With Philippos in Knossos
2022. Acrylic and collage on canvas. 11 x 14 in.
The colors stuck with me, apparently, though I’d never consciously registered them when I’d see photographs of the ruins of Knossos, the magical Bronze-Age palace of the Minoans near Heraklion on the island of Crete.
We had a series of small cheap glossy prints we’d picked up somewhere, the kind that would be sold in a sheaf to tourists in the pre-digital age, with color and contrast exaggerated but luscious to the eye. And the colors at Knossos were already suspect, the result of a controversial restoration a hundred years ago. But…so lovely! The frescos and painted reliefs, the architectural elements, and the giant pithos, ceramic storage jars as tall as you or me. Plus the natural golden earthiness of the ancient stones and the overall Mediterranean airiness of exposed ruins. Enjoy some similarly saturated images on this site.
Even if the art were not extraordinary, the legends that surround Knossos lift it fully to the divine: King Minos, his bull-besotted wife Pasiphae, and her son the half-man half-bull Minotaur who was slain in the Labyrinth by Theseus following the thread of Ariadne. And it was from the Labyrinth that Daedalus and and his son Icarus escaped on wings of wax and feathers, an enterprise with a spectacular bad end.
Bulls are found throughout the art at Knossos, including this fabulous bull-leaping fresco:
“The famous Bull-leaping fresco, from the palace at Knossos, depicts a critical moment in the event. Two female figures (in white) are positioned at each end of the bull, while a male figure (in brown) throws himself into a somersault off of the bull’s back. Although this fresco has been reconstructed—the darker fragments are the recovered pieces—the sport or ritual of bull-leaping is clearly depicted. The fresco dates to the Final Palace period, ca. 1450–1400 BC.” – Bulls and Bull-leaping in the Minoan World
And there was something about the bull-leaping that played subliminally in the back of my mind with that arcing gesture on my canvas. I was quite taken with it. I’d begun this work back in 2020 with a process that presaged the way I work now, with a lightly textured canvas, free gesture, and several coats of a staining acrylic. But there I bogged down. I had no idea how to move towards what I was feeling in the piece. Into the incubation box it went, but I continued to take it out and consider it every so often, pondering how to proceed with no avail.
And so it was that the canvas was out at the time I learned of the passing of my beloved friend Philippos. By that time I’d begun working with the deli paper collage, so when I first returned to the studio in the wake of that terrible event the pieces began to fall into place. The eggplant, the terracotta, the pinks and violets and blues. And Knossos, the Knossos of mythos, the Knossos I shared with Philippos, came clear to my mind.
But, in truth, we actually never were in Knossos. We did spend a winter on the Peloponnesus, harvesting oranges with other young vagabonds, trying to save money and scheming to get to Egypt though we never made it there, either. Crete was a hazy option out on the sea, and other ex-pats staying in Nafplio had harvested there, raking olives from the trees. But when the opportunity came to join the orange harvest in Spain we chose that instead. And so we never made it to Knossos.
But the Knossos of this painting is not the Knossos one can visit if one takes a boat to Crete, anyway. It is the Knossos of myth and imagination, of great magical leaps, of the divine colors of a dream. The Knossos of a mythos we shared, Philippos and me. And this I learned as I worked on the painting, as I grieved and came to a new understanding of the creative dream-space that was ours, a mythos that could perhaps outlast our mutual living of it.