Chromophobia: Classical Sculpture
Noel Jacob Sony
Renaissance artists, museums, Hollywood, video games, and history textbooks have painted, or rather unpainted an image of what classical sculpture looked like, and therefore what we think it looked like. Destruction and disregard of evidence, as well as personal opinions led to the biggest misconception there is about Greco-Roman art.
Quintessential to visiting any Western museum is the Greco-Roman sculptures with their pristine, white surfaces, organic life-like figures, and exquisite detailing, where every vein in the arms is visible to the scrutiny of the eye. However, if their creators ever saw them as they are today, they would probably be in a state of shock or rather grab a bucket of paint and splash it over their sculptures, till they’re saturated with colour. For what we see plain white for, in every other context is what they would see their sculptures to be, blank.
In fact, Ancient Rome and Greece were among the most vibrant and colourful places of all time. Colour was an integral part of their culture, it served as a status symbol and a way to breathe life into man’s creations. Hues indicated social position, the wealthy could afford the expensive bright pigments used for their garments and extensive frescoes and mosaics that adorned their walls. Colour also served a theatrical aspect, as it could help the ancient viewer to easily distinguish and perceive the sculptures even from a distance. The Paint of the sculpture was as integral to its appreciation as its Anatomy. The artists went beyond paint to embellish their creations in gold, silver and gemstones (used for the eyes to make them sparkle). An unpainted sculpture would have been considered unfinished.
The Colosseum, the Ara Pacis, the Parthenon in Athens, Trajan’s Column were all in fact, originally coloured in vibrant shades of reds, blues, yellows, and greens. In the Euripides play, Helen of Troy says
“If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe colour off a statue.”
The fall of the Roman Empire left these monuments and sculptures bare to the decay of time. Gradually, a major part of these ruins had shed their colourful pigments to reveal the white marble underneath. During the Renaissance Era, when artists were trying to revive the spirit of the Classical era, they studied these bare sculptures to do so. Unaware of their coloured history Renaissance artists recreated this “minimalistic aesthetic” of leaving sculptures unpainted.
Later on, when the vividly coloured frescoes and sculptures of Pompeii had been unearthed, many scholars and historians claimed that it was “too primitive” to be Ancient Roman. Johann Winckelmann, a renowned Euro-centrist, often considered the father of art history said that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is”, he often tried to link colour in sculpture as being part of “inferior cultures” and “barbarism”, and went out of his way to ignore substantial evidence to the contrary.
Sculptures with visible traces of colour were cleaned and polished by museums thereby destroying any remaining evidence of polychromy. The popular sculpture ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’ was originally noted to have shades of purple, yellow, and crimson when it was first unearthed. The present state of the sculpture makes it obvious the vile enforcement of museums to adhere to the idea of “whiteness of classical sculpture”. These sculptures have often been used by right-wing publications to promote the idea of racial superiority, ignorant of the fact that ancient Rome was an ethnically diverse place, stretching from Scandinavia to Northern Africa when people were never differentiated based on their colour.
Presently, an enormous accumulation of evidence suggesting polychromy in ancient Rome has caused many art historians to investigate the original colouration of these monuments and sculptures. Art historians have used raking light techniques and UV analysis to find any remaining evidence of the pigments used. What turned up were mesmerizing patterns and designs that aren’t differentiated by the physical sculpture but solely by the paint applied. Various shades of reds, blues, yellows, and greens adorned these sculptures.
They have since tried to recreate these sculptures in plaster replicas with their original colour. This led to the exhibition series of “Gods in Colour”, Brinkmann’s exhibition, and many more. Areas, where there was no remaining evidence of pigmentation, had been left unpainted. The classical methods of application of paint on sculptures are primarily lost. It is hard to know what specific shade of each colour pigment was used, and paint on marble would have looked much different from paint on plaster. Though we can never truly know how exactly the sculpture would have originally looked like, these give us an idea and an opportunity to imagine how it would have looked like.
The important thing to note about ancient polychromy is that it is not about what the modern viewer thinks looks good, but what was actually accurate. With newer technologies coming up, hopefully, we will soon have more accurate depictions closer to what these sculptures would have originally looked like.