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Art Project #2 - Make your own fresco

The world’s earliest known frescoes can be found in the Lascaux caves in France. It is highly unlikely that the prehistoric artists who created these masterpieces some 30,000 years ago were aware of the fresco technology they had created. But within the damp limestone caves coloured earth, chalk and charcoal combined to produce the world’s first frescoes. Webster’s defines “fresco” as “the art of painting on freshly spread moist lime plaster with water-based pigments.” As the plaster cures a crystal layer is formed, bonding the pigments and the plaster together. Not having a complete understanding of the chemical processes involved did not prevent the production of some superb masterpieces.

The mural paintings of the ancient Egyptians, which depicted in wonderful detail, scenes of both the afterworld and contemporary daily activities, were not true frescoes. Their paintings were done on dry plaster and their survival was dependent on the arid desert climate of Egypt. Their pigments were bound to the tomb walls using adhesives derived largely from plants and their artwork is far less permanent than those executed in fresco.

The first major Aegean civilization — the Minoans — developed the art of fresco and raised it to exalted levels on the islands of Crete and Santorini. Not all of their murals were done in fresco however. In many cases they began a mural working on wet lime plaster but by the time they completed it they were working on a dry plaster base. That has presented a conservation/preservation challenge to the archaeologists and other specialists working on the Minoan heritage.

The ancient Greeks developed wall painting and the use of true fresco to a high level. Unfortunately almost nothing has survived. Art scholars have lamented this for many classical writings placed Greek painting on at least a par with Greek architecture and sculpture. Certainly some painters were well renowned for their skill within their lifetimes.

Apelles was famed for his portraits, the best-known being Aphrodite rising from the sea and Alexander with thunderbolt. He also wrote a treatise on painting techniques but neither his writings nor his works survive. The paintings of Zeuxis were said to be so realistic that birds flew down to eat the grapes that were depicted. (The artist modestly said that if the content was that lifelike that the birds would have been kept away by the young boys also shown in the painting.) Helen of Troy and Female centaur with her young were among his best-known works. Zeuxis was a great rival of Parrhasius, a painter from Ephesus who did most of his work in Athens. One of his most famous paintings was The Athenian People. It, and at least 20 other well-known works of his, mainly of mythological subjects, have disappeared. Other well-known painters include Polygnotus, Nicias and Agatharcus. Greek artists worked on commission for public buildings, painted works for the houses of the wealthy and also worked as scene painters for theatre productions.

In 1865 work began on the Suez Canal project. Canal builders required a long-lasting cement that would resist seawater. An essential ingredient in that cement was volcanic pumice from the ancient island of Thera (present day Santorini). Quarry workers digging out the pumice came across some buried stone walls and German and French archaeologists confirmed this was the dwelling place of an ancient civilization.

More than a century passed before work began in earnest on this site. Tunneling beneath a mountain of volcanic ash and pumice, a Bronze Age civilization began to emerge. The quarry workers had, in effect, discovered an unopened time capsule. In its heyday the ancient city of Akrotiri had, perhaps, 30,000 inhabitants many of whom lived in what might be called middle class dwellings. Some of these houses featured spectacular wall paintings that have been called “the most perfect works of art, preserved for us from prehistoric times.”

Many of the paintings had been damaged to some degree by earthquake tremors, others by floodwaters and all were buried under tons of volcanic debris. Carefully removing the debris, assembling the shattered frescoes and carrying out minimal conservation work on the paintings has meant that progress on the site has been slow. It has been estimated that at least a century of archaeological work remains to be done. What has been uncovered however has shown the world a civilization frozen in time. The paintings have answered some questions and raised new ones. They have also expanded the timeline of Aegean prehistory and given archaeologists more puzzles to solve. One of these is the nature of the relationship between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, both of whom are depicted working as the crew on a large sea-going ship.

The wall murals of Santorini were partially produced in true fresco style. The artists used pigments on wet lime plaster at the beginning of a mural and then continued the work on a dry plaster base. Perhaps they were unaware that the end result of both processes would be different. The portions done in true fresco style would prove to be more durable. Maybe this was not an important consideration for the artists who may have been painting for the moment and not for posterity. The meaning of the images and the importance they held for their viewers in Akrotiri is lost- perhaps forever. The images that are shown: a woman picking saffron, shepherds tending their flocks, a youth holding up a healthy catch of fish, birds, flowers, a procession of worshippers?, rocks, wild animals, marine motifs, ships, imaginary creatures and children playing.

