BLOG 19 23/10/2015 Gods and Goddesses: Colour in Ancient Greece.

Posted in on 24 October, 2015 in News

 Gods and Goddesses:

Colour in Ancient Greece.

The Caryatyds

The Caryatids from the Erechtherion

During my latest trip to Athens in October, I visited the new Acropolis Museum, something I had been meaning to do for ages. What a difference to the cramped conditions of the old one that stood next to the Parthenon for many years. In contrast, this one is spacious and well laid out with room for many new acquisitions, (in particular The Elgin Marbles although I am not sure I like their chances). With panoramic views of the Acropolis, it holds several of my favourite sculptures: the dramatic Gigantomachy Athena, the Calf-Bearer, the Hunting Dog, and the Kritios Boy, not to mention the Caryatids and a whole host more magnificent works of art. But what I was pleasantly surprised to see was that they have attempted to show how some of the sculptures would have looked in their heyday. Replicas of the original sculptures stand side-by-side with the originals, partially painted using the exact pigments as shown from traces on the originals when viewed under the microscope. Without the aid of a microscope, there is very little to see – freckles of colour (red, blue or yellow) or more often smudges of dark smoky grey.  A section next to The Persian Horse Rider shows that the rhombuses were coloured with ochre, malachite (green), hematite (brown-red) and Egyptian blue. The sandals of another horse rider is shown to have sandal straps coloured with hematite and light blue details of Egyptian blue, and on a small stone slab stands a Chios Kore, her spiked crown a rich cinnabar that match the details on her face.

The Persian Horse Rider

The Persian Horse Rider

When the Athenians returned to the Acropolis after its destruction by the Persians in 480 B.C., they couldn’t believe their eyes; the impressive temple, bright statues, inscriptions, and countless small votive offerings had become shapeless piles. The burial of all these precious ruins in pits and cavities of the rock, in order that they might remain forever in the sacred place of the goddess so that the new Acropolis could be built, saved their preservation.

The Kritios Boy, shortly after exhumation

The Kritios Boy and Calf Bearer shortly after exhumation.

In the winter of 1885, archaeologists discovered these buried treasures and were astounded by the freshness of the surfaces of the sculptures and by their vivid colours. This was the first time so many important works of archaic sculpture saw the light of day. Unfortunately, colour was in its infancy during this time and early photographs did not capture the true colours. The watercolours of L.E.Guillieron, (known for his association with Arthur Evans and Knossos) painted immediately after, and those of W. Lemann, a later painter, are invaluable.

The Peplos Korai

The Peplos Kore

peplos Kore 2

Replica of the Peplos Kore showing how the original colours would have looked.

To western eyes, we have come to associate the beauty of ancient Greek architecture, and sculpture in particular, through the lens of the Renaissance and much later, the romantics; the striking white marble transformed into some of the most majestic artefacts of the classical age. For anyone who has ever been to the Mediterranean, this marble stands proud amongst a landscape of rock and pines against pale blue skies. Yet all that is an illusion and even though we now know that the ancient Greeks loved colour almost as much as Indians when they decorate images of their Hindu gods, it is still hard for us to comprehend. Bright and gaudy, adorned in jewellery and often attired ceremoniously in actual robes, they do not conform to our sense of good taste. Today we view colour as mere decoration on a particular surface, harmonious and pleasing to the dictates of fashion, yet in ancient Greece, colour was viewed rather differently.  Not only was colour associated with wealth (only the rich could afford to decorate statues and decor) but for the ancient Greeks and their society, colour was a complex matter often associated with the divine. The blond hair of the gods projected their power, the brown skin of warriors and athletes was a sign of virtue and valour, while the white skin of the korai expressed the grace and radiance of youth.

The Pythagorians held that the four basic colours of the ancients; white, black, red, and ochre, were associated with the cosmology; air, water, fire and earth. Empedocles developed the same theory in great detail maintaining that in the optics colours are perceived through appropriate receptors that receive the “particle” that colours emit. Taken a step further, Diogenes of Apollonia defined diseases by using the basic colours to divide people into categories: i.e., red, the yellow-red of a flame, black and white. In Greek, there were two expressions for “colour”: the first and most familiar was chroma, used to describe things like plants, dyes and cosmetics, and the second chroia, or chros – “skin/flesh” used to describe superficial surfaces such as skin complexion or natural phenomena such as light and water.

