Cycladic Art

By Museum of Cycladic Art

Sculptures in marble are the most characteristic products of the Early Cycladic civilization. Most prominent are the figurines depicting women and men. Other objects, such as vessels, tools, weapons and jewellery, made of marble, clay, metals and obsidian complete the group of the artefacts created in the 3rd millennium BC on the Aegean islands.

Photo. Petros Koublis (2) , Cycladic Island (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

Geography

The Cyclades are a group of small islands in the central-southern part of the Aegean Sea, forming a virtual land bridge between Mainland Greece and Asia Minor. Naxos, with an area of 428 sq. km. is the largest. The Cyclades have limited water resources, a restricted range of flora and fauna, and little farming land. The climate is dry, with prolonged periods of sunshine and little rainfall. However, the strong winds that prevail for most of the year, especially in the summer, help regulate the temperature and favour coastal navigation.

Cycladic Map (2016) by Museum of Cycladic ArtMuseum of Cycladic Art

 

The name Cyclades is used by Herodotus, Thucydides and several other ancient authors. According to Strabo, the Cyclades included Keos, Kythnos, Seriphos, Melos, Siphnos, Kimolos, Paros, Naxos, Syros, Mykonos, Tenos and Andros, which formed a circle around the sacred island of Delos. Thera, Ios, Sikinos, Pholegandros, Amorgos, Anaphi and some of the modern Dodecanese were included in the south Sporades. We should remember, however, that the earliest recorded use of the term Cyclades dates to the 5th c. BC. Whether the 3rd millennium BC inhabitants of the Cyclades used the same or similar names for their islands is unknown.

Photo. Cycladic Island (2) (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

The Cyclades are in fact the peaks of the mountains of the Aegais, a landmass which was submerged in geological times, about 5 million years ago. Several of the islands, especially those located to the southwest of Attica and Euboea, are rich in crystalline rocks such as granite, gneiss, marble and schist. On the other hand, the southern islands (Melos, Kimolos, Thera), which are located along the arc of south Aegean volcanoes, are rich in volcanic rocks, such as andesite and obsidian. Other sources of mineral wealth include deposits of copper on Kythnos and both lead and silver, extensively used and exhausted in antiquity, on Siphnos.

Photo. Petros Koublis , Cycladic Island, MCA, 2016, From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
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Marble figurine (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

The Human Form

Marble figurines are the most impressive creations of Cycladic art.

Cycladic female figurine (canonical type, Spedos variety, 2700-2400/2300 BC) (-2700/-2300) by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

They usually represent nude female figures with the arms folded above the abdomen (normally the left arm resting upon the right one), slightly flexed knees and a barely uplifted backward-slanting head. This type has been dubbed “canonical” by specialist scholars, because it accounts for the overwhelming majority of figurines sculpted in the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC), when Cycladic art was at its zenith. The “canonical” type includes several varieties, which have been named conventionally after the find-spot where they were first identified (Kapsala, Spedos, Dokathismata, Chalandriani, Koumasa- see map below); those varieties differ from each other only in stylistic details. “Canonical” figurines vary in size from miniature examples to almost life-size sculptures, but most of them are about 40 cm. high.

Cycladic figurine (Louros type) ("2800-2700 BC" - "") by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

Some figurines of the transitional Early Cycladic I-II period, on which the above traits are not fully elaborated, are called “pre-canonical”. Earlier examples include two Early Cycladic I types which are named after the cemeteries where they were first found (Plastiras and Louros); in the Plastiras types, the human form is still rendered in a way reminiscent of Late Neolithic examples, while in the Louros type the artists prefer much more abstract forms. A series of later figurines, which clearly deviate from the strict stylistic rules of the Early Cycladic II period (mainly in the positioning of the legs and arms but also in the overall appearance of the human form) are referred to as “post-canonical”.

Cycladic violin-shaped figurine (2) ("3200-2800 BC" - "") by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

In addition to these rather “naturalistic” figurines, there are also several examples in which the female figure is represented in a highly schematic manner. The best-known among them are “violin-shaped” figurines of the Early Cycladic I period, so named for obvious reasons. These figurines are usually small, rarely exceeding 15-20 cm. Schematic examples are also known from the Early Cycladic I period but are very different in form.

