Kiki Birtacha - Manolis Zacharioudakis

Stereotypes in Theran Wall-Paintings: Modules and Patterns in the Procedure of Painting Abstract

Our paper focuses on the way painters drew the contour of figures in the Theran large scale compositions. We have noticed that in the examined figures from Xeste 3 a number of curves, forming the outline of the figures, are identical. We consider this a hint for the possible existence of a system of stereotype fixed curves that articulate the outline of figures. In the examples, comparing parts of the figures contour, we noticed that these curves are flipped vertically or horizontally with larger or smaller inclination. It is difficult to imagine a human hand executing curves and with so many different inclinations (from the slightest to almost upside down), without the help of some kind of device.


Concerning the imaging, a stereotype is a determinate, standard way of depiction. The stereotypes relate the way an image or its parts are being rendered and not the content of the image itself nor the meaning or its possible symbolism. It is well known that art in general was tied to stereotypes up to the 19th century. In both religious and secular painting the rendering of figurative elements, shading and composition complied with rules and stereotypes. This probably was even more valid for the art of the Late Bronze Age in Crete and Cyclades, as a result of the great demand for extensive and repetitive iconographic programs (cfr. Boulotis, this volume, especially Introduction). Allegedly, at the time one was apprenticed to a painter by long-lasting practicing and persistence, aiming at acquiring knowledge of the painting's tradition and rules and developing of the appropriate skills. The secure and accurate teaching of techniques was controlled through stereotypes in the sense that the novice tried to reproduce the teacher's work (Tetsis (ed.) 1990, 4, 5, 15, 16, especially notes of Chev. Tambroni and Victor Mottez). Although the use of a 'Renaissance model' for the master-apprentice relation is far for being appropriate (Cherry 1990), a kind of learning through paradigms, exercise, repetition is most likely. Using Stereotypes, up to a point, is a promptitude; support a painter, allow him to work with precision, safety and mainly swiftness, without necessarily suppressing his 'talent' in expression or experimentation. Certainly, the quality of a work can not be qualified or judged by the fact that an assistant or any kind of aid - mental, canonical, mechanical - are used. On the other hand, rules being relevant to social structures, ideology, religion, tradition e.t.c. may define iconography and depiction. The result of the above is, for example, that in the Theran wall-paintings female figures are depicted dressed but with naked breast, or adolescents with their heads shaved; also an iconographic element is being repeated, as for example in the depiction of similar curls of hair (i.e. the girl on peplos in the wall-painting of the 'Lustral Basin' and the "Boxing Children" have similar curls; the same happens to the young "Crocus Gatherer" from the east wall of Room 3b of Xeste 3 and the child from the wall painting of the 'Men fresco' on the ground floor of Room 3b, Xeste 3). Furthermore, an example that fits the socio-symbolic rules is the use of colours -blue for the shaved heads, white for female skin, red-brown for male skin, etc.- (for the conventions in the rendering of human figures, see Doumas 1985; Televantou 1988, 145-149; Televantou 1994, 377; Morgan, this volume, with ref.). Stereotypes oppose naturalism but their relation to realism is more complex. Regarding that realism tends towards the expression of the essence of things, an advanced, elabored system of stereotypes does not necessarily oppose it. The painters of the Theran wall paintings, as we are to present further below, use stereotypes. On the other hand they also try to render 'reality', as is indicated by the solutions applied to the rendering of the movement of figures, the spatial composition, the depiction of 'snapshots' and expressions, the persistence in details (Doumas 1992, 22-24; Televantou 1992b, 149; Televantou, this volume). But reality in the sense of naturalism is not being depicted. Even if a painter has a frontal head in mind, tradition and his education obliges him to render it as a profile. The images he creates are not the effect of faithful observation of the environment -a concept to appear only in the art of the last centuries- but is the result of applying certain rules, modules and pictorial stereotypes which we discussed above.

Curves as constant parameters

We have noticed that in the Theran wall paintings a number of curves, forming the outline of the figures, are at least in parts identical. We consider this a hint for the possible existence of a pattern for drawing figures based on certain curves. As we will demonstrate, these curves are of fixed shape and size. Our study mainly focuses on the way painters drew the contour of figures in large scale compositions. In miniature frescoes, where sizes are dealt with in a different way, it seems that different rules are applied. We have not notice so far any stylized curves.


