This statue was originally painted. Left: Painted replica of Augustus of Prima Porta statue with pigments reconstructed for the Tarraco Viva 2014 Festival

A More Colorful Ancient Greece: Pigment Proves Classical Statues Were Once Painted

(Read the article on one page)

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.

A Laughable Concept

The 19 th century saw the first inklings of possible painted sculpture, but it was not until the innovation of ultraviolet light and special cameras in the late 20 th 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 ancient 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.

Comments

Very interesting.
Thanks Ryan.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Myths & Legends

A vase-scene from about 410 BC. Nimrod/Herakles, wearing his fearsome lion skin headdress, spins Noah/Nereus around and looks him straight in the eye. Noah gets the message and grimaces, grasping his scepter, a symbol of his rule - soon to be displaced in the post-Flood world by Nimrod/Herakles, whose visage reveals a stern smirk.
The Book of Genesis describes human history. Ancient Greek religious art depicts human history. While their viewpoints are opposite, the recounted events and characters match each other in convincing detail. This brief article focuses on how Greek religious art portrayed Noah, and how it portrayed Nimrod in his successful rebellion against Noah’s authority.

Human Origins

Cro-Magnon man communicating with each other and producing cave drawings
How human language began has been a question pestering researchers for centuries. One of the biggest issues with this topic is that empirical evidence is still lacking despite our great advances in...

Ancient Technology

The School of Athens
Much of modern science was known in ancient times. Robots and computers were a reality long before the 1940´s. The early Bronze Age inhabitants of the Levant used computers in stone, the Greeks in the 2nd century BC invented an analogue computer known as the Antikythera mechanism. An ancient Hindu book gives detailed instructions for the construction of an aircraft –ages before the Wright brothers. Where did such knowledge come from?

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article