Landscape With Swallows & Lilies, ca. 1600 BC
A Minoan Wall Painting
As a student of ancient and not-so-ancient art, there is one painting that never fails to move me: the "Spring Fresco" with its dancing swallows and lilies from a Bronze Age city destroyed by an apocalyptic volcanic eruption around 1600 BC. To add to the romance, many scholars guess that dim memories of this great disaster may have inspired the Atlantis myth recounted by Plato over a thousand years later.
This fresco is beautiful, joyous, expressive, full of life. It seems to defy its context: an advanced civilization snuffed out by cataclysm. Its history is tragic. Yet the image itself is carefree, jubilant. There are no people depicted in this painting, yet I feel as if the long-lost artist that painted it and the people who lived in the house with this lovely painting are still speaking to us, saying: We live!
On this page, I'd like to share with you the story of the Spring Fresco's painters, a thriving people in love with the natural world that nurtured their civilization— and destroyed it.
Thera (Santorini) and Crete
Who Were the Painters of the Akrotiri Frescoes?
Over a thousand years before the classical Greeks, the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece was ruled by the wealthy Minoan civilization. The seat of their empire was the large island of Crete. With their powerful navy, the Minoans traded with the Near East, Egypt and Europe. Their technology was advanced: writing, beautiful metallurgy in gold and silver, fine pottery, even passive solar heating (water tanks painted dark on the roof), running water and flush toilets.
We do not know the Minoans' own name for themselves. Legends of them were passed down to the time of the Greeks, who recalled a (probably mythical) King Minos, ruler of Crete in an earlier age when Greek towns were subservient and paid tribute to Minoan might. The huge Minoan palace complex of Knossos, the largest building in Europe at that time, was dimly recalled as a labyrinth. The Minoans' bull-dancing festivals, in which youths performed daring acrobatics by vaulting over bulls, were recalled by fearful Greeks as some kind of human sacrifice to a half-bull, half-man monster called a Minotaur. In Greek myths, the Minoans owed many of their advances to the genius inventor Daedalus, a sort of Leonardo Da Vinci / Thomas Edison who designed everything from the king's palace to a robot cow (don't ask) to an ultralight aircraft. Daedalus is only a myth, but the Minoans' technological advances had evidently impressed visitors from far and wide.
But what happened to the Minoans? The Greeks do not say. The archaeological record shows earthquake damage to the palaces on Crete, followed by a period of decline. A generation or three later, the palaces were burned by Mycenaeans (ancestors of classical Greeks) from the mainland. The Mycenaeans conquered Crete around 1450 BC, adapting Minoan palace and art styles, as well as their writing system. We know the Mycenaeans as the petty chiefs and kings who fought the Trojan War around 1200 BC.
Other Frescoes from Akrotiri on Island of Thera (Santorini)
Scars of Destruction
The Volcano That Devastated the Aegean: c. 1600 BC
The natural disaster that triggered the Minoan decline was almost certainly the eruption of the volcano of Thera, 100km north of Crete. The timing is still unclear: the Minoans were not wiped out immediately, but earthquakes and possibly a famine seem to have caused a period of chaos on Crete, weakening them so that they were ripe for conquest 50 to 100 (?) years later.
The more we learn about the eruption of the Thera volcano, the more we understand what kind of disruption it must have caused. Modern estimates put the size of the explosion at four times the size of of Krakatoa, which killed 36,000 people. Thera did not merely erupt: the entire center of the island exploded into the sky, then collapsed, when seawater penetrated the volcano and encountered the hot magma within. All that is left of the Minoan island a C-shaped ring of much smaller islands around a huge, deep underwater crater about 12 to 7 miles across. (A new, smaller volcano has arisen in the center in modern times.)
The layers of ash and pumice from this eruption, piled onto the remnants of Thera's fragmentary shores, are 200 feet tall, built up within the space of a few days. The sea floor of the Aegean shows this layer of ash and pumice extending out in all directions from the volcano. Pyroclastic flows of superheated gasses and red-hot, pulverized rocks raced out from the collapsing island over the ocean's surface, incinerating any nearby ships. The explosive column of ash rose up into the sky to a height of 36,000 feet. Ash fell all over the eastern Mediterranean, although most of it blew north of Crete. Crete, however, was badly shaken by earthquakes.
Worst of all, the volcano's collapse triggered horrifically gigantic tsunamis that caused extensive damage around the Mediterranean. Estimates vary, but the waves that hit Crete were tens to hundreds of meters high, even larger than the Indonesian tsunamis of 2004 and the tsunamis triggered by the Tohoku quake of Japan in 2011. That's what hit the Minoans' ports, their navy, their food and storage facilities along harbor fronts and rivers, their coastal fields (which would've been rendered unusable due to saltwater), and their freshwater supplies.
Knossos and other Cretan settlements on higher ground survived, but must have been severely isolated by the loss of coastal settlements and their maritime fleet. Imagine the shell-shocked Minoans emerging from earthquake-damaged homes and palaces, gazing down from the bluffs in horror just in time to see their port cities scoured away by stormy mountains of water. And what had happened to their friends and relatives on Thera to the north, where an ominous column of fire and smoke was rising into the sky and blotting out the sun?
