A More Colorful Ancient World: Classical Statues Were Once Painted



Once upon a time, long before wars, natural disasters, and erosion took hold of the ancient Greek statues, these ivory gems vibrated with color. Ancient Greek sculptors valued animated and pulsating depictions as much as they valued perfection and realism, and it has finally become fact that these artists utilized color in their creations. The stark white Parthenon once breathed in blues, yellows and reds, and—though it took thousands of years for this to be solidified in art historical circles—now, scholars are finally able to display the ancient world with the same rainbow vitality it once possessed.

Painted Classical Sculptures – A Laughable Concept

The 19th century saw the first inklings of possible painted classical sculpture, but it was not until the innovation of ultraviolet light and special cameras in the late 20th century that finally provided unequivocal evidence of the painted marble. In fact, the mere idea that the sculptures were painted at all was considered laughable until the late nineteen-hundreds, when archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the statues were once richly painted.

Even then, Brinkmann’s earliest representations of what colored statuary might look like were deemed “gaudy”, due to the overwhelming rich color schemes he depicted. Yet, with time and perseverance, Brinkmann eventually proved all his naysayers wrong.

Trojan archer (so called “Paris”), figure W-XI of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BC Polychrome reconstruction from the exhibition Bunte Götter.

Trojan archer (so called “Paris”), figure W-XI of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BC Polychrome reconstruction from the exhibition Bunte Götter. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

While the ancient bronze statues were likely not painted due to the extensive incorporation of inlaid jewels, gems, and other metals in their forms, the marble statues of both ancient Greece and Rome have shown traces of pigment since their various rediscoveries in the Renaissance. However, unbeknownst to those fifteenth and sixteenth century pre-archaeologists, those faint traces of color were indicative of a once elaborately decorated sculpture—not just of residue from these pieces being long misplaced. It is because of this lack of knowledge that Renaissance sculptors intent on copying Greek and Roman forms carved their statues in unpainted, white marble; as far as they knew, unpainted white marble was precisely the way their ancient forebearers had sculpted.

Left: ‘Peplos Kore’, circa 530 BC Right: Reconstructed in polychrome as Athena by Brinkmann team

Left: ‘Peplos Kore’, circa 530 BC ( CC BY-SA 2.5 ) Right: Reconstructed in polychrome as Athena by Brinkmann team ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Perishable Pigment

Now that it is understood and widely accepted that the trace pigments found on these statues are remnants of marble once colored, there has been further research into the nature of the paints and dyes used (and thus the reasons behind why and when those colors likely faded or were removed). In ancient Greece, pigments were created through a mixture of minerals “with organic binding media that disintegrated over time”. Thus, the paint held fast to the marble for many years but was slowly chipped away due to intense natural erosion and harsh weather, various stages of cleaning, and—of course—the impact of warfare. What remained by the time of the Renaissance into the nineteenth century were the stark white statues that survive today.

Based on the archaeological excavations, surviving historical documents (i.e. Plutarch and Pausanias, for example), and the scientific innovations that have allowed for these polychromatic revelations in the recent past, scholars have been able to determine much of classical sculpture was decorated in yellows, reds, and blues. As evidenced by the surviving frescoes in Roman places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, these colors were highly prized in the ancient world as they were easy to come by, and served the purpose of creating strong colors that forced the viewer’s full attention.

A plant called madder was commonly used to create red dyes (its use dated as far back as prehistoric times), and it was continually used throughout the period of ancient Greece and Rome. Yellow dye was often extracted from certain flowers, such as saffron (known from Minoan artworks to have been plentiful in the ancient world), turmeric, and pomegranate rind (also known to have been plentiful due to the various myths surrounding the fruit). Meanwhile, blues were created from indigo plants and woad (likely having come to Greece through trade routes leading east), and then combined with yellows to create various shades of green. While these colors were not the only ones utilized by the ancient Greeks (and later, the Romans), these appear to have been among the most valued colors.

Right: Original Trojan archer (so called “Paris”), figure W-XI of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BC.(Public Domain). Right: Polychrome reconstitution from the exhibition Bunte Götter.

Right: Original Trojan archer (so called “Paris”), figure W-XI of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 505–500 BC.( Public Domain ). Right: Polychrome reconstitution from the exhibition Bunte Götter.( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Colorful Discourse

The debate regarding color on Greek statuary was long and arduous for scholars before and during Johann Winckelmann’s time. It had long been postulated that Greek statues were likely covered in paint; however the comical, clown-like reproductions produced made most researchers scoff and laugh. Thanks to Winckelmann, it is now certain that color was as important in ancient sculpture as any other aspects. The Greeks not only wanted to worship their gods and goddesses in gloriously perfect human forms; they wanted their gods to resonate with all the “colors of the wind”.

Top image: This classical statue was originally painted. Left: Painted replica of Augustus of Prima Porta statue with pigments reconstructed for the Tarraco Viva 2014 Festival ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ). Right: Original Statue in White Marble, 1st century AD. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Ryan Stone

Updated on February 21, 2022.


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