by Leyna Donaldson
This is a cushion-seal from Shaft Grave III in Mycenae (Younger; 289). The seal is made of gold, and is found in the very wealthy Grave Circle A, which is adjacent to the palace at Mycenae. Grave Circle A and B were active from the Middle to Late Bronze Age, at the height of Mycenaean civilization (Davis; 483). The seal itself depicts a moment of conflict between a strong warrior and a vicious lion; a muscular man raises his sword, posed to strike the lion has risen to meet him. Sharp lines and geometric shapes characterize both figures, a trait typical of Mycenaean art (Davis; 476). Gold was a rarity in Bronze Age Greece, making it a coveted material. The seal’s extensive detailing also demonstrates a high level of artisan technique. Generally, the amount of human labor and the energy expended on creating the grave goods is a good indication of the status of the deceased (Graziadio; 404). The seal’s material and its intensive craftsmanship thus indicate that this item was expensive luxury or prestige good, probably belonging to an elite member of Mycenaean society. Perhaps, then, this intense scene in precious metal represents the wealth and power of the man with whom it was buried. In this way, the cushion-seal projects the sema, or social persona, of the deceased.
Looking beyond what the seal represents in burial contexts, however, one begins to notice clear Minoan influences in its craft. In the middle to late Bronze Age, Mycenaean art experiences a growth in popularity of lion imagery (Younger; 297). Minoan lion depictions are found in the preceding Middle Minoan period, hinting that this motif influenced later Mycenaean artists. Arthur Evans, for example, mentions lions associated with hieroglyphs on prism seals, pendants, and daggers found at Knossos and Phaistos (Younger; 297). Gold material has also been found by Evans in a workshop at the palace at Knossos (Younger; 266). Perhaps the Mycenaeans draw influence not only from the lion motif, but also from the gold working itself. Furthermore, there are Minoan imports from the Middle Minoan period found at Mycenae, which demonstrates that the two areas did have contact, making the exchange of goods and ideas possible (Younger; 299). In this way, Mycenaean lion imagery appears to be a theme derived from influential Minoan art.
However, the way the Minoans and Mycenaeans depict the animal itself is quite different. The lions of the Minoans are seemingly non-threatening, with their softly modeled bodies and unaggressive poses. Minoan art is unique in that it captures figures in rare moments of movement (Davis; 480). For instance, these tranquil lions are depicted at the height of a grand, flying gallop on a Minoan dagger (Younger; 297). On this Mycenaean cushion-seal, however, the lion is very aggressive and powerful; the artist has chosen to highlight the beast at the most climatic point of its conflict with the warrior (Davis; 480). This depiction fits in with art typical of Mycenaean culture, which characterized by much more violent and battle-related imagery. Clearly the two groups’ attitudes towards nature are the main difference between their lion depictions.
Although the Mycenaeans portray a different attitude through their more violent depictions of lion, they have still clearly been influenced by Minoan culture and art with its naturalistic scenes, imagery, and quite possibly techniques of gold working as well.