To most of us history enthusiasts, the phrase Classical Greece brings forth reveries of temples, sanctuaries and sculptures in their distinctly white marble facades. This notion perhaps has to do with the numerous extant ancient Greek specimens of structures (like the famed Parthenon), along with statues preserved in their ‘achromic’ forms in various museums around the globe. But when it comes to historicity, it was probably the opposite that was true. In essence, most tangible artworks and architectural feats (including the Parthenon) of ancient Greece probably showcased their kaleidoscopic flair with brightly painted facades.
As Matthew Gurewitsch from the Smithsonian Magazine, wrote back in 2008 –
To us, classical antiquity means white marble. Not so to the Greeks, who thought of their gods in living color and portrayed them that way too. The temples that housed them were in color, also, like mighty stage sets. Time and weather have stripped most of the hues away. And for centuries people who should have known better pretended that color scarcely mattered.
Now from the literary perspective, the Euripides play from 5th century BC clearly mentions (with the fictional narrative coming from Helen of Troy) how wiping a color off a statue is akin to disfiguring its craftsmanship. And in our modern context, technology has rather complemented such a colorful ‘past’ of the Greeks. To that end, German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has made use of various scientific techniques ranging from ultraviolet light, high-intensity ‘raking light’ to infrared and X-ray spectroscopy, to discern and reconstruct many of the multifarious hues and colors prevalent in ancient Greek statues.
Many of his color sources have a ‘tinge’ of authenticity to them, with the use of organic pigments mirroring the propensity of ancient Greek craftsmen, painters and sculptors. For example, Brinkmann derived his “green from malachite, blue from azurite, yellow and ocher from arsenic compounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine.” The first of these reconstructions made their debut in an exhibition held at the Glyptothek museum in 2003.
Suffice it to say, some of the self-proclaimed ‘purists’ were not that impressed with what seemed to be garish recreations of the originals. However there is an irony hidden in there, since our modern-day familiarity with white-hued Greek statues is somewhat fueled by the misinterpretation of Renaissance artists. How so? Well after the re-discovery of some of the Greek sculptures in 16th century (that obviously lost their actual hues over the millennia), most of the artists (including Michelangelo) assumed that the ancients preferred the seemingly artful white facades. So their penchant for presumed Classical attributes went against the original scope of bright and ‘gaudy’ facades.
But practicality states that color, in spite of its primary visual quality, is antithetically among the first components that fades away from painted objects. In any case, the Getty Museum video (below) aptly presents such a kaleidoscopic ambit relating to the fascinating scope of ancient Greek statues. And lastly, it should be noted that while Brinkmann used exhaustive means to find evidences and match them up with his vibrant reconstructions, some of the recreations are ‘credible’ speculations at the end of the day.