Amazing Discoveries: A couloured image of antiquity?

“Noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” were the ideals proclaimed by J. J. Winckelmann as the beauty gospel of Greek art in his first publication on the subject in 1755.

Today, however, it is generally accepted that sculpture in ancient Greece, and even in ancient Rome, was not quite as “simple” as previously supposed. Sculptures were commonly painted in bold colors, although it often did not last long enough.

The painting was sometimes limited to clothing and hair, while the skin was left in the natural color of the stone. Yet it could also cover sculptures entirely. The painting of artworks was not only an addition but could also be a masterpiece in its own right. For example, it has been demonstrated that sculptures in the temple of Aphaia on Aegina were painted with very ornate forms representing patterned clothing, among other things.

Polychromy in stone statues was achieved not only by the use of colors, but also by incorporating different materials to distinguish eyes, skin, or clothing. Bronze sculptures were decorated by using various metals to represent features like lips or nipples.

An early example of polychrome decoration can be found in the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. Terracottas from the Dresden collection of antiquities and ancient funerary urns also exhibit colorful versions of polychrome decoration.

Tanagra figure, Dresden, Collection of Classical Antiquities

Tanagra figures are ancient female figures molded and fired from terracotta in a sitting or standing posture, measuring 15 to 35 cm in height, from the Boeotian city of Tanagra in central Greece. The coroplastics were used as grave goods and lucky charms. After cooling, the figures received a white primer coat, which, after drying, allowed for their elaborate painting.

However, the classical beauty of antiquity is often remembered as being monochromatic. By the time European antiquity was rediscovered in the 18th century, the paint on ancient structures had largely faded away. The prevailing impression, both then and now, is that classical beauty was expressed solely through form and composition, without color. This impression was reflected in neoclassical architecture. It was only much later that classicists such as Jacques Ignace Hittorff discovered the traces of color on genuine classical buildings and sculptures.

Today, polychromy is often possible by examining tiny traces of paint with microscopic and other techniques. Whether this will alter our opinion and perspective is uncertain. For modern people, the Venus de Milo will likely remain monochromatic forever.

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