The ancient town of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini was buried by a huge volcanic eruption in about 1500BC. This eruption was much more powerful and destructive than those of Vesuvius (79AD) and Krakatoa (1883AD) and the layer of pumice that it produced was the agent of both the destruction of the life of ancient Akrotiri and the preservation of its treasures. 

The wall paintings, excavated from the volcanic ash more than three millennia later, display the Theran artists’ interest in a remarkable diversity of subjects. Abstract patterns, geometric motifs, inanimate objects and structures, plants, animals and the human figure were the thematic repository on which they drew.

The paintings are distinguished by an inclination to render nature as faithfully as possible. Using line and colour and by paying particular attention to the distinctive details of the forms depicted, the artists have ensured that we have no difficulty recognising plants such as reeds, myrtle, palm trees, crocuses, lilies, and animals, such as the lion, monkey, antelope, deer, wild cat, swallow, dove, dolphin etc.


The process of painting the walls at Akrotiri is apparently no different from that already known from Crete. The surfaces of the walls – usually stone-built – were first covered with a mixture of mud and straw, on top of which a layer of lime plaster was applied. This was the foundation on which one or more successive coats of fine plaster were laid.

In both Crete and Thera the upper and lower limits of the surface to be painted were defined by impressing a taut string on the fresh plaster. Likewise the outlines and even details of the figures were described on the damp surface by string impressions or incisions. In some instances they were drawn in fainter colour.

The pigments used by Theran painters, and their Cretan counterparts, were mineral. Apart from the white of the lime plaster, red was obtained from ferrous earths and haematite, and yellow from yellow ochre. Black also seems to be of mineral provenance. Although blue could have been obtained from azurite, known in the Cyclades since the third millennium BC, analyses have revealed that on the Thera wall paintings two kinds of blue were used: Egyptian blue and glaucophane; sometimes a mixture of the two. The Theran artists used this limited palette to considerable effect, conveying the impression that they had a much wider range of colours.

It was with these limited media that the Theran painters decorated the indoor areas - public and private – in which they lived, creating works which have been rightly characterised as “pioneering” in the history of European art.



By C Doumas (trans A Doumas)

Thera Foundation, Athens 1992

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