Cycladic violin-shaped figurine, Unknown, "3200-2800 BC" - "", From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
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'Ηunter’ or ‘warrior’ (post-canonical type) (-2400/-2300) by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

The male figure is rarely represented in Cycladic art. Most frequently it appears in the form of a seated figurine, a musician (in the earlier part of the Early Cycladic II period) or a hunter/warrior (at the end of the same period). Male figurines in the “canonical” standing position are extremely rare. We do know, however, of a few standing males in the Plastiras type of the Early Cycladic I period.

"Hunter" or "Warrior" & Female figurines, MCA, 2016, From the collection of: Museum of Cycladic Art
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Cycladic female figurine (Dokathismata variety of the canonical type) ("2800-2300 BC" - "") by Attributed to the Ashmolean MasterMuseum of Cycladic Art

Last, there is a small number of unusual examples representing various groups of figures (e.g. “double” figurines with one female standing on top of larger one). Those figurines date to the most productive period of Cycladic sculpture (Early Cycladic II).The interpretation of the abstract motifs which were painted on the face and body of several figurines is a contested issue. Some scholars believe that they represent instances of body piercing or painted decoration for particular social or ritual occasions. Others believe that they were status symbols. According to another theory, they were meant to express different attributes of the represented figure. It has even been theorized that they functioned as characteristic symbols of a common cultural or social identity. This discrepancy of approaches should not come as a surprise, since the study of painted motifs on Cycladic figurines is still at an early stage.We should stress that most painted figurines belong to the so-called “canonical” type of the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC), although we have instances of coloured decoration in earlier types, too, mainly the violin-shaped figurines and a few examples from the Plastiras and Louros types. The practice seems to die out at the final stages of EC II, when the colour gives way to relief decoration.

Azurite and arybaloid vases containing Colours (-2800/-2700) by UknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

The Use of Colour

Much of the modern admiration for Cycladic figurines and vessels stems from their abstract simplicity, which is greatly enhanced by the almost transparent quality of the white marble. However, we know that Cycladic artisans used to decorate their creations with bright colours, either for practical or for symbolic reasons. Traces of colour have been preserved on a wide variety of artifacts, namely marble figurines and vessels, clay vases, and bone tools. Their detailed study is possible through traditional methods, chemical analysis, and ultra-violet photography.The use of colour on figurines is not always easy to attest. In some cases, there are clearly visible remains on the marble. More often, however, the only trace is a “paint ghost”, i.e. a smoother part of the surface or the outline of a painted feature (e.g. an eye, a diadem) that looks as if it has been rendered in low relief: in fact, the pigment applied in those areas protected the marble surface from the erosion suffered by the rest of the figurine and appears today smooth, lighter in colour and slightly raised in comparison to the uncoloured areas. Black and blue were normally used to define or emphasize anatomical details of the head and body, such as the eyes, eyebrows, hair and pubic triangle. Red was used to emphasize incised details and depict ornaments (necklaces, bracelets), power or status attributes (diadems, bands) and various decorative motifs on the face and body. The ears, mouth and nostrils were usually not painted.

"Keros Hoard" artefacts (2016) by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

The "Keros Hoard"

The so-called “Keros Hoard” is an enigmatic group of Early Cycladic artifacts said to come from the site of Kavos on the now uninhabited islet of Keros, which lies between Naxos and Amorgos. The “Hoard” is said to have included at least 350 fragments of figurines of the “canonical” type (torsos, heads, members), a small number of marble and clay vases, obsidian blades and other minor objects of the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC). These objects were smuggled out of Greece in the 1950s and 1960s and were dispersed among various museums and private collections. The fate of many of them is unknown. A considerable number – 81 fragments – has been repatriated and is now exhibited in the MCA. Most of these pieces were acquired in 1990 and 1992, at auctions held in London, some of them with the sponsorship of the Commercial Bank of Greece.Proper archaeological excavations undertaken in 1963, 1966 and 1967 in the looted area of Kavos revealed an exceptionally rich deposit of Early Cycladic artifacts, the overwhelming majority fragmented, but no architectural remains that could be associated with them. The way in which the objects are broken and the erosion on their fracture surfaces indicate that they were smashed deliberately in Antiquity. On the basis of this evidence it has been proposed that the site was a repository for objects of great symbolic significance and that they were broken on purpose in the context of specific rituals.

