Seeing Color: The Importance of Painted Classical Statues

When a person tries to visualize Ancient Greece, a movie such as 300 might be the first thing that comes to mind. If not, the architecture and art probably will instead. The Parthenon, for example, is a well-known structure that has survived through the years relatively intact. With some imagination, it isn’t too hard to see a grand and complete building, rather than the grand but broken ruins it is today.  Ancient Athenians can be imagined in the place of tourists gathered around the massive pillars, enjoying the shade from the roof that doesn’t exist anymore. Now that you’re imagining this scene, I have a question for you. What color is the Parthenon in your vision of Ancient Greece?

If your answer is the color of the stone it was made from, the color of the building today, you are far from the only person to imagine that. Ever since Ancient Greek and Roman statues were rediscovered during the Renaissance, white marble and plain rock tones have been the norm for Classical sculptures. Upon finding ruins and statues in their current state, people assumed that they were always lacking color. In addition, as Ancient Greece and Rome became something of a model that Western Civilizations desired to copy, the perception of sophistication and beauty in art came to mean the colorless statues we see today.

This was not actually the true face of Classical art. Even when the sculptures were being uncovered, some were found with traces of paint still remaining on the white marble. However, the assumption had already been made that beauty comes in the form of plain stone, so any evidence to the contrary was dismissed. Now, finally, research into discovering how the sculptures actually looked when they were created is gaining traction. What the researchers have found is startling to modern perspectives.

Implementing various techniques, including using high-intensity lamps and ultraviolet lights or red light and infrared cameras, individuals have managed to find traces of color that still remain on the figures. Attempts have been made to create replicas that would have been true to the original sculptures, and these are slowly changing the world’s impression of Ancient Greek and Roman art. Rather than bare marble, intense yellows, blues, reds, and browns would have been seen on the statues throughout the Athens of the past. Even the Parthenon is believed to have been painted in bright colors to stand out.

Beyond re-framing perspectives and adding another layer to art history, color on Greek statues has an important impact on society today. Many groups throughout history have attempted to use these sculptures as an ideal for the perfect human, and in the process reinforced their attempts at establishing a hierarchy of race where Caucasians come out on top. One of the more repeated claims is that, because the sculptures are made out of white marble, white is the ideal race of humanity. In modern times, white-supremacist groups such as Identity Evropa have continued this trend by associating themselves with the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

Despite the obvious fact that white-supremacist groups aren’t really the successors to those past civilizations (those would be modern Greece and Italy), comparisons between the sculptures and the ideal human are still being made. It’s important that everyone understands these sculptures were not meant to be white. It’s important to realize that pure white was not meant to be the epitome of beauty. It’s time that we all see the world in color.

Pictures: Cover, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5