The group of wall-paintings we have thoroughly examined is that of the Xeste 3. We had the opportunity to photograph, observe and draw parts of the wall-paintings at the New Museum of Fira and the laboratory at Akrotiri. The examples of other wall paintings that we will mention are isolated instances. In this case a first comparative study of the figures belonging to the same composition has been attempted based on published photographs (Doumas 1992). The figures were photographed and printed in the same scale, so we could study them in the right relation of size. While searching for the curves we used tracing paper and a computer program of image processing. At this stage of research we used parts from the outline of figures selected at random as comparing curves. We examine whether they fit with curves in other figures, by turning them in all possible directions. For the validity of our comparisons, the parts of the outlines we used as working tools were as large as possible. We should, nevertheless, bare in mind that the research is still at an early stage. Searching and examining the curves is itself a difficult task, because the ends of a line can scarcely be exactly defined. Furthermore, the original drawing is sometimes covered by colours. Nevertheless, our intention is primarily to show the existence of fixed curves and secondly where they exactly end.

1. Curves of the face

For the examination of the curves that compose the outline of the face we examined the curves of the nose and chin. Chr. Televantou (Televantou 1988, 163; Televantou 1992, 61) has already noted that the profile and the facial features of the figures of Xeste 3, which she attributes to the 'Master of the Saffron Gatherers' are rendered similarly; furthermore, the facial features of female figures are rendered in identical brush strokes (Televantou 1992, 61). In the figures the arrow points at the direction of the working curve in the figure from which it was taken.

1.1. The 'curve of the nose'

(fig. 1) To compare the curves of the nose we choose the nose of the boy (fig. 1i). The working curve fits with other noses, rotated (fig. 1j), flipped horizontally and rotated (fig. 1k-l), flipped vertically and rotated (fig. 1a-c, e-h). Concerning the size, it is either larger or smaller than the examined curve on the other figures, but the part that fits, fits perfectly. The same applies in all comparisons of fixed curves which we will see in the following examples. A notable feature is that the nose consists of two separate curves that do not meet: the curve from the top of the forehead to the pick of the nose and the 'curve of the nostril' to the upper lip (fig. 2). It seems that this constitutes a rule in the Theran wall-paintings. It is would be worth noting that this feature also occurs on the wall-painting of the so-called "Mykenaia" from the Cult Center of Mycenae (fig. 3). This is probably a point of reference concerning the organization of the composition of the figure. It can not be ruled out that it might be connected with the use of a device for rendering curves.

1.2 The 'curve of the chin'

(fig. 4) As working curve for the chin, we used the outline of the boy's chin (fig. 4i). The curve is of S-shaped and fits with all the other chins in the example rotated (fig. 4a, c, j), flipped horizontally and rotated (fig. 4b, d, f, g, h, k), vertically flipped and rotated (fig. 4l).

2. Curves of the body 2.1. The 'curve of the monkey'

(fig. 5, 6, 7) -- -- In the first example, we used as a working curve an outline from the monkey in the composition of 'Goddess of Nature' (fig. 5a). It includes the back, the buttocks and the larger part of the tail. The yellow marks show the part of the outline that fits with the working curve. Parts of the working curve fit perfectly with a number of examples: -Monkey on the wall-painting of the 'Goddess of Nature': 1) contour of the calve of the bent leg (fig. 5b); 2) contour of the chest (fig. 5c). Slight clockwise rotation. -'Crocus Gatherer' on the wall-painting of the 'Goddess of Nature': 1) curve of the back (fig. 5d), horizontal flip and rotation; 2) the larger part of this curve diverted consists of the contour of the front part of the figure's torso (fig. 5e), clockwise rotation. -'Crocus Gatherer' (fig. 5f) on the east wall of the upper floor of Room 3a, Xeste 3: the parallel curved line of the strip (on the figure's left side) of the open chemise. Horizontal flip and anti-clockwise rotation. -Girl with peplos in the wall painting of the 'Lustral Basin': 1) upper part of the front contour of the skirt (fig. 6a), horizontal flip and clockwise rotation; 2) upper part of the back contour of the skirt (fig. 6b), horizontal flip and anti-clockwise rotation, 3) curve of the back (fig. 6c), slight clockwise rotation; 4) upper part of the line that divides the skirt (fig. 6d), horizontal flip, anti-clockwise rotation. -Wounded Lady in the wall painting of the 'Lustral Basin' (fig. 6e): the curve of the back. Anti-clockwise rotation, almost upside down. -"Goddess of Nature" (fig. 7a): the curve of the strip of the open bodice. Clockwise rotation. -Young "Crocus Gatherer" (fig. 7b): the contour of the thorax interrupted by the upper arm. Almost upside down. -Boy holding a bowl (fig. 7c): part of the curve of the back. Slight clockwise rotation. -Man holding a jar (fig. 7d): part of the curve from the neck approximately to the middle of the back. Horizontally flip , slight clockwise rotation. We noticed that the working curve consists of two distinctive curves. That is because part of it was used mainly for the drawing of the upper part of the torso. In most cases it is the curve of the back in figures represented in profile. In the case of female figures whose torso is rendered in a three-quarter view or frontal it consists of parts of the open chemise.

