I’m proud to call Nyani Martin a friend and colleague in the world of Minoan studies. This article introduces you to the extraordinary art that “Ny” has created out of her engagements with Bronze Age Crete.
Just before the long final period of Minoan civilization (that is, for a generation or two before 1600 BCE), some fresco-painters at Knossos Labyrinth worked in a relatively “miniature” scale as they played their parts in Crete’s artistic and ceremonial life. These painters inherited old traditions: keen observation of nature and the body, vibrant color-choices, and cunningly asymmetrical arrangements of forms that endowed a whole scene with dynamic motion.
And yet, beyond the usual Minoan lack of interest in grandiosity, no one explains why the expansive tableaus in these works—priestesses dancing before a huge crowd, a festival-gathering of ladies at a magnificent shrine, and other scenes important to Minoans—were packed with so much charm into such tiny forms. Maybe this trend was simply like the 17th-century fashion in Dutch painting whose challenge was to lovingly detail whole towns and landscapes on a scale no bigger than a modern greeting-card.
Each of these original (scanned) examples of Nyani Martin’s art is painstakingly etched (somehow!) into a hard plastic panel smaller than your average refrigerator-magnet. And all of them reproduce the extraordinary impact of their Minoan inspirations (you can see and study many throughout Calendar House). When you study the Minoan originals (for example, in Cameron & Hood’s Knossos Fresco Atlas), you can hardly believe the skill behind the human hand that can render such precisely-observed lines, of nature and the body, in their worlds of sensation and movement—and on such an absurdly tiny scale. The closer you look at Nyani Martin’s art, the more you wonder at the same.
She catches just the right fold of a woman’s beaded gown across her thigh, and it becomes as translucent as light fabric. Among the bull-leapers, every limb and muscle, every crooked leg or lifted hand is an explosion of response to the red plunging force of the wicked-horned bull who’s plowing through their midst: the lines of the leaper sailing over bull’s back have the tension and grace of a classic Minoan body in its consummate arch. The bull-leaper’s helpers at center and right have joyful faces and their bodies are celebration, uplift, style— for they’ve done their part. But the curly-haired catcher at left yet remains to do hers, and her face is a question now to be answered about herself.
As in much Minoan art, here we have finely-detailed individuals whose subjectivities and expressions are caught up in a great rhythm of living and ceremonial action. This is a cultural trait that seems to me the very seed of what today calls the spirit of The Olympic Games—where competition is never more worthwhile because of the surrounding spirit of cooperation. Where individuals triumph most in the conquest of human limitations.
Nyani Martin does the homework. She knows that Kiya, one of the wives of Pharaoh Akhenaten—the man who tried to reduce Egyptian religion to one god, the sun—was a post-Minoan woman of the future Greek Islands, and the elegant portrait of her here is the tiniest of all the original works which Ny so generously gave me over the years of our friendship (it’s an incredible one inch by ½-inch in size).
“Allomai, Near the Sea” is a tender evocation of a pensive Minoan woman, with a tiara and textiles that (as in Minoan art) mark a figure of standing and knock your eyes out. She has a “sister” in the forlorn and yet charming “Ariadne” here. “Young Minoan Lady and Pomegranate” shares with them the Minoans’ love of pure color. I know of only one example of a naked Minoan dancer (she is part of the amazing cosmic tableau carved in gold on the sometimes-debated “Ring of Minos”). But Nyani Martin’s examples here are wild evocations of high erotic spirits in religious contexts—and those are aspects of a Minoan sensibility detailed in another article here.
Finally, a “Minoan Family Banquet” presents a dozen different people at the imagined presentation of a child to elite religious figures (and baby makes 13). From the vibrant designs of their textiles and jewelry to the tiny cups in their hands, from the three-legged cook-pot to the Libyan hairstyle on the man at left, and the right side’s lyre-player, this is indeed a Minoan scene—a rigorously-presented and wonderfully warm gather of individuals in a unified (and unifying) event, which in all its “ordinary” detail expresses something of exquisite charm about being alive.
Nyani Martin also wrote a short but wonderful “imagining” about what happened at this Banquet, and it follows herewith.
I have had the luck to meet with Nyani Martin a few times over the years since she first enjoyed Ariadne’s Brother—a modest, shy and striking young African-American woman who never stops learning and sharing her amazing work with others. And I hope that these masterful examples of her Minoan inspirations will freshen your eye as they do mine, for many more appreciations of our heritage in Minoan Crete.
