Birth of Landscape Art

© Philip Jessup



Oct 15

Birth of landscape art

Minoans painted the first landscapes 3,500 years ago. Why them?

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 same human impulse seems to emanate from The Spring Fresco and Sacred Wood, 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.

My next post: Garden murals at Pompeii provided serenity and social status.


Akrotiri official website


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.

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

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



Nature inspires us because it is sublime. It puts self 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.

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