True Colors of Ancient Greek and Roman Statues

The Ancients loved color! Finding out about this is pretty great but I’m so used to white marbled statues it just doesn’t seem right to see them colored.   I have seen so many exhibitions of Greek statues but I never never never even imagined any old sculpture being in color.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 3For centuries, we’ve assumed that the clean, white surfaces of ancient Greek sculptures were the standard of beauty; during the Renaissance, artists strove to emulate this simple aesthetic in their own art. Even today, we expect truly beautiful classical and ancient art to be pure and unadorned – but Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann have spent over two decades proving us wrong.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 2Peplos Kore

Their research has involved using several high-tech methods to uncover the true intended appearances of ancient artwork. It’s amazing what technology can accomplish. The archaeologists aren’t the first to notice that ancient sculptures featured bits of color, but they are the first to use extensive scientific methods to reveal the colors. Their arsenal included X-ray fluorescence, infrared spectroscopy, and ultraviolet analysis, among other methods.

I wonder if they used shading and highlighting. Just because we can only find traces of colours, doesn’t mean they couldn’t tint them.
the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures
So why do these ancient sculptures appear white to us now? Quite simply, it’s due to the fact that they have faded and become weathered over the centuries. The paint has worn off, leaving the aged statues with the familiar blank white appearance we’ve become accustomed to. To give a tangible feeling of the originals, the husband-and-wife Brinkmann team have recreated some of these aged statues and painted them in the colors they would have borne in their glory days. The Brinkmanns’ statues have been travelling the world as a popular museum exhibit since 2003.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 12Athena Lemnia

Paris

Historically, colour has always been seen as a status symbol, and our collective tastes have definitely changed over the centuries.  Seeing these classic statues recreated in vivid colors seems gaudy and almost obscene to us today because we expect ancient Greek statuary to bear that dignified blank white look. But when they were created, bright colors helped to give detail and depth to the sculptures. According to the artists and art lovers of that time, bare statues were ugly and unsightly.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 13Lion from Loutraki

“If people say, ‘What kitsch,’ it annoys me but I’m not surprised,” says Brinkmann, who, with his wife, archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, colored this reconstruction of the c.550 B.C., “Lion from Loutraki.” Its stunning blue-colored mane is not unique on ancient monuments. Lions often sat atop tombs in ancient Greece, where ornamental details such as the animals’ tuffs of hair and facial markings were painted in bright colors that accented their fur.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 4Augustus of Prima Porta

While to our modern eye, the bright colours scream ‘tacky,’ to the ancients who painted them, it was ‘expensive!’ Back in the day, slaves wore roughcloth, like undyed and unbleached icky tan colors. The well-to-do wore ‘inexpensive’ colours, and the extremely wealthy wore ‘royal’ colours. There were even laws about it, a very wealthy merchant without a noble title might be able to afford purples and blues, but could be put to death for wearing them. Same goes for statues, only the very rich could waste colours on statuary and decour. It was a status symbol. Dyes, pigments, and paints have become so inexpensive that we’ve become a bit jaded.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 10Apollo

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 9Aphaiatemplet Aigina

  the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 8Alexander Sarcophagus

The “Alexander Sarcophagus” (c. 320 B.C.), was found in the royal necropolis of the Phoenician city of Sidon. But it was named for the illustrious Macedonian ruler, Alexander the Great, depicted in battle against the Persians in this painted replica. Alexander’s sleeved tunic suggests his conquests have thrust him into the new role of Eastern King, but his lion-skin cap ties him to the mythical hero, Herakles, and alludes to divine descent.

the original colors of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures 5Emperor Caligula

Garish, gaudy, tacky or…..awesome? I am so confused.

via: funstuffcafe, gajitzsmithsonianmag

36 thoughts on “True Colors of Ancient Greek and Roman Statues

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  11. TermiteWriter

    It gives you a whole new perspective on Greek civilization! Lusty and vigorous and full of life rather than cool, introverted, and “classical”!

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  13. Interesting. My church, when I was growing up, had a traditional sanctuary with white marble statues. Underneath the sanctuary was a grotto church that had waterfalls, stone, and statues in color. I always loved the atmosphere there compared to the traditional. The bright colors on these statues take a little getting used to, but I suppose, in the correct context, they were aesthetically pleasing.

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  17. Pete Powell

    The women in those times were portrayed as healthy and strong. They didn’t have bird legs where their thighs were as thin as their shins.

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  18. Irina

    I am 99% sure these were originally painted in an artistic way, with many shades, pleasant to the eye… Here they just mapped some colors on some zones, they look ridiculous this way😀

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  19. Reblogged this on | truthaholics and commented:
    “Historically, colour has always been seen as a status symbol, and our collective tastes have definitely changed over the centuries. Seeing these classic statues recreated in vivid colors seems gaudy and almost obscene to us today because we expect ancient Greek statuary to bear that dignified blank white look. But when they were created, bright colors helped to give detail and depth to the sculptures. According to the artists and art lovers of that time, bare statues were ugly and unsightly.”

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  20. Christine Parkes

    Really. ..so these ancients could sculpt pure beauty but couldn’t paint much better than a 5 yo? And I’m not referring to the color choice which I also find sceptical.

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    • There’s nothing wrong with a little skepticism, but these colors have been discovered scientifically – they’re not a wild guess. You’re just uncomfortable with them because you’re not used to seeing these colors applied to statues that we’ve always seen as dirty white. And yet we’re perfectly comfortable with seeing plaster saints and Jesus in all their colorful glory. If you’d only seen Christian imagery in bare plaster, you’d be freaked out by colorful Jesus (and if only the Europeans would give him his rightful Semitic dark skin, instead of making him blond, fair skinned and blue eyed – color has a political side as well). There are certainly examples of statues that retain visible colors, such as the beautiful ones in the Getty Museum. And for those of us who have traveled to Egypt and seen bright color still adhering to ancient temples and statues, this all really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Getty actually had an exhibition a few years ago about how spectroscopy and other scientific tools have been discovering the original colors. Also, the British Museum has a permanent exhibit about this next to the ‘Elgin Marbles’ aka the Parthenon Marbles. Bright, beautiful and amazing – the entablature marbles come to life when painted.

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