The clear, simple compositions of Theran painting mark an important step forward in the development of Western Art. They represent a moment in which the history of painting in Europe, deriving from a common origin in Egypt, first begins to acquire characteristics which distinguish it as something we can call ‘western’. In earliest times in Egypt, painting was writing and vice versa; and the Egyptian tradition re mains steadfastly one in which information and image are inseparable. The idea of a painting as a ‘picture’—something which lies so deep in the Western concept of art that we tend to take it for granted— begins first to appear in these Bronze Age murals from Thera and their contemporaries on Crete. The Theran paintings are first and foremost sacred narratives, but they are also remarkable compositions of nature. Indicative of this compositional sense are the large areas of empty space which separate the figures in the scenes of Young Women Gathering Saffron, in the museum in Fira: there is no clutter, no unnecessary decoration, just absolute clarity of line and simplicity of colour. The overall proportion of figuresto the total area is something quite new: they do not dominate the space, and are amply separated from one another. only a few examples of Theran painting are on show in Santorini; but the famous murals of the Two Antelopes, or of the Landscape of Lilies with Swallows, both currently in Athens, are at least visible, in life-size reproduction, at the Petros nomikos Centre in Fira (see p. 39-40). These, too, are skillful compositions and simplified ‘pictures’, by comparison with their complex Egyptian forebears which are full of hieroglyphic writing. This does not mean that they did not possess important sacred content for the Therans: they did. But they are conceived compositionally according to new and forward-looking principles. Western art has tended to move forward by repeated processes of simplification, and Theran art represents one such movement.
It should be recalled that the murals from Akrotiri are not the only examples we have of wall-paintings of their epoch: there are others which come from Crete and later examples from mainland Greece. But they are among the most complete and beautiful to have been found so far, and they possess, by virtue of the conditions in which they were found, a clearer architectural context than the others, which helps us to understand their meaning. They were created, as the museum displays show, in simple iron-oxide earth pigments, available in abundance on the island. only the blue—a synthetic pigment or ‘frit’, made from copper silicate and calcium—was imported from Egypt. The painting technique cannot be called pure ‘fresco’, because, although the painter may have be gun painting into the wet, calcium hydroxide plaster, much of the descriptive detail is executed in tempera on the dry surface.
Santorini Island is part of the Cyclades Island Group, Greece.