Ruined House, City of Akrotiri
The Destruction of Thera: A Real-World Atlantis
The Minoan settlements on Thera were wiped off the map. Akrotiri, a town on the outer rim of the island, was buried in ash. But it was surely not the only town on Thera. The Ship Fresco suggests there may have been a city smack dab in the middle of Thera's circular harbor, a shallow bay from which arose an older, dormant volcanic peak. That city would have been blown sky-high. If and when evacuees came straggling back, they would have found nothing left but a huge, incredibly deep hole of blue water in the sea.
Thankfully, the inhabitants may have evacuated in time. The city of Akrotiri is buried like Pompeii and Herculanium under ash, but despite its excellent preservation, no human remains have ever been found, and the homes are conspicuously empty of jewelry or small valuables such as those depicted in the paintings of elegantly-dressed ladies. Staircases and homes show partly-repaired earthquake damage, plus a layer of light ash-fall prior to the main event. It seems that the volcano gave the inhabitants ample warning before the final cataclysm, and they were wise enough to evacuate with what possessions they could carry. We can hope that they reached Crete in time, and that some took shelter in the palaces atop the headlands instead of drowning in the ports facing the sea.
Is it any wonder if memories of Thera's destruction passed into songs and legend, their last echoes still reverberating in the Atlantis myth recounted by Plato over a thousand years later?
House of the Lilies
Life Before Death...and After
How can I take delight in the face of such an awful catastrophe?
Because, while all things perish — birds, flowers, people, cities, languages, civilizations, islands — the swallows of Akrotiri still dance on its ancient walls. There must be many more such paintings buried in the greater part of Akrotiri which has not yet been excavated.
I look at this painting and I see joy.
I see loss, too. When I visited Akrotiri in 2005, I stood for half an hour in the square outside this little home, imagining the people walking outside, calling to friends at the open windows of an upstairs story. I imagined the sound of farmers hawking their wares in the nearby square, of the bleat of goats on the hills behind the town, of the shouts of boys boxing. I imagined the homey smell of the fish market. I imagined the twittering of swallows building their nests in the eaves of this house. All gone.
And yet they are memorialized by this simple painting, this lovely image which embodies the joy of spring and of life itself. It cries out to me from a gray-white city encased in its ashen tomb for 3,600 years. I have loved this painting since I was a child, when first I learned of Thera and its fate. It taught me that nothing lasts forever...but art may long outlast us.
Life! the swallows of Akrotiri sing to me, with their flowers from a long-vanished spring. Live!
Swallows and Lilies, Akrotiri
Anna Sidorova from Russia on May 08, 2014:
Awesome and interesting. Thank you for giving this personalized perspective and insight in the life of the perished civilization.
Tina Edenfield on August 28, 2013:
Many thanks for this window you have shared about this interesting story. I have chosen this work of art for a research essay in my Art History class. I have found that not many Web sites go into such detail about this artwork. So I say thanks again!
Whimsical Chair on October 17, 2011:
Interesting article. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
Cindy Murdoch from Texas on October 12, 2011:
This was a beautiful tour guided by beautiful imagery and words. I can understand why you have always loved this story. Thanks for helping me to escape for just a little while.
Ellen (author) from California on October 12, 2011:
Thank you both. No, I don't believe Plato's Atlantis ever existed as he described it: it's a myth, as Plato says, and he wasn't afraid to invent new myths himself. But I think he was re-weaving old tales, songs and stories told and retold down through the centuries, myths of cataclysm which had their roots in legends of something that really happened.
And yes, Santorini is beautiful: the modern towns draping the clifftops like a necklace, and that incredible water, and the black sand beach below those red-lava cliffs. And the old "Hobbit hole" homes carved right into the pumice! I need to go back when this mess in Greece has calmed down. But I'm grateful that after having it fire up my imagination all my life, I finally got to see it.
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on October 12, 2011:
Informative and interesting hub Greekgeek. (I guess the username fits!) I visited Knossos briefly a few years ago, and also Santorini (Thera) which incidentally is one of the most beautiful islands on Earth. As a lover of both ancient history and geology, the story of the volcanic eruption and its effects on Akrotiri and on the Minoan civilisation of Crete is fascinating.
Although as you say the Minoans did struggle on for a while after the eruption, and although the Atlantis story was, I think, intended to be mythological, I am quite sure the stories of an island city sunk by a cataclysmic eruption (Akrotiri) and a great civilisation swamped by the sea (the tsunami which hit the Minoans on Crete) must have inspired the famous myth by Plato.
Good page, and well written. And voted up accordingly.
Bryce from Northern California Coast on October 12, 2011:
Wow. Gorgeous art, and a rich tour of the history of this fascinating region. Vivid writing, full of meaningful details. I enjoyed the slide show and got swept away in the story. Thank you. Voted up & beautiful.