The Birthplace of Landscape Art

© Philip Jessup



19 Nov

The Birthplace of Landscape Art

Minoans painted the first landscapes 3,500 years ago. Why them — in the middle of the Mediterranean?

The Minoans emerged from the local Neolithic culture on Crete and neighboring Aegean islands around 3000 BC. Blessed by a bountiful natural environment, they produced the region’s first olive oil and created aromatic perfumes and medicinal herbs they traded with the outside world as luxury goods.

The Minoans were isolated enough in the middle of the Mediterranean to deter foreign invasion from Egypt or Asian Minor. So their wealth accumulated, and they thrived. A unique and — we surmise from the ruins — artistically beautiful culture evolved.

It is no wonder that Minoans were nature lovers. They enjoyed a felicitous climate for agriculture; scenic landscape varying from steep, craggy mountains to verdant valleys; and exceptionally abundant native flowers and plants unique to their islands. By the time earthquakes, a massive volcanic eruption on Thera (today Santorini) in 1627 BC, and a tsunami immediately following the eruption destroyed much of their physical culture, the Minoans had created some of the most imposing buildings, urban settlements, and art of the ancient world.

Akrotiri excavation at Thera via Wikimedia Commons

Akrotiri excavation at Thera via Wikimedia Commons


Luckily on the island of Thera, rumbles in the ground forewarned the inhabitants. They fled with their valuables in advance of the final, disastrous volcanic eruption. Luckily for us, buildings, some artifacts, and frescoes in a village called Akrotiri were preserved under ash and pumice over the millennia. Sadly, coastal villages on Crete were destroyed by the tsunami caused by the Thera eruption, their inhabitants swept away.

In 1970 Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos unearthed the Spring Fresco in Room 2 of the Delta complex at Akrotiri, a village on the southeastern coast of Thera. The wall mural depicts lilies sprouting on the slopes of mountains accented by birds frolic delightfully in the air.

This mural and a few surviving ones at Knossos on Crete are the first true natural landscapes (lacking human images) that have come down to us today. We could venture to say that landscape art was born 3,500 – 4,000 years ago in the homes of middle class merchants and the palaces of the ruling elite on Crete and its neighboring Aegean islands.

Why on these islands? Sophisticated cultures had already evolved in Egypt and Asia Minor and were still evolving in Mycenae and Greece. Yet, their cultures did not produce natural landscapes like the Minoan, at least none that have survived to this day. Designs derived from natural features such as leaves do decorate Egyptian and Greek sculptures, pottery, and wall friezes. We wouldn’t see large murals like the Minoan again until the excavations at Pompeii, buried by volcanic ash 1,700 years later.

I suspect that Minoans who could afford to hire artisans chose subject matter for their domestic frescoes that would celebrate their beneficent environment and daily activities. Depictions of lilies, saffron, other valuable flora, and fish provide a delightful and happy pictorial reminder of what made these farmers, fishermen, and merchants healthy (the first Mediterranean diet), wealthy, and peace loving.

Dolphins (partially reconstructed by Arthur Evans, Palace of Knossus, Crete (ca. 1500 BC)

Dolphins (partially reconstructed by Arthur Evans, Palace of Knossus, Crete (ca. 1500 BC)


The style of the Spring Fresco seems remarkably assured to me, with the abstract images of mountains and flowers framed on each wall much as a photographer might compose such elements today. The subject matter fits precisely into the aspect ratio of the walls. The images themselves are delightful, conveying the bounty the Minoans received from the island’s flora and fauna, which are depicted — in this case lilies — outsized in relation to the craggy mountains where they grow, while frisky swallows swoop above or below in flirtatious pairs.

The Spring Fresco from Akrotiri (ca. 1600-1500 BC), National Museum of Athens

The Spring Fresco from Akrotiri (ca. 1600-1500 BC), National Museum of Athens


This Minoan abstract quality of nature as a kind of metaphorical statement I feel is present in contemporary Korean photographer’s B&W panorama images that I love. Born in 1950, Bien-U, a Korean, takes inspiration from his country’s landscape. His Sacred Wood series (1985) include images of an old pine forest that surrounds a shrine of the Shilla Dynasty of Gyeongju. These large, impressive photos reflect Bien-U’s passion for the symbolic role that pine trees play in his culture. Koreans apparently believe that the pine acts as an ambassador between earth and heaven, accompanying the soul of the deceased into the world hereafter.

© Bae Bien-U, Sacred Wood, 1985 (printed 2009)

© Bae Bien-U, Sacred Wood, 1985 (printed 2009)

The photographer whose work I mostly turn to for spiritual inspiration and visual guidance is Eliot Porter (1901-1990), an early champion of color landscape photography. Porter is well known for the books he photographed for the Sierra Club, especially his first, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World (1962). Color interested him early in his career in part because he thought black and white images could not properly distinguish the features of the birds he was photographing. (A publisher turned down a book proposal for B&W bird images.) After adopting color using large format cameras, he photographed natural landscapes in Maine, New Hampshire, Florida, Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, Iceland, and Antarctica to mention a few places. While Porter hewed to an almost scientific aesthetic by observing the incredible details in nature, his images speak to me of a deeper spiritual dimension. The image Spruce Trees in Fog and Hawkweed below not only feels like a sacred place, but mysterious and otherworldly.

@ Eliot Porter,  Spruce Trees in Fog and Hawkweed , Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, July 4, 1964

@ Eliot Porter, Spruce Trees in Fog and Hawkweed, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, July 4, 1964


In sum, I think that the same human impulse seems to emanate from The Spring Fresco, Bien-U’s Sacred Wood, and Porter’s Spruce Trees in Fog and Hawkweed though separated by 3,500 years: reverence for a natural world that provides beneficence, spirituality, and meaning to those who respect and live close to nature.

Next post: Pompeii’s idyllic garden landscape murals foreshadow impressionism 1,900 years later.


Detail from The Spring Fresco (ca. 1600-1500 BC), Akrotiri, Thera, ©The National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Akrotiri excavation at Thera, Wikimedia Commons

Dolphins (partially reconstructed by Arthur Evans), Palace of Knossus (ca. 1500 BC), Queen’s Megaron, © Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA)

The Spring Fresco (ca. 1600-1500 BC), Akrotiri, Thera, ©The National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

From the Land of the Labyrinth, Minoan Crete, 3000 – 1100 BC: Essays, Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA), Hellenic Ministry of Culture, 2008.

Reynold Higgins, Minoan and Mycenaean Art, Thames and Hudson, World of Art series, London, 1997

Chirstos G. Doumas, Thera — Pompeii of the Ancient Aegean, Athens (1991)

Minoan jar with white palm trees, Knossus, Crete (1700 – 1650 BC), © Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA)

Akrotiri in the Bronze Age, Maximilian Dörrbecker, digitized from two maps. See

Photo: © Bae Bien-U, from Wonkyung Byon (author), Sacred Wood, Hatje Cantz (2009) published concurrently with an exhibition at London’s Phillips de Pury & Company.

Joseph Wood Krutch Thoreau, Images selected by Eliot Porter, In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World, Sierra Club/Ballantine (1962)

Photo: ©Eliot Porter, from Eliot Porter forward by Martha A. Sandweiss, Eliot Porter, New York Graphic Society Books, Little, Brown and Co. Boston, in association with the Amon Carter Museum (1987)



Nature inspires us because it is sublime. It puts our selves into perspective. We are part of something very big. But today nature is vanishing. Rapidly. I’ve started this blog to explore how painters and photographers, including myself, have expressed their love of nature in their art. Maybe what we do as photographers can lead to actions that help shift the tide in favor of beauty.

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