Toreador Fresco

Detail of Toreador Fresco

Diagram of bull-leaping

Page on Minoan frescoes

rthur Evans discovered numerous fragments of wall paintings in 1901 in the ruins at the palace of Knossos on Crete. Among these, fragments recovered from the eastern wing in the so-called Court of the Stone Spout, are believed to have fallen from a room above and been crushed during the destruction of the palace around 1375 BC. Enough fragments could be identified to attempt a partial reconstruction of a panel that is now preserved in the Herakleion Museum on Crete. Other scattered fragments are now divided between the museum on Crete and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, where Evans was curator.

The reconstructed panel, measuring approximately 31.5 inches high, contains a large bull in the center moving left in a "flying gallop," a rendering of speed typical of the Bronze Age Aegean, which is achieved by the unnatural stretching out of all four legs. The lowered head of the animal is painted reddish brown, but the body is white with reddish-brown spots. A female acrobat in profile grasps the horns in anticipation, apparently, of somersaulting over the beast. A second female stands behind the bull, with outstretched arms ready to assist a male figure who is in the middle of a tumble over the animal. All three humans are similarly rendered as thin and elongated with cinched waists, and wearing a tight fitting belt and a brief loincloth. They are distinguishable as male and female primarily because of the coloring of the skin — white for the females, brownish-red for the male — but also because the females have more elaborate coiffures and wear jewelry. Curiously, the females wear codpieces over their loincloths — obvious male accoutrements.

The figures inhabit a solid blue environment without a ground-line on which to stand, and all have their feet pointed sharply, as if they are hovering in mid-air. The neutral space surrounding the figures both separates the scene from reality and expresses the excitement and lightness of the acrobatic movements. This scene is restored with an elaborate frame of overlapping tongue-shaped segments, painted in variegated patterns (probably representing stones or rocks), which is bordered by two narrow rows in a tooth, or dental, motif.

At least two other panels can be surmised from the scattered fragments — one with a blue ground and another with a yellow. The apparent similarities in subject and decoration suggest they originally were arranged side by side in a friezelike band, perhaps alternating the yellow and blue backgrounds.

Acrobatic ritual sports with bulls are represented in earlier miniature paintings and large stucco reliefs, but these panels show larger figures (a little over a foot tall) and a more narrative subject. This restored panel and its presumed companions are our best examples of Minoan bull leaping and have been christened "Toreador Scenes." But why and where such contests were held is unknown. It is all the more enticing, therefore, to attempt an explanation by similarities to the famous myth of the monstrous Minotaur, who had a manís body and a bullís head. Confined in a dark maze designed by the architect Daedalus, the Minotaur fed on an annual tribute of seven Athenian youths and maidens until the hero Theseus slew him. The Minotaur ("Minosí bull") lived at Knossos in the Palace of Minos, a structure designed with numerous corridors and passageways, prompting Evans to declare this the famous labyrinth of the beast.

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