Do these images hold a meaning beyond what is seen. For example, is the image of the fisherman an attempt to use “magic” to ensure a dependable supply of food into the future? (Some Egyptian tomb scenes were intended for that very purpose.) Are the fish an offering to the gods? Are they just a means of celebrating life, of expressing joy and thankfulness for prosperity and a bountiful catch?

The mural paintings at Knossos on the island of Crete and the wall paintings at Akrotiri on the island of Santorini are the inspiration behind the following activity.

Activity: Make your own fresco.

Making a “real” fresco is not the subject of this activity. There is a considerable amount of time involved in making a real fresco and the materials involved are not suitable for the novice or casual user. Constant supervision by a knowledgeable adult is essential. Teachers who want to review what is involved might want to review the following web sites.

At the same time it is worth noting that under the guidance of experienced art teachers some school classes have worked on true frescoes and have documented their experiences on line. Please see:

Fresco painting is an art that has been around for a long time and has been practiced by a great many cultures including: prehistoric hunters in France and Spain, artists from ancient Greece, Egypt, China, India, Central America (Aztec, Maya), the Italian Renaissance, Mexican muralists of the 20th century and many others.

Process

Information Gathering. Students should begin the process by doing some research both on line and using library books.

Class Discussion. The teacher should lead a class discussion which will address at least the following questions:

  1. What is a mural?
  2. How do murals communicate ideas about the artist and the culture he or she is trying to represent?
  3. What are some examples of well-known murals? (e.g. The tomb paintings of the ancient Egyptians which depicted life in the afterworld, the Bonampak paintings of the Maya which showed some of their rituals, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux and Altamira, Great Depression murals, the paintings at Santorini, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel).
  4. What is a fresco?
  5. Are there any murals or frescoes in the community (e.g. in a museum, art gallery, arts centre, train station, on the exterior of buildings in the neighbourhood)?

Assignment. Because of the length of time involved (the plaster should cure for at least six weeks, six years is still better), the potential safety hazards, and the cost — making a “faux fresco”, rather than a true fresco is likely a more practical way to go. The painting should be large and “impressive”. Ideally, when completed, it should be put up in a prominent place (hallway, gymnasium) where it can be seen and admired by the larger community.

  • The first step is to have a brainstorming session to get ideas from the class. The paintings at Santorini tell the story of the old Bronze Age civilization that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1646 B.C. The mural shows the people involved in daily and ritual activity. It shows plants, animals and the landscape of the area. Challenge the class to create a mural that will give a snapshot of their society today.
  • The paintings at Santorini (and the Egyptian tomb paintings for that matter) used a standard way to show certain things in the paintings. For example, men were always shown with brownish skin (because they were always out in the sun) while the skin of women was shown as white. Faces were always in profile. The clothing of men and women were clearly different.
  • Specialists disagree on the meaning of some images in both ancient Egyptian and Greek paintings. More research is needed and perhaps there will never be consensus on some issues. The students should imagine that their mural will be looked at by scholars from the middle ages. What would they think our civilization is doing lined up in the street outside some kind of window (at an ATM machine), talking on a cell-phone, listening to an IPOD, rolling up the rim of a Tim Horton’s coffee cup, sending a text message on a blackberry, watching television, lined up at a McDonald’s drive-through, flying on a helicopter, bungee jumping, getting a vaccination, etc. We face the same challenge trying to interpret images from a culture about which we know little.
  • Spend some time in planning out the scope of the mural. If this mural is going to reflect the student’s society now, what are the most important visuals that need to be included? Are there major natural features (sea, mountains, forest), are there major architectural landmarks (skyscrapers, cathedral, government buildings, airport), are there strong visual elements in the local community (sports stadium, arts centre), what are the dominant industries, what is the cultural make-up, are there messages they feel are important to convey, etc.?
  • One option is for the whole class to agree on the general nature of the mural to be developed and then to sketch out a rough outline of that. Each student could then work on a section of the mural. This works very well if you use an overhead projector to project the general outline on a large canvas or piece of butcher paper. Students can then make their specific contribution to the whole.
  • Another option is simply to decide on the general scope of the project and assign an equal amount of real estate to each student. The students then do their work in isolation and it is brought together and then transferred in outline to the larger art surface. Students will use tracing paper to transfer their drawings to the larger artwork. Tempera or non-toxic acrylic paint, depending on the painting surface, is recommended.

Additional Resources

The large-format films Mystery of the Maya, Mysteries of Egypt and Greece: Secrets of the past all have great examples of mural paintings and all deal effectively with the depiction of the culture presented in the film. All three civilizations have left a rich visual legacy in their artwork.