Controversy Over the Ladies in Blue: Is Most Famous Fresco of the Minoans Just a Modern Interpretation?
The Ladies in Blue is the name given to a fresco from the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. This fresco (or rather, fragments of it) was discovered during the excavation of the site by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur John Evans at the beginning of the 20th century. Subsequently, the fresco was recreated by the Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron. His son, also named Émile would restore the recreated fresco when it was damaged during an earthquake in 1926. Although the Ladies in Blue is a striking piece of artwork, it has some controversy attached to it, since it is not at all certain if this is how the original work would have looked like.
As its name suggests, the Ladies in Blue depicts a group of women in blue dresses, with a blue background. This fresco shows three ladies with white skin, elaborate hairstyle, and gesticulating arms. The dresses worn by these women are low-cut and expose their breasts. Based on their posture, it has been suggested that the women are conversing with each other, perhaps during some important festival or ceremony at the court. All in all, the women in the fresco are thought to belong to the upper class of Minoan society. Despite the elaborate details of the fresco, no one knows for sure if this was how the original work looked and this is a problem for many of the other frescoes from the Palace of Knossos.
Restored frescoes at Knossos palace. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Knossos: The Great Palace of the Minoans
Knossos is an archaeological site located to the south of Heraklion (the capital of Crete), on the island’s northern coast. The site was occupied during Pre-historic times though it is most famous for its ruins from the Minoan period beginning around 4,000 years ago. The first excavation of the site was by Arthur Evans in 1900 which lasted for several decades. Incidentally, it was Evans who coined the term ‘Minoan’, as he believed that he had discovered the palace of the legendary King Minos.
- The Three Distinct Scripts of Knossos: An Unfinished Epic
- The Legendary Cretan Labyrinth Cave: Inspiration for the Story of King Minos and the Labyrinth of the Minotaur?
- In Search of the Mythical King Minos, Did the Legendary Ruler Really Exist?
Ruins at Knossos palace, including a restored fresco panel. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Having completed his excavations, Evans proceeded to perform extensive restorations at the site. Evans’ work has its merits, for instance, it has succeeded in attracting tourists to the site and much would have been lost had Evans not undertake the restoration work at Knossos. Nevertheless, the work that was done is regarded as problematic, especially when considered in the light of our present understanding of archaeological conservation and restoration. As an example, it is known today that the Minoans used local selenite in their architecture, which had the effect of reflecting light from the surface of the walls. During Evans’ restoration, cement was used to cover the selenite walls. Not only did this damage the aesthetics of the site, but it also posed potential problems in the future, due to the difference in the mechanical properties of the two materials.
A restored area of Knossos palace. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Controversy Surrounding the Restorations
Evans’ controversial work also extended to frescoes that were discovered at the site. The Ladies in Blue fresco, as an example, was originally unearthed as several small fragments. It was from these disparate pieces that Émile Gilliéron recreated the ancient fresco. Much of this fresco is in fact the work of his hands. As an example, nothing of the original heads survived. This means that Émile would have had to create these parts based on guesswork and his own artistic imagination. In 1926, the Ladies in Blue was damaged during an earthquake and Émile’s son was given the task of restoring the already restored fresco.
The Ladies in Blue, however, was not the only fresco from Knossos to have been restored in such a controversial manner. Another well-known fresco from the site, known as the Prince of the Lilies, was also recreated by Émile. The fragments of this fresco that were unearthed at the site were a small piece of its head and crown, part of the torso, and a part of the thigh. The excavation reports suggest that these pieces were found in the same general area of the palace, but not necessarily close together. In other words, the fragments might not even belong to the same fresco. All the same, Émile was able to recreate the Prince of the Lilies fresco.
Restored fresco ‘Prince of the Lilies’. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Lastly, while the Ladies in Blue, along with other restored frescoes from Knossos, might showcase the artistic skill of the ancient Minoans, one should bear in mind that the fragments that survive cover only a small area of the original works and that much of the Minoan frescoes are now lost. In other words, it is not the skill of the Minoans, but that of the restorer, that is being admired today.
One of the more impressive restored rooms in Knossos palace. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Top image: "Ladies in Blue" fresco at Knossos Palace, Minoan archaeological site in Crete, Greece. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
By Wu Mingren
Ancient-Greece.org, 2019. Minoan Art. [Online] Available at: https://www.ancient-greece.org/art/minoan-art.html
German, S., 2018. Conservation vs. restoration: the Palace at Knossos (Crete). [Online] Available at: https://smarthistory.org/conservation-knossos/
Hall, H., 2014. Minoan Frescoes: Windows into Past Worlds. [Online] Available at: https://www.petersommer.com/blog/archaeology-history/minoan-frescoes
Jarus, O., 2017. Knossos: Palace of the Minoans. [Online] Available at: https://www.livescience.com/27955-knossos-palace-of-the-minoans.html
Kapetsoni, N., 2011. Artwork of the day: The Ladies in Blue. [Online] Available at: http://arthistoryattacks.blogspot.com/2011/06/artwork-of-day.html
Ray, 2009. Evans, Knossos and the Minoans – Facts and Forgeries. [Online] Available at: https://crete.wordpress.com/2009/09/13/evans-knossos-and-the-minoans-facts-and-forgeries/
Royal Society of Chemistry, 2019. Restoration of Minoan paintings: Imitation or reproduction?. [Online] Available at: http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/content/filerepository/CMP/00/006/307/C005%20Reconstruction%20But%20is%20it%20Greek.pdf
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. Reproduction of the "Ladies in Blue" fresco. [Online] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/258137