2.2. The 'curve of the boy'

(fig. 8) In the following example, we used as a working curve the outline of the back to the upper part of the boy's thighs (fig. 8a). Parts of the curve is identical with the following: -Boy holding a cloth: 1) contour from the shoulder to the elbow (fig. 8b), horizontal flip, anti-clockwise rotation; 2) part of the lower curve of the forearm of the figure's left arm (fig. 8c), count clockwise rotation. The part of the curve of the neck to the upper part of the shoulder also applies to the equivalent left contour of the figure. -Man holding a jar (fig. 8d): the upper curve of the right forearm. Clockwise rotation, almost right angle. -Woman holding a necklace: upper curve of the extended forearm. Clockwise rotation, almost right angle. -" Crocus gatherer" on the east wall of the upper floor of Room 3a: 1) curve of the neck and the figure's left shoulder (fig. 8f); only the upper part of the curve is used, upside down; 2) right upper contour of the skirt (fig. 8f). Only the lower part of the curve is used. Slight clockwise rotation. It is possible, as is shown in the above examples, that the working curve consists of three smaller ones: a) that of the neck to the upper part of the shoulder, b) that of the arm, usually used for the rendering of upper arms and forearms and c) that of the waist and thighs.

2.3. The 'curve of the child'

(fig. 9) As working curve we used the contour of the back part of the neck to the upper part of the thighs of the child holding a bowl (fig. 9a). The curve was applied in the following cases: -Woman holding a necklace: 1) contour of the breast to the waist (fig. 9b), upside down; 2) the external curved lines of the tuft on the sleeve of the extended arm (fig. 9b), vertical flip. -Boy holding a bowl (fig. 9c): the back contour of the neck and the upper part of the back, horizontal flip.

2.4. The 'curve of the peplos'

(fig. 10-11) -- As a working curve we used the left contour of the figure's peplos in the wall painting of the "Lustral Basin" (fig. 10a, 11a). Parts of it are applied in following cases: -Girl with peplos: 1) contour of the right forearm (fig. 10b), sight clockwise rotation; 2) contour of the right forearm (fig. 10c), upside down. -Wounded Lade: strip of the right arm's sleeve (fig. 11b), slight clockwise rotation.

3. Further examples

Further more, fixed curves apply in many other cases. Some of them are the following: The forearms of the "Crocus Gatherer" from the wall-painting of the "Goddess of Nature" are identical and are drawn by two separate curves (fig. 12) These curves (a and b in the fig. 12) have the same distance between them in both arms, something that can be attested in nearly all the limbs of the figures in the Theran wall-paintings. It seems that this distance was measured in order to render the figures realistically. The right outline of the stone vase in Room 4 in the West House when horizontally flipped is identical with the left, but with a slight inclination. The outline of the strips of the female figures' chemise always consists of successive, at least in parts, identical lines (fig. 13) . The curves of the chemise of the figure in the example are related with the 'curve of the monkey' (see fig. 5f). For the outline of the edges of the flounced skirt a fixed curve was used, as we can notice on the female figure from the wall painting of the House of the Ladies, room 1, east wall (fig. 14) In other cases we noticed that a closed curve fits with the lower edges and an open one with the upper edges. Comparing more curves forming the outline of the same figure, we noticed that: 1) the back outline of the upper part of the skirt is identical (flipped horizontally with slight clockwise rotation) with the front outline of the torso (fig. 15a) ; 2) the curve of the breast fits with the outline of the hair under the ear (fig. 15b).

The curves as modules

(fig. 16) The observations made so far on the other large scale Theran compositions possibly indicate that similar rules and modules were followed and that the same system of curves is applied. For the drawing of a figure every part could be considered as a module consisted of curve lines: they are curves of fixed shape and size that articulate the outline of figures. The articulation of curves usually follows the natural articulation of the body. The various positions can be rendered by placing the same curve in different directions and inclinations. Generally, curves used for rendering parts of the body rather follow a stereotype shape, even though they can differ in size and curvature from one figure to another. This is observed regardless of the position or movement of the figures. We can cite a catalogue of curves used as main structural elements to form the basic outline of a figure Elements of the outline, like fingers, toes, garments and dress ornaments are not included in the following catalogue. These curves are of two shapes: a simple one like an open U, and a complex one that resembles an S consists of a large and a smaller U-shaped curve. Curves of the face and head: The outline of the face consists of the following curves: -the curve from the top of the forehead to the pick of the nose, -the 'curve of the nostril' to the upper lip, -the curves of the lips, -the curve of the chin. Televantou already has noticed these lines in the figures attributed by her to the ''Master of Saffron Gatherers'' (Televantou 1988, 163; 1992, 61). The outline of the head is formed by one or more U-shaped curves, depending on whether it is shaved or not. The neck with the shoulders or the chest are formed by S-shaped curves.

