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"Ladies in Blue" fresco at Knossos Palace, Minoan archaeological site in Crete, Greece.

Controversy Over the Ladies in Blue: Is Most Famous Fresco of the Minoans Just a Modern Interpretation?

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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

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 .

Ruins at Knossos palace, including a restored fresco panel. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

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

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

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

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

References

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

Comments

Thanks Charles, that post came from my heart. Only love can exist in the heart. When we make decisions ask your heart what is the right thing to do, and I am going to go out on a limb and say it won't lead you astray.

RCW, I enjoyed your post because it covered a lot of detail with a historical analysis of American slavery, as well as the extention pf slavery known as “Jim Crow” separate and Unequal after the supposedly abolition of slavery in 1865, which continued in a blatant manner throughout the southern USA until the late 1960’s and even somewhat to the present day..Again, that was a very unique post, especially coming from a person who stated that they are of the white race...

Charles Bowles

So the question is how do we get rid of "Casual Racism"? First we need to get rid of the "The racial wealth gap". Please read https://www.epi.org/blog/the-racial-wealth-gap-how-African-Americans-hav.... Ask yourself why African Americans do not have the same wealth as whites. African Americans were poorly educated and had almost nothing (with very rare exception) when the slaves were freed. For the next 100+ years they were taken advantage of and robbed of their resources and opportunities (Jim Crow Laws) which amounted to re-enslavement. There can be absolutely no doubt part of the current wealth of the white people can be directly be traced back to what was robbed from African Americans. OK what can white people particularly do to fix this, this is a seemingly complex problem right. Although solving racism won't be overnight, the solution is simple. Teach individual responsibility to end all racism and live by it. How can we end "casual racism" if it is partly controlled by our unconscious. The answer is to make your conscious overpower unconscious thoughts. You see prejudice is to pre judge someone before you know the strength of there character. Make yourself self-aware of your thoughts. If you find you are pre juding someone, tell yourself pre judging does not fit with the "ideals" you have. Treat everyone the same period, until you have further information about the strength of there character. In-fact the less you judge about everyone you will find a happiness you had not experienced before. Racism is not only a curse on African Americans but for white people too. The only cure is to take personal responsibility by making the determination you want to live in a better world and force yourself to make it a reality. This world is what we choose to make it and I want to live in a better place than it currently is, i'm sure you will agree. I love all of you. Best Wishes.

So the question is how do we get rid of "Casual Racism"? First we need to get rid of the "The racial wealth gap". Please read https://www.epi.org/blog/the-racial-wealth-gap-how-African-Americans-hav.... Ask yourself why African Americans do not have the same wealth as whites. African Americans were poorly educated and had almost nothing (with very rare exception) when the slaves were freed. For the next 100+ years they were taken advantage of and robbed of their resources and opportunities (Jim Crow Laws) which amounted to re-enslavement. There can be absolutely no doubt part of the current wealth of the white people can be directly be traced back to what was robbed from African Americans. OK what can white people particularly do to fix this, this is a seemingly complex problem right. Although solving racism won't be overnight, the solution is simple. Teach individual responsibility to end all racism and live by it. How can we end "casual racism" if it is partly controlled by our unconscious. The answer is to make your conscious overpower unconscious thoughts. You see prejudice is to pre judge someone before you know the strength of there character. Make yourself self-aware of your thoughts. If you find you are pre juding someone, tell yourself pre judging does not fit with the "ideals" you have. Treat everyone the same period, until you have further information about the strength of there character. In-fact the less you judge about everyone you will find a happiness you had not experienced before. Racism is not only a curse on African Americans but for white people too. The only cure is to take personal responsibility by making the determination you want to live in a better world and force yourself to make it a reality. This world is what we choose to make it and I want to live in a better place than it currently is, i'm sure you will agree. I love all of you. Best Wishes.

Thanks Charles, and I want you to know what I am about to write is not directed at you, but is everyone, and mostly fellow white people like myself. "Racism is still a major problem in the US." Now I know some of you are disagreeing with me. You say to yourself "I don't outwardly do things that are raciest, (name calling, raciest jokes, raciest violence, illegally discriminate, ect.), and you may not even know anyone that does. You know if someone is outwardly racist they are likely going to experience hard blow-back. So its not a problem right? Wrong. Please consider the concept of "Casual Racism" explained in this article https://www.huffingtonpost.com/chiaku-hanson/subtle-racism_b_14113118.html. "Casual Racism" may or may not be unintentional. To white people the act of "Casual Racism" is completely invisible unless you step back and consider it (I can't see the forest for the trees comparison). That is why so many don't believe racism is a major problem. However people of color are aware of "Casual Racism" very quickly (because they are usually on the receiving end). "Casual Racism" is wrong and destructive.

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