Greek statues in colour: the fact that most, if not all, ancient (Greek and Roman) stone sculpture (both figural and architectural) was brightly painted may not be news to you, but now you have the opportunity to paint an ancient statue yourself, if only virtually.
The pristine white, beige or grey appearance of most of the extant works is the result of weathering and the shade of the underlying stone, but not the original artists’ intention. Scholarship recognised the phenomenon known as ancient polychromy (in Greek, “poly” means “many” and “chroma” is “colour”) already two centuries ago, and it has been studied ever since.
In many cases, traces of paint do survive on ancient sculptures. Although they tend to be severely faded, modern scientific methods of examination can often produce informative results, suggesting the original appearance of the works. The most visible and notable outcome of such research on ancient polychromy is probably the travelling exhibition “Bunte Götter” (“Gods in Color“), initially shown in the Munich Glyptothek in 2003.
The exhibit simply shows high-quality casts of ancient sculptures painted according to the original colour scheme as reconstructed by scholars and scientists. Since 2003, it has been shown in 19 cities worldwide, including Rome, Athens, Istanbul, Harvard, Los Angeles, Vienna and Berlin. Furthermore, the exhibit constantly grows, since its display at a new location usually includes the addition of coloured reconstructions of works from the collections of the host institution or museum. By now it comprises many familiar pieces, including the celebrated Peplos Kore from the Athenian Acropolis and the famous Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon, now on display in Istanbul Archaeological Museum. So, “Gods in Color” is certainly worth looking out for on your travels (more images here)…
For most unprepared observers, the initial impression of ancient polychromy tends to be quite shocking. The well-established impression of ancient sculpture, based entirely on the natural stone and its sculpted shape, is suddenly overlain by bright and glaring colour (hence our title), adding a wholly new aspect to the experience. Of course, those loud colours would only have applied to the freshly finished object. As there is little evidence for repainting, we can assume that, exposed to the elements, the paint on sculptures and buildings must have faded over time.
The Acropolis Museum in Athens is offering special tours and activities focusing on ancient polychromy for the next 12 months. Its collection is very well suited to the theme, as it contains many Archaic (6th century BC) statues that were damaged in the Persian sack of 480 BC, a few decades after their creation, and buried shortly after that, preserving their paint. As an extra bonus, and trigger for this post, they also offer a little game, allowing us to repaint the Peplos Kore (ca. 530 BC), according to our own tastes. It’s surprisingly enjoyable, so open the link and play!
By the way, you can see evidence for the original paint on ancient sculpture on nearly all our European tours. The Acropolis Museum, including the Peplos Kore, is one of many highlights on our Exploring Athens tour.