Original of one of the Taureador frescos
|Year||Some time in MM III or LM I|
|Material||Stucco panel with scene in relief|
|Dimensions||78.2 cm × 104.5 cm (30.8 in × 41.1 in)|
The Bull-Leaping Fresco, as it has come to be called, is the most completely restored of several stucco panels originally sited on the upper-story portion of the east wall of the palace at Knossos in Crete. Although they were frescos, they were painted on stucco relief scenes and therefore are classified as plastic art. They were difficult to produce. The artist had to manage not only the altitude of the panel but also the simultaneous molding and painting of fresh stucco. The panels, therefore, do not represent the formative stages of the technique. In Minoan chronology, their polychrome hues – white, pale red, dark red, blue, black – exclude them from the Early Minoan (EM) and early Middle Minoan (MM) Periods. They are, in other words, instances of the "mature art" created no earlier than MM III. The flakes of the destroyed panels fell to the ground from the upper story during the destruction of the palace, probably by earthquake, in Late Minoan (LM) II. By that time the east stairwell, near which they fell, was disused, being partly ruinous.
The theme is a stock scene, one of a few depicting the handling of bulls. Arthur Evans, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, owner of the palace and director of excavation, presents the topic in Chapter III of his monumental work on Knossos and Minoan Civilization, Palace of Minos. There he calls the several frescos "The Taureador Frescos."
Concepts of bull-leaping
Arthur Evans recognized that depictions of bulls and bull-handling had a long tradition represented by copious instances in multi-media art, not only at Knossos, and other sites on Crete, but also in the Aegean and on mainland Greece, with a tradition even more ancient in Egypt and the Middle East. At Knossos he distinguished between "bull-grappling scenes" or "'cow-boy' feats in the open" and "Circus Sports." The cowboy scenes depict the catching and handling of wild cattle, represented by animal icons very like the aurochs from which kine were domesticated. This type of cattle motif is shown on the stucco fresco in the North Entrance of the palace.
The Circus Sports are to be contrasted to Bull-Catching. They are "a more structurally organized and ceremonial form of the sport confined, of its very nature, to a specially devised structure." He goes on to conjecture, "the Palace Bull-Ring itself lay on the river flat immediately below." The Taureador Frescoes, then, are not depictions of real events in real time, but are decorative motifs on the wall above a ceremonial bull-ring. They depict a stock scene, of a conventional nature, which has come to be termed "bull-leaping." It still has no viable definition. Although it vaguely brings to mind the act of jumping over bulls, the technique and the reasons for doing that remain obscure, a century after the discovery of the frescos. The frescos are no help.
Modern attempts to recreate the leaping on modern cattle have resulted only in a number of deaths. In short, the bull is too fast, too powerful and too aggressive to allow seizure of the horns, much less the use of the energy of the neck toss for acrobatics. Moreover, that toss is a hook to the side, not a neat backward boost. The bull attempts to skewer the human with one horn, without a view toward the style of the frescos. It is possible to leap over small bulls without touching them, even as they charge, and such spectacles still practiced in France may be the ultimate source of the icon. A stationary bull might be touched or pushed on the way over, but pressing on a bull in motion would have the same effect as being sideswiped by a speeding vehicle; that is, tumbling out of control.
The Taureador Frescoes are not frauds or incorrect reconstructions. The same bull-leaping scene appears in miniature in sealings and sealstones of the MM and LM periods. Explanations and classifications of the figures depicted are strictly theoretical, never illustrated by real-life examples. The only certain perception is that the leaper goes over the bull in an upside-down position, whether diving from above, leaping up from below, or with or without the assistance of another human or a device such as a pole. Why he should choose to do so also is strictly theoretical, although motives may probably presumed to be similar to those of modern adolescents in France: adventure and peer status. It would have to be, certainly, a volunteer activity of some social reward.
Taurokathapsia and other classical words
Evans noted the survival of bull sports into classical times; for example, the taurokathapsia of Thessaly. The word means "laying hold of the bull," which in modern times is sometimes used of the Taureador Fresco. Evans did not use it in that way. The Thessalian taurokathapsia was performed from horseback. The Tiryns Fresco depicts a youth on the back of a bull holding its horns, an activity similar to bull-dogging. First the bull in the ring is baited by riders to exhaust him. Then a rider comes up beside him, leaps on his back, seizes the horns, and falling to one side twists the head, bringing down the tired bull. Macedonian coins depict Artemis Tauropolos, "Artemis Bullrider," mounted on a charging bull. Miletus held the Boegia, "Bull Driving," involving a bull-grappling contest.
The problem with the Taureador Fresco as a taurokathapsia is its logical sequence. Depicted are three individuals, two females, one at the front, one at the back, and a male shown balancing on the bull. The sexes of the participants are identified by their colors. The bull evidences the Mycenaean Flying Leap, which means he is intended to be at full gallop. His horns, however, are being firmly held by the lady in front, a small maiden. To make matters worse, the male is in a balancing, not a tumbling, position. He holds the flanks of the bull with both hands. If he were tumbling, and if he had used the horns to get a purchase, the maiden would not be now holding them. It cannot be a compressed chronological sequence, as the individuals are all different. If the maiden is holding the bull, it cannot be galloping. The fresco simply has no explanation whatever as a real event, which, however, is true of most Minoan/Mycenaean decorative panel scenes. No realist tradition is in play in any way for this period in these localities. Apparently icons that are disconnected in real time and space have been superimposed to give an overall impression of a scene familiar to the artists and their viewers, but not to today's public.
Size of ancient Minoan bull leaping bulls
Archaeological evidence has now uncovered that the type of bull used by ancient Minoan bull leapers was a cross breed giant aurochs bull, now extinct in Europe. It had a shoulder height of over 6ft (180cm) and a hoof size similar to the size of a human head.
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- Evans 1930, p. 203.
- McInerney, Jeremy (Winter 2011). "Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World" (PDF). Expedition 53 (3): 6–13.
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