When you imagine ancient Greek society, you probably think of large stone buildings filled with austere marble sculptures. Everyone knows that ancient sculptures were made from solid white plaster or marble; these plain and serious pieces of art are the epitome of luxury and class.
Science Tells a Different Story
Actually, it turns out that the whole world might be wrong about ancient sculptures. Archeologists have found evidence that the Greeks painted their sculptures in bright and vivid colors. Those white marble statues were actually covered in brilliant shades of red, yellow, and blue.
Marble can last for hundreds or even thousands of years, but the paint wears away with time. Many of the surviving sculptures from ancient times are over 2,500 years old; that’s a long time to expect a layer of red of gold to stick around.
But if the paint was gone, how do archeologists know what color the sculptures were supposed to be? With sharp eyes and modern technology, scientists have discovered that some of the paint is still there.
An Archeologist Notices Something Different
In 1980, an archeologist named Vinzenz Brinkmann noticed a few tiny flecks of color on a sculpture that he was working on. Given that marble statues were supposedly pure white, the presence of the paint was confusing. Where did it come from?
With the help of his wife, Brinkmann began analyzing the sculptures under ultraviolet light. If you hold the light at just the right angle, you can see particles that wouldn’t be visible to the human eye. Nearly every sculpture had traces of ancient pigments that had chipped away over the centuries.
A Myth from the Rennaisance
One reason that the idea of white marble statues is so cemented in modern culture is that we’ve held that belief since the Rennaisance. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, artists attempted to rediscover the art forms of old. The same marble statues, which were 2,000 years old at the time, were used as a reference. But since the paint was gone, most artists assumed that the statues were meant to be made from pure marble or bronze.
In addition to ancient stone statues from Greece, museums are also full of uncolored statues from the last 500 years. Michelangelo certainly didn’t paint his works, and the juxtaposition of these two periods of art has created an interesting cultural perception of history.
Recreating the Original Art
The Brinkmann’s began the lengthy process of identifying each of the particles that they’d found. One they understood the chemical components of the paint, they were able to create surprisingly accurate versions of those same colors.
In order to truly understand the importance of their discovery, the Brinkmann’s tried recreating one of the painted statues. First, they made a plaster cast of one of their favorite works. Then, they used their forensic analysis as a guide to paint the statue with as close to the original pattern as possible.
Gods in Color
The results of the Brinkmanns recreations are stunning to behold. Austere expressions and white garments are replaced with rosy cheeks and colorful clothes. Many of the statues feature intricate patterns that were recreated from pigment analyses and historical texts.
Because the recreations are made from plaster, they don’t catch the light quite the same way the originals must-have. Still, they offer an amazing amount of insight into the way that ancient Greek society actually looked to someone who lived in it.
The Gods in Color art exhibit is a touring exhibition that has been displayed in museums across Europe. If you get the chance, go see these works in person; they’ll greatly shift your understanding of ancient history.