Activities, Crafts & Techniques (2016) by MCAMuseum of Cycladic Art

 

Marble was worked mainly with stone tools. Although no direct evidence is available for the toolkit of the Cycladic craftsman, modern research in combination with experimental archaeology has shown that most tools were probably made of emery. A piece of this heavy and dense stone – which abounds in Naxos – can be easily turned into a mallet (for shaping the figure) simply by making its edge pointed or sharp. Emery was also probably used as a drill (to carve and pierce specific anatomical details such as the eye, ear, navel, and loin cavities, or repair holes), as an engraving tool (for incised details) or as a surface polisher. Emery powder was very effective as an abrasive for the initial working of the marble.Obsidian – widely available on Melos – and flint may have also been employed in marble carving. When shaped into blades, those materials can be used as engraving tools or even for erasing the traces of smoothing on the surface of the marble; in the form of small pointy flakes they become particularly effective drills. Finally, Theran pumice soaked in water is an excellent material for the final polishing of the surface, and the same is true for sand mixed with water. Bronze chisels could have been used for greater precision and speed in making the cut-outs on more complex figurines, such as the harpists, although their poor durability (due to the high copper-content) as well as the high value of metals in that period, probably made metal stone-working tools less common.

Obsidian cores (Photo) (2016) by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

Obsidian – widely available on Melos – and flint may have also been employed in marble carving. When shaped into blades, those materials can be used as engraving tools or even for erasing the traces of smoothing on the surface of the marble; in the form of small pointy flakes they become particularly effective drills. Finally, Theran pumice soaked in water is an excellent material for the final polishing of the surface, and the same is true for sand mixed with water. Bronze chisels could have been used for greater precision and speed in making the cut-outs on more complex figurines, such as the harpists, although their poor durability (due to the high copper-content) as well as the high value of metals in that period, probably made metal stone-working tools less common.

Cycladic female figure (canonical type, Dokathismata variety) ("2800-2300 BC" - "") by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

As we can deduce from the few unfinished figurines that have been discovered so far, the first step in the process was to roughly shape the raw piece of marble into a figure by the impact of a mallet. Emery powder was then used to abrade the surface until it obtained the desired shape and size. Once the desired shape was achieved, the surface was smoothed carefully before the fine work of carving the details started. At the end, the figurine was polished to a high degree that is still amazing. Traces of horizontal, vertical or diagonal smoothing are very often visible on the surface of marble figurines. Sometimes, we can see the marks left by the tool used to level the contours of the leg cleft on “canonical” figurines. Traces of repairs are also discernible in some examples.

Axe-hammer (-2700/-2400) by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

Direct evidence for the working of bronze in the Cyclades is limited but instructive. Remains of hearths and crucibles of the Early Cycladic III period have been found at Kastri on Syros, together with slags and stone moulds which show that metal smiths knew how to cast bronze and produced both cast and hammered objects. The spread of metallurgy in the Aegean during the third millennium BC gave impetus to crafts such as building, shipbuilding, carpentry, and the minor arts; at the same time, it promoted trade and contributed to the development of social stratification. Mainly, however, it brought important changes in the techniques of warfare. Bronze weapons become relatively common in the Cyclades in the later stages of the Early Cycladic II period and this seems to be related to the disturbances and upheavals that are observed in the Aegean during the transition to the Early Cycladic III period. According to one theory, this turmoil was due to conflicts between local populations for the control of sources of raw materials, such as copper, or access to networks trafficking metals that were more difficult to obtain, such as tin.

Cycladic female figurine (canonical type, Spedos variety) ("2800-2300 BC" - "") by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

The creation of a Cycladic figurine was based on strict rules and a detailed system of proportions, which required precise measurements and considerable skill in application. Therefore, it was most likely the work of specialized craftsmen, who probably passed on their knowledge to younger artisans only after the latter had spent a long period of time working as apprentices. Some scholars have attempted to identify individual “artists” or workshops by distinguishing groups of figurines with similar characteristics. Those “artists” (or workshops) have been conventionally named after the museum or the city which hosts characteristic works by them, after the excavator who brought them to light, or after the collector who possesses them (e.g. the Berlin Master, the Doumas Master, the Goulandris Master, etc.). Other scholars, however, reject these attributions as anachronistic and believe that the similarities reflect chronological or geographical proximity. One should bear in mind that the available evidence for the techniques employed in Cycladic marble-carving is very fragmentary and our knowledge stems almost exclusively from careful observations of the figurines themselves. So far, no workshop has been discovered in a Cycladic settlement and the organization of the production remains entirely unknown.

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