Ancient Greek Sculptures Were Once Brightly Coloured and Patterned

Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina; reconstruction, color variant A; as exhibited in Athens
Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina; reconstruction, color variant A; as exhibited in Athens | © Marsyas/WikiCommons
Ethel Dilouambaka

We are all used to seeing the ancient Greek statues in immaculate, polished white marble from history books or visits to the museums but little do we know that these were originally painted with bright colors that have been eroded with time. This fact, long known by scientists and historians, is often unknown to the general public, and has inspired several experts and scientists to reproduce some of the antique works in color to allow us to get a glimpse of how they actually looked.

It took many years for scientists to come up with the technology to uncover the enigma of the colored marble and bronze statues of Antiquity from both Greece and Roman civilizations, but thanks to advances in imaging techniques, we are now able to see how these vestiges of the past actually looked.

For over 30 years, German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been using increasingly sophisticated techniques to analyze the traces left by the pigments on the marble statues to reveal their true colors (pun intended).

Juxtaposition of the colored reconstruction and the weathered original of a bronze head in the Munich exhibition

In order to do this, Brinkmann used a battery of instruments including high-intensity charged lamps, ultraviolet (UV) and infrared lamps. UV techniques allowed him to reveal the color patterns by making pigment organic compounds fluorescent.

This is actually a technique which art dealers use to determine if a painting has been doctored, since older dyes have more organic compounds in them compared to modern variants. However, to determine the right colors used, he harnessed X-rays and infrared light, since their wavelengths on either side of the visible spectrum are absorbed and reflected differently by each individual pigment. By further associating each spectrum with a pigment, and each of them to a color, he successfully solved the century-old enigma.

Brinkmann’s team then proceeded to make moulds of the statues and paint them by hand. In fact, you can see these reproductions with your own eyes thanks to the travelling exhibition Gods in Color, which will be in San Francisco’s Legion of Honor from October 28, 2017 through until January 7, 2018.

However, Brinkmann’s work has sparked more debate in the scientific community as the reproductions, though remarkable, are considered somewhat cartoonish. Indeed, with our modern pigments and dyes, it would be impossible to reproduce the aesthetic quality of ancient sculptures and frescoes. We are unaware of the possible presence of an undercoat or the type of binder ancient painters used. Furthermore, it is most likely that color was not as uniform and that painters mixed pigments to play with shadow and light to make their work as realistic as possible.

Either way, Brinkmann’s work is certainly worth a look, so if you get the chance to see it, go for it. For those of us who can’t, here is a summary video by Vinzenz Brinkmann.

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