Ancient Greeks as Colorists


Colored replica, Vinzenz Brinkmann & Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, 2003

The Ancient Greeks painted their sculptures and temples, preferring a decorated surface to the pristine marble.  “If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect / The way you would wipe color off a statue”  is a quote by Helen of Troy in lines written by Euripides in 412 B.C., as cited in this Smithsonian article on new color replicas of Ancient Greek statues. It highlights how colors were seen as beautifying agents. One of these new replicas, pictured, is of Artemis, the Goddess of Hunt (the so-called Peplos Kore) from the Athenian Acropolis. Somehow the paint brings the stature very much into life, rendering it more naturalistic and less stiff. Traces of red, blue, yellow, and green pigments have survived in the hair, eyes, belt, and garment of the original figure. Recent examinations in extreme side light have revealed further painted decoration. Thus a new and spectacular interpretation has been made possible through the examination of the pigments. 



The color reconstruction of the original Greek marble statue, executed ca. 520 B.C., allows one to imagine how different the Acropolis itself would look if painted. The white pillars, cornices, and roof–not to mention all the sculptural reliefs–would have stood out all the more to the viewer’s eyes below. Today, this bright and bold mix of colors might seem garish to modern taste. Since the Renaissance, the tradition of bare marble was respected in statuary because it was a presumably classical tradition. Although evidence exited to the contrary, of the first art historians Winkleman wrote influentially about whiteness as being the most beautiful. There were people who took exception based on historical evidence, but they were largely overruled until recent scholarship. Although incontrovertibly accepted today that much of the surfaces of temples and statuary would have been decorated, it still requires a mental adjustment to imagine colorful Classical structures.


However, even with accurate reconstruction based on analysis of pigment traces, I wonder if the Ancient Greeks saw the colors the same way as we do today. Radiolab did a wonderful podcast on colors, and the last section focused on Homer, the author of the Illiad and the Odyssey who presumably lived 200 or 300 years prior to the Peplos Kore and other Acropolis buildings. Those two epic poems display strange conceptions of colors, such as a wine-dark sea and wine-colored oxen, and violet sheep and iron. The poems never refer to trees or leaves as green, but call honey and faces pale with fear green. It suggests to some scholars, who did further analysis, that ancient Greeks saw fewer colors. That is, they literally distinguished fewer colors of the rainbow even though their eyes received the same information that ours do today. Complementary linguistic evidence suggests that worldwide people first only saw black and white, followed by red, and then yellow and green. Blue was always last.  Homer lived in a time where he presumably only saw black, white, red, some green and yellows, but no blue. The blue that later appeared on the painted marbles of the Acropolis is called Egyptian blue today, because the expensive pigment was imported from Egypt. But what would it have looked like to Homer?


Would the colorfully painted Acropolis and other painted Greek marble perhaps been seen as less colorful by the original viewers despite the careful research to duplicate the original colors? Perhaps the painted decoration would have seemed much more muted, or otherwise different, than recreations seem to us. It’s impossible to know, but the idea that the ancient Greeks might have seen color differently certainly ought to affect how we consider art objects from the past.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Greeks as Colorists

  1. I think it is fascinating that what we consider today to be the height of sophistication, namely the sedate greys of marble and stone, would have presumably been considered boring and non-realistic to the Ancient Greeks. And you are right, what would Italian Renaissance art been like if those highly coloured sculptures and buildings had survived?
    I was at Pompeii last summer and the only colour to have survived is red.
    Great blog! Thank you

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