Exactly what happened and when is still a matter of debate.)
Perhaps if someone learns how to translate Linear A, the chief Minoan script, we will find out. Here, you can ponder several examples of Linear A on clay tablets.
We do know that Bronze-Age Minoans were strategically situated in the middle of several trade routes and made the most of it by being great traders.
The sea influenced much of their art. Many naturalistic sea creatures appear on their pottery, like a bucket vase with seaweed and triton shells or other vessels painted with octopi or dolphins.
But the rich land of Crete also made Minoans self-sufficient in food and clothing. They produced grains, meat, lots of wool and textiles, and olive oil. A specialty was aromatic herbs, which they used to produce perfumed olive oil and medicines. A strainer pyxis in clay decorated with painted rows of flowers and spirals was probably used for storing and preserving plants.
I once visited Crete and found it still producing wonderful food (the sweetest bananas I’ve ever eaten and, surprisingly, lots of kiwis). I took a boat around the island to visit the Minoan palaces, the most important being the one at Knossos, legendary home of the labyrinth. Palaces arose after 2,000 BC, were destroyed by earthquakes around 1,700 BC, and were then rebuilt and expanded. These were administrative and ritual centers.
A great mother goddess was central to Minoan religion. In the present show, she is embodied in several clay sculptures, one of which wears a crown with birds, a symbol of ecstatic connection with the divine.
Sacred areas were denoted by a double axe, images of which you will find adorning pottery and sarcophagi among many other items. Votives in the form of a three-dimensional double axes are usually in metal, from a tiny votive in gold to a huge bronze that was probably supported by a wooden shaft.
The other major religious symbol of the Minoans was the horns of consecration, which relates to the bull, the primary sacrificial animal. One of the many highlights of the exhibition is a bull’s head rhyton in chlorite. The Minoans were masters of stone cutting, and this magnificent head is proof. It would have had semi-precious stones for eyes when new. It was found in pieces, like several similar rhyta -- probably all ritually dismembered.
Athletic events were often part of religious rituals, including bull-leaping. On several seals in clay and stone, you can find representations of males leaping on running bulls by supporting themselves on the bull’s horns. It makes Olympic events today seem rather pale.
Everyday Minoan life is represented by an array of material culture items -- jewelry, a cosmetic palette, a wine vat, cooking pots and a bee smoker.
Military gear in bronze, from daggers to swords, is less interesting than a helmet made of boar tusks. Several representations of a warrior actually wearing such a helmet can be found in small carvings in bone and hippopotamus tusk. The latter, one of many imported goods, illustrates again what good traders the Minoans were.
The show is on on view through September 13, 2008, at the Onassis Cultural Center, Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Avenue.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.