In rhetoric, the use of “colourful” words of a poet was thought by both Plato and Aristotle to evoke virtues and vices in the listener. In the Republic, Plato attacks errors of vision caused by colours and criticises forms of art that exploit these weaknesses as a type of witchcraft. In Plato’s world, colours are perfectly produced and mixed by “divine craftsmen” in a way that cannot be produced by human experiment. He goes on to claim that we are fundamentally unable to appreciate the proportions (of certain colours) as that is the prerogative of the divine. Aristotle’s theories differed from Plato and in his De Sensu, he argues that form and colour should be treated as celestial phenomena and that it arises at the extremity of a body, i.e., colour is only visible at the surface. But as far as colour was concerned, debating these theories offered no easy route to enlightenment and artists continued to create in the service of the state and to please the gods.

The ancient pigments used were: carbon black, azurite, malachite, chrysocolla. Egyptian blue, cinnabar, hematite, realgar, ochre, orpiment and lead white. Many of these pigments are lethal, some containing arsenic or mercury and must be used with caution.  They were applied to the surfaces by using wax.

Greek statues were generally made from the following types of marble:

Pentellic – a greyish white

Parian – A. Fine grained, white with a sparkle

Parian – B, Course grained, slightly greyer but also with a sparkle

Naxos – redder

Hymettos – greyish

A Kore from the Acropolis showing traces of paint.

A Kore from the Acropolis showing traces of paint.

Added to this was limestone – Generally buff-coloured except for the limestone from Piraeus which was lighter. Not only was careful consideration given to the colours but also the type of marble used and one can only surmise that the different types of marble added to the luminosity and saturation of the pigments, yet as I walk around, soaking up this vast array of wonder, I cannot help noticing that with many fine pieces, the sculptor is unknown. In general, the early sculptor was first and foremost a craftsman – little more than a glorified stone-mason. With the rebuilding of the Acropolis and the new state under Perikles, the sculptor as an artist gradually began to make his mark: Pheidias, Polykleitos, Praxiteles, Lysippas and Damophon to name the most well-known.

Pheidias began as a painter and arrived on the scene at the same time in classical Greek art when painting and bronze sculpture were the leading arts. Polykleitos was the first Greek sculptor to put down the principles and rules of his art in a treatise and strove to give a certain objectivity to art – the rational way that we have come to associate with the Classical Greek Style. Praxiteles, on the other hand was to see the human, sensuous side of sculpture, most notably with the famous Aphrodite of Knidos which apparently was so real, a youth fell in love with it and attempted to consummate his desire with the statue after the caretaker had left for the night. And the Roman author, naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, wrote of Lysippos “older sculptors made men as they are, he made men as they seem to be”. And the works of Damophon, a Messenian, coincide with the middle Hellenistic period.

The Gigantomachy Athena

I arrive at the Gigantomachy Athena with its decorative aegis (robe) shaped like snakes at the end and purported to have been made out of leather, and wonder what colour she would have been. Of the sculptor, I know even less.  The same goes for the Calf –Bearer. Possibly he is an Athenian sculptor Endois, or maybe even, Antenor, but I do know that he was made of Parian marble and the inscription on the base tells us that Rhombos, son of Pallas, dedicated the statue.

The Calf Bearer

The Calf Bearer

The Hunting Dog

The Hunting Dog

The magnificent Hunting Dog, 520 B.C. made of Parian marble which stood guard at the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia on the Acropolis is also anonymous yet from the powerful and tense body of this sculpture I can only conclude that the sculptor was a master of replicating the animal form. Various experts have argued that the it is most likely the work of the same sculptor as The Peplophus. The white Parian marble gleams, accentuating the animal’s rib-cage and I am glad that he is no longer coloured.


Kritios Boy

Kritios Boy

When I reach the Kritios Boy, also made of Parian marble, a group of tourists have gathered around it. Such is its beauty that Kenneth Clark once referred to it as “the first beautiful nude in art”. The guide proudly states that it is thought to be the work of Kritios, teacher of the great bronze sculptor, Myron, pointing out the cavities for the eyes which would once have held glass eyes as in the case of bronze sculptures. The tourists are awe-struck and I cannot help but think how happy Kritios would be to hear his name mentioned in such glowing terms.

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