Sunday, April 01, 2007

Dolphins of Crete

The dolphin fresco from Knossos, dated to around 1600 BCE, is a lovely piece of work, suggestive of the playful culture that spawned it--such a contrast to the Archaic Greeks a thousand years later, with their horses, shields, and dead bodies. These are engaging animals when you see them across the sea, and though fishermen resent their eating the fish the men themselves believe reserved for them, those of us who don't fish always turn and look, and smile and are glad they surfaced. They are like the white-tailed deer in that way; sure, there are lots of them, and people who object to having their shrubs or flowers chewed down to the stalk, but for those of us who just turn and look, we are grateful for the beauty.
Dolphins make fine art, though, in addition to grateful experiences. This work is not somber, impressive, or religious. It evokes the experience of seeing them on the ocean, and the joy they inspire. The fresco makes splendid use of its space, filled not only with dolphins but other assorted smaller fish, and sea urchins piled up on the sea floor, or what passes for it.It makes you want to go swimming...or to the local sushi bar. Though Evans placed it above a door, or something, apparently its original position would have been on the floor, meaning we would look down on them. Could it have been the floor of a pool, so we saw them through water?
Here is that fine historian and translator, Peter Green ('words, words, words,' that's me) on this culture:
What strikes us most forcibly about this "Palace Civilization" (prior to its infiltration by mainland influences) is its sophisticated and affluent elegance. Never again until the days of Imperial Rome do we find such stylish comfort, such sensuous delight in natural phenomena, and such unselfconscious zest for living. At Knossos, the Queen had her own private bathroom, equipped with running water and the equivalent of a flush toilet. ... This delirious dance of colour and the senses, this fascination with plant and animal life, with sex and social intercourse and religious ritual, with the stylized dangers of boxing and bull-vaulting, reveals a life-style clear outside the mainstream of European history. (Ancient Greece, A Concise History, 30).