Hi, I responded to an ancient Aegean art post you put up with a quick question about a convention I had heard of about skin color denoting gender. I googled it a bit right after and I guess this can be traced back to one guy who worked a lot on the Palace of Knossos and I found this great article picking this convention apart. Maybe the skin color/ gender convention I was told about isn’t so set in stone anymore.
Now, the Aegean Color Convention is definitely taught in classrooms as the gospel truth: That in Greek Bronze Age Art, “red”-skinned figures are male, and “white”-skinned figures are female. Which of course ignores the existence of black, brown, and yellow-skinned figures depicted in art from the same cultural era.
The person who decided this was Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), a white, male art historian from England who made this claim over 100 years ago. I’ve made mention here before that the problem with historical disciplines is that claims like these will go unexamined for quite literally centuries. It is only in the last 20 years or so that anyone has bothered to re-examine this belief that color denotes gender, despite the (occasionally glaring) inconsistencies present in the surviving art and art fragments.
The first article, linked above and free to read, begins to make inroads, examining the many surviving works that do not fit into the expectations between gender, color, costume, and activity. The first disappointment in this article was that it does not question the gendering of activities:
Most red-skinned ﬁgures are characterized as male not by the naturalistic details of physiognomy but by their costumes and stereotypically active, aggressive behavior which favors sports, hunting and ﬁghting.
Despite going on to make this point:
The fresco evidence suggests that some types of clothing, such as ﬂounced skirts, were closely associated with gender identity. But other costumes, including tunics, loin cloths, and long robes, were probably worn by both men and women for speciﬁc activities. These “unisex”costumes were likely selected for their functionality rather than for their association with gender.
Despite giving a brief nod to scholarship challenging not only the inconsistencies inherent in this theory, but academia’s expectations of a gender binary:
The result is a more nuanced sensitivity to the issues that recognizes the role of variability in prehistoric constructions of gender, in the nature of the surviving evidence, and in today’s reading of that evidence.
Before limping to this counterintuitive conclusion:
In this author’s opinion, transgendered or third-gender individuals have yet to emerge clearly from the evidence of Late Bronze Age fresco painting.The color convention likely remained shorthand for a prehistoric binary conception of male and female gender categories, just as Evans supposed.
So I immediately decided to start digging, and came across another article on JSTOR by someone who got funding to base her analysis on examining the original fragments, rather than the subsequent restorations:
The preceding statement does not, of course, address the question of gender identification, an issue that was once confidently settled in terms of the conventional color of the skin, red for a male, white for a female, used in ancient art, particularly in the Aegean and Egypt. In contrast, multidisciplinary approaches used in the interpretation of Aegean iconography make one aware that this criterion is not as straightforward and definitive as once believed.For instance, wall paintings in Egypt display a range of colors to indicate not only gender but also age and ethnic identity, making it difficult to see where the convention for gender applies. In addition, anthropological research is making it clear that ancient peoples may not have always thought in terms of distinct polarities in their definition of gender, and such ambiguities were registered in their artistic depictions.
And yet, and yet. Both articles end up supporting the Color=Gender convention. I have yet to see a definitive answer to the following:
How does the color convention account for brown, black, and yellow-skinned figures?
Why so some “male” figures lack penises, and why do some “female” figures lack breasts?
How does one classify figures whose costumes, color, secondary sexual characteristics and activities all seem to contradict attempts to determine their genders?
Both articles contain titillating footnotes regarding articles that sound more in-depth, but unfortunately, I haven’t been able to dig them up in any of the databases I have access to.
The images at the top of this post consist of several of the more contested pieces discussed among historians of Ancient Art. You can view more frescoes at the Met’s website here, from the exhibition Historic Images of the Greek Bronze Age: The Reproductions of E. Gilliéron & Son.
1. Emile Gilliéron père (Swiss, 1850–1924), Reproduction of the “Priest-King” from Knossos, ca. 1906–1907. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.99.9a-f). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Sir Arthur Evans (British, 1851–1941) Frontispiece to The Palace of Minos at Knossos, vol. 2 part 2, showing the painted stucco relief of the “Priest-King” restored. The Onassis Library for Hellenic and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Images © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
2. Attributed to Emile Gilliéron fils (Swiss, b. Greece, 1885–1939), Reproduction of the “Saffron Gatherer” fresco from Knossos, 1914. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dodge Fund, 1915 (15.122.3). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
3. Emile Gilliéron père (Swiss, 1850–1924), Reproduction of the “Bull Leapers” fresco from Knossos, ca. 1906–1907. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.99.17). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
4. Emile Gilliéron père (Swiss, 1850–1924), Reproduction of the painted limestone sarcophagus from Agia Triadha, 1909-1910. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dodge Fund, 1910 (10.38.1). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York