Nyani Martin Describes the “Minoan Family Banquet”:
Kylia sighed with happiness, and because her feet hurt; she leaned a bit against Tinea, who tightened her arm around Kylia’s waist, holding baby Dyktis to her breast with the other so he could suck idly and stay quiet.
Kylia was standing, despite being in her eighth month, because the family was having its feast of the winter solstice, in the Great Hall of their House, and was honoring its new mothers as it did at the quarter-posts of every year. Tulanis was carrying the ritual meal to them, carefully, slowly, trying with all her adolescent might to be stately, and Kidunatsa, the eldest and their Priestess (and Tulanis’ mother), was singing the private words to the Goddess before coming to Kylia and Tinea to say the public ones.
Kylia loved this ritual. During her childhood in a Mainland fortress her mother and other Cycladic slaves had practiced a small smuggled version in secret. When she had come to the Family she lived with them as a daughter before she married them, and had learned the fuller version and celebrated it for several mothers of the family, including Mother Elucea and Tinea on her first pregnancy. The eldest woman of the House or its Priestess and an adolescent girl, a “new” woman, offered a roasted liver and old-fashioned cereal paste cakes (made from toasted, crushed grain, rather than flour) to the household Goddess, on a stone plate, chopping the prescribed four herbs (for this time of year, fennel, thyme, sage, and hyssop) with a ground stone knife. The liver was sliced and sprinkled with the herbs, and then the ancient-style food was offered to the mothers near birth and right after, as the Priestess blessed them. It nourished their souls and promoted their fertility and milk. It was ancient, as could be seen from the food and the equipment, no copper or bronze used, only flaked obsidian and ground stone, and it was beautiful.
Surrounding them were their family, the children watching and wandering, the adults clapping and singing a hymn of cheer; Tanaui Sti was strumming his harp as he leaned against the Mother Pillar. Aristion came up to stand with Kylia and Tinea, one hand on each of their shoulders. This time, the liver was that of a fat duck, since that was what Elucea had chosen to roast, though they also had a joint of beef forequarter from the family down the mountain, who had slaughtered a bullock and traded sections to all their neighbors; far more meat than they usually ate of a meal, but then it *was* a feast. People had their first cups of wine or broth from the stewed beef, and pieces of warm flatbread to dip; soon, after this ritual, they would start in on the stewed beef with its vegetables and cooked dried milk-wheat, eating it with flatbread and raw lettuce from the garden, eating the duck with yeast bread from the starter that had been Tinea’s dowry from her birth family, apples and grapes.
Later they would have yogurt from cow’s milk, with rosehips stewed in honey and put through a strainer, and fresh dark figs and pomegranate seeds, and resinated wine with mead and small round balls of cannabis-honey-date sweetmeats to promote love and fertility and the return of the sunshine. Kylia was very hungry, still making up for the three months of her pregnancy when she could barely eat, and looking forward to the meal, as delicious scents wafted into the Hall from the courtyard and the kitchen behind it.
Tulanis reached them, flushed and blushing and beaming; Kidunatsa came up behind the girl to put a hand on her shoulder and sing the blessing to Kylia and Tinea, invoking the Goddess as Mother in them, praising their fruitfulness. Kylia and Tinea took a piece each of liver and of cereal cake, kissed each other, and fed each other, as their family cheered, and the child within Kylia kicked to add its own comment. She caught her breath, swallowwed, and felt as if even heavy with child as she was she could fly on her family’s love.
Kidunatsa took the remaining liver and cereal cakes to the Ancestors’ pillar in the center of the room, its gray stone carved with a sixteen-pointed star and double axes. Tulanis scurried to her sister, who was stirring the simmering tripod pot, to fetch a cup of broth, and hurried to catch up with her mother; together they sang to the Ancestors, their voices haunting, strangely twining like snakes in the old ululating song, as Kylia listened with her head laid back onto Aristion’s shoulder. Kidunatsa laid a small piece of each food at the base of the pillar, and poured the cup of broth into the offering-hole. Then she turned to the family and grinned, as Elucea came in, right on time, bearing the roast duck on a broad painted platter. “Let’s eat!” the two women said together, looking at each other, and the Family cheered. Kylia cheered too, and sat down to eat.