Curves of the body:

Usually, one S-shaped curve is used for the drawing of the back from the base of the neck to the waist. A similar line is being used for the depiction of the front part of the torso down to the waist. The arms consist of the curves of the shoulder, the two curves of the upper arms and the equivalent in shape curves of the forearms. These curves have usually the shape of a widely open U, but joined with others, form contours in the shape of open S. A curve from the waist to the upper part of the thighs renders buttocks of male figures and an equivalent curve the abdomen. In female figures similar curves usually outline the waist to the upper part of the skirt, back and front. Each leg of the male figures is formed by the two curves of the thighs and the two curves of the calves. In female figures successive curves in the shape of an open U render the edges of the flounced skirt. The preference for curved lines is a regularity. Curves are also used to render animals, plants, rocky landscape, shores e.t.c. The curves are unified in a sinuous sequence constructing a ' system' for depiction of figures. This concept is completely different to that attested in Egyptian art.

General observations

Summarizing, a system of stereotype fixed curves was used for the drawing of figures. They are flipped vertically or horizontally with larger or smaller inclination. Through intensive training and dexterity a painter could produce many drawings or curves of very similar shape that look alike, but in comparison are not identical. On the other hand, the curves that we examined do not look alike but, in fact, are identical. Furthermore, regardless dexterity, a painter could be aided by a range of assists (from a person who painted a less important area to fine brushes or measurements). It is difficult to imagine a human hand executing curves, in some cases about 25-30 cm large (i.e. curves of the torso), identical in shape and size and with so many different inclinations (from the slightest to almost upside down), without the help of some kind of device, probably a kind of a 'french curve' or, as Professor Bietak mentioned in the discussion, a template. The next step of the research would be to determine of the exact shape and size of the fixed curves, after their differentiation from the complex comparing curve which we have use. If such devices did exist, which is most probable, the following questions arise: - Were each one of the curves executed by different devices? - Did every painter or group of painter had their own devices? - Were they manufactured especially for one composition or for a group of compositions? - Were they copied from previous wall paintings? - Is the system of curves applied in other regions? -Where could the roots of this tradition could be traced? Perhaps some of these questions will be answered as our study goes on. The fragmentary state of preservation of the Cretan wall paintings hinders us in attempting similar comparisons. The use of fixed curves facilitated the organization of a composition. Furthermore, the painters could more effectively control the execution with a method which was also time-saving. If organized workshops did exist, then the efficiency of less experienced painters could be maximized by the help of such devices. The scale and the proportions of the Theran wall-paintings are largely the result of the way the curves or selected parts of them are articulated. Through the angle of this articulation the painter creates figures in various positions. He has previously organized the theme, has decided on the positions of the figures and has possibly even made a draft of outlines (Televantou 1994, 352-353). It seems that the painter drew figures following a procedure starting from the upper part. He used the small fixed curves for the faces, the small closed ones for the head, the larger open ones for the torso and the arms and their equivalents for the lower parts of the body. This modular, step by step system of drawing did not allow painters to use a previously specified ground-line. Painters gave various solutions to this problem, for example the specific way of rendering a rocky landscape, or a slight inclination of the horizontal ground-line (as in the wall-painting of the "Fisherman"). On the contrary, in Egyptian art figures step on the ground-lines specified by the grid. Stereotypes presuppose a long-lasting tradition of painting and mirror the ideology of a society and its conception of the world. Perhaps, a thorough study along these lines will contribute to a better understanding of the procedure of drawing figures and will furthermore help to the achieve an even more valid and accurate reconstruction of Theran wall-painting compositions. Kiki Birtacha - Manolis Zacharioudakis Lesvou 31 12133 Athens


We would like to express our gratitude to Professor Christos Doumas for his overall support and encouragement. Our warmest thanks are also due to Dr. Clairy Palyvou for the discussion and encouragement throughout the research, Ms Pelly Photiadis for translating the text into English, as well as to Ms Lizy Plessa for the corrections on the final paper. We are deeply indebted to our friend Dr. Andeas Vlachopoulos for allowing us to study the drawings of the 'Reedbed wall-painting' from Xeste 3.


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