A common sight in ancient artforms across all cultures and civilisations is to see depictions of celebrants engaging in complex rituals and dances, or partaking of visionary sacraments, and the hieratic art of the high civilisations is particularly rich in such images, focussed as it is so often on the religious obligations of kingship. Less common, but no less striking, are depictions of visionary realities themselves, or indeed the content and narratives of dreams. In contemporary visionary and fantastic artforms, this latter category is naturally predominant.

What is genuinely rare, however, in both ancient and contemporary forms, is to see depicted both realities simultaneously, unified, as it were, into a single reality or composition, in an image of the visionary in the act of beholding the vision. We see this occasionally in the hieratic art of the Classic Maya (and particularly at Yaxchilan) or among Romano-British and Gaulish Celtic numismatic images, but its presence is often a marked divergence from the artistic, and presumably cultural, norms.

The great exception to this can be found in the art of the Minoan civilisation of Bronze Age Crete, particularly in the ring-seal images from the Late Neopalatial and Early Postpalatial (LM IA-IIIA, c.1550-1425 B.C.) periods, where the unification of mundane and envisioned realities is so common as to be almost ubiquitous, such that archaeologists have given this artform a specific name: the Minoan Epiphany.

Fr. Matz was the first to draw attention to the Minoan Epiphany, and linked it to the absence of large-scale cult images in Bronze Age Crete, defining the phenomenon as ecstatic and functioning as a replacement for religious cult worship. The term 'epiphany' is somewhat vague however: throughout the archaeological literature, the meaning of the word is rather taken for granted, and several commentators have remarked on the lack of an appropriate definition for this important Minoan cultural expression.

We might thus briefly attempt one here: the Minoan Epiphany represents a series of images disclosing intimacy with the sacred through the (often idiosyncratic and ecstatic) depiction of an individual's interaction with a deity (most commonly but not exclusively a goddess) or symbolic representation thereof (such as a bird or insect) who appears from on high, and descends to greet the visionary.

Nota Dimopoulou and Yiorgos Rethmiotakis present a briefer definition, in their discussion of the famous Ring of Minos, as the “...miraculous vision of the deity and its descent to the visible world.”


As early as the 1950s, archaeologists such as Martin Nilsson were remarking on the essential visionary nature of Minoan art, and Robin Hägg formally classified art of the epiphany as taking two distinct forms: enacted, in which the deity appears externally in the person of a living woman who 'plays' the part of the goddess and interacts with the celebrants during the course of a ritual, and visionary, in which the deity appears, as it were, internally, due to vision-inducing aspects of the ritual. It is important to note that such external-internal distinctions may not have been relevant to the Minoan celebrant.

An example of an enacted epiphany can be seen in the reconstructed fresco from Xeste 3 at the site of Akrotiri, Santorini. At left we see a woman offering saffron to an enthroned female figure, with other sacred elements present, the monkey and the griffin. The life-sized nature of the figure at right suggests in part that this she represents a surrogate for the deity, enacting her role in a ritual of offering. Such enacted epiphanies of enthroned deities – and we may remark that in Minoan art, we never see a male figure so enthroned – are common in Minoan frescoes, but are not our primary concern here. However, as we shall see, visual ambiguities between enacted and visionary epiphanies will become relevant to our theme.

Reconstruction of Xeste 3
Fig 1. Reconstruction of Xeste 3 fresco, Akrotiri, after Olga Anastasiadou

The visionary epiphany is found almost exclusively on sealstones and gold ring-seals of the final period of the Minoan civilisation. Sealstones as a method of identity and guarantor of trade are found from the earliest, incipient phases of Bronze Age Cretan culture, and the contents of Minoan glyptic – sealstones and rings – often hold important keys for the understanding of Minoan religious developments. But it was the emergence of palatial centres in the Protopalatial Period (MM IB-IIIB, c. 1950-1600 B.C.) that caused this mode of artistic expression to become ubiquitous across the island, and occasionally further afield, and industries of manufacture and craft rapidly grew to meet the demand of the burgeoning Minoan trade networks across the Eastern Mediterranean.


Around 1600 B.C., however, these palatial centres suffered a major collapse, and the emergence of new, larger – one might imply richer – palatial centres in the New Palace period (1600-1425 B.C.) coincided with an influx of new artforms crafted from valuable materials such as gold and chryselephantine using techniques that suggest a sustained contact with Egypt and Syria. Despite this evidence of extensive external contacts, the broad features of glyptic appear to have retained an essentially native, Minoan character.

Gold ring-seals were personal property and often buried in their owners' graves, suggesting that they were intimately bound up with their owner's identity such that the image could not be re-used or passed on to a descendant of the deceased. Many have been found in a rather worn state suggestive of heavy use and an equal number of images have been reconstructed from seal impressions – stubs of clay into which the rings or sealstones were pressed to guarantee a trade transaction, and which were then accidentally baked during a fire.

Both of these notions, the burial and the heavy use, along with the fact that no two epiphany images have ever been found that were alike, lends an impression that we are not necessarily here seeing depicted an episode from a now-lost Minoan mythology or a stereotypical image disclosing some unchanging aspect of Minoan symbolism. There is to a certain extent an idiosyncratic dimension to the images of the Minoan Epiphany suggestive of the notion that the visionary content of the images refers to the owner's experience with the sacred, perhaps a specific personal vision, or that it broadcasts the owner's perceived intimacy with a deity independent of any mythology.

In this regard, we must also note the expense of the artefacts found: gold and gemstones were the primary medium for Minoan glyptic, and the expense of these must be considered along with the cost of commissioning an artist to create a detailed representation on an object no bigger than perhaps two inches. There is thus a status dynamic to consider here: the Minoan civilisation in its late stages was highly stratified, and there is much evidence of social tension and antipathy towards this stratification. Several ring seals denote what has been termed a 'sacred conversation' between deity and visionary, and these may originate from royal houses of the palatial centres with a specific intention of pacifying tensions through the disclosure of sacred intimacy.

On the other hand, the similarity of many of the visionary body postures with those of roughly-made figurines found at sites of popular Minoan cult, particularly peak sanctuaries, and the rural or wild environments depicted in the scenes might suggest that the gold ring-seals represent simply the most elevated expressions of what was in reality a much wider religious practice. This possibility is augmented by the presence of the baetyl – the sacred rock – in both glyptic epiphany scenes and archaeological sites from the village to the palatial plaza.


'The Minoan Epiphany: A Bronze Age Visionary Culture'
Bruce Rimell, 2010 - 2013


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