The Late Bronze Age
c. 1500-1100 BCE


The "Toreador" Fresco
("Scene from bull sports")
from Knossos
Fresco (restored)
(Archaeological Museum, Herakleion, Crete)

The original Court of the Stone Spout was probably an open space; later two walls were built running east-west. The fresco fragments were found in the upper layers of débris in the south-west corner. Further fragments were found in 1902 when later rubble was cleared. The original fresco may have decorated a room above. The fragments belong to several within decorative frames. Each panel evidently depicted a scene from the bull-games. It was possible (or so believed) to restore one of the panels with confidence.

The painting combines observation of nature and a probable court and religious ritual. The great bull is shown in full charge with all four feet off the ground and the body fully stretched into a flying gallop, all artistic conventions to indicate the speed and fury of the animal's charge.

A closer examination shows that the artist has further distorted the bull's shape to emphasize its power, especially in the neck and shoulders, which are very thick in comparison with the stubby legs. The bull is painted more or less naturalistically in brown and white, while the human figures, large in relation to the animal to emphasize their importance, are painted white and red.

The use of red for men and white for women is another Minoan convention, and it leads to the suggestion that women dressed as men took part in the bull games. They are shown in profile but again the artist has distorted for effect. The figure over the bull's back at first glance seems to be in a perfectly natural position. It is only on close examination that the physical impossibility of the pose can be seen.

The decorative border of overlapping varicolored ovals is thought to represent Minoan free-form rendering of a rocky landscape. That the dangerous bull sports took place elsewhere than within the confines of the central court has been suggested, and this border is cited to support the supposition.

Exactly what is happening in this painting is not clear. Here is Evans's own description and interpretation of the scene:

    "Turning a back-somersault above [a] bull, are two female taureadors, distinguished not only by their white skin but by their more ornamental attire. Their loin-cloth and girdle is identical with that of the man but of more variegated hue: his is plain yellow, theirs are decorated with black stripes and bars. They wear bands round their wrists and double necklaces--one of them beaded--and, in the case of some of the figures, blue and red ribbons round their brows. But perhaps their most distinctive feature is the symmetrical arrangement of short curls over their foreheads and temples. Their foot-wear consists of short gaiters or stockings and pointed moccasin-like shoes.

    The girl acrobat in front seizes the horns of a coursing bull at full gallop, one of which seems to nestle under her left armpit. The object of her grips seems to be to gain a purchase for a backward somersault over the animal's back, such as is being performed by the boy. The second female performer behind stretches out both her hands as if about to catch the flying figure or at least to steady him when he comes to earth the right way up. The stationing of this figure for such an act raises some curious questions as to the arrangements within the arena.

    Apart from this, certain features in the design have provoked the scepticism of experts acquainted with modern "Rodeo" performances. A veteran in "Steer-wrestling", consulted by Professor Baldwin Brown, was of opinion that any one who had anything to do with that sport would pronounce the endeavour to seize the bull's horns as a start for a somersault as quite impossible "for there is no chance of a human person being able to obtain a balance when the bull is charging full against him." The bull, as he further remarked, has three times the strength of a steer, and when running, "raises his head sideways and gores any one in front of him."

    That a somersault was performed over the back of a charging bull seems evident and does not seem to present much difficulty, but surely if the bull were at full gallop the athlete would not alight on its back, but on the ground well behind it ?

    All that can be said is that the performance as featured by the Minoan artist seems to be of a kind pronounced impossible by modern champions of the sport."

© Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe