Gods in Color – Golden Edition

Gods in Color – Golden Edition

Gods in Color – Golden Edition Polychromy in Antiquity 1/30 – 2020/8/30 DIGITORIAL® FOR THE EXHIBITION

Museum exhibitions of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures are striking for the dominance of pure white marble. But looks can be deceiving. These figures of gods and heroes were once richly clothed in vivid colors! We’ve known this for centuries – so why does the image of whiteness still persist?

We imagine ancient statues and buildings as marble white. We’ve grown comfortable with this image – but it is incorrect.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Die Palette der Antike, by Michael Siebler, 09.01.2006

For many years the Liebieghaus has dedicated itself to unraveling the mystery of the original polychromy of ancient sculptures. Indeed, the museum has taken the lead in this area of research.

Vinzenz Brinkmann’s reconstructions are made in collaboration with the archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann and give current viewers a vibrant picture of the former polychromy of the sculptures. The exhibition Gods in Color has been touring the world in one form or another since 2003 – a testament to its popularity and success – and originally went on show at the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt am Main in 2008.

The exhibition now returns to Frankfurt with new findings and reconstructions never before displayed. The juxtaposition of color reconstructions with selected masterpieces from the Liebieghaus allows viewers to experience the history of these brightly painted sculptures first-hand.

Antiquity Was Colorful

Antiq­uity Was Color­ful

Rich colors, detailed ornamentation, and countless gold dots once adorned this sculpture. Once this sculpture drew all the attention!

So-called Persian Rider, ca. 490 BC | Experimental color reconstruction of the so-called Persian Rider from the Athenian Acropolis, 2007/2019 Marble, Acropolis Museum, Athens | Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, 160 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main (on loan from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Leibniz Prize O. Primavesi 2007)

Only fragments of this equestrian statue survive today. Nonetheless, we can still sense how magnificent and impressive the sculpture would have once appeared! The statue was rediscovered during excavations at the Athenian Acropolis in the late 19th century. In most cases wind and weather have, over the course of time, destroyed the delicate pigments that colored the sculptures. But the original painted colors weren’t the only thing that got lost – by not appreciating these sculptures’ original appearance, we also lost valuable knowledge about their function and significance. When this horseman was excavated, however, researchers seeking traces of color had a stroke of luck: the paint and patterning on his clothing was unusually well preserved.

Detail of the hem of the vest of the so-called Persian Rider, showing the leaf-and-tongue pattern and a meander design Athens, ca. 490 BC, marble, Acropolis Museum, Athens

An eye-witness account of the find

The artist Emile Gilliéron documented the ornamentation on the rider’s clothing in a drawing made in 1886, the year it was excavated. He noted that traces of violet, light and dark red, light green, and blue were visible. To conserve these traces of color, they were covered with a coating of beeswax in the late 19th century. Over the course of time the colors have darkened significantly, but their original luminosity remains clearly visible.

Zincograph based on a drawing of the paint remains on the so-called Persian Rider by Émile Gilliéron, 1886 German Archaeological Institute [Ed.]; Archäologisches Institut des Deutschen Reiches [Ed.] Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts: JdI — 6.1891, © Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

The visible color fragments show that the horseman’s clothing is richly patterned. In the 1990s and 2000s new scientific studies were undertaken in search of further insights. The results provide important information about the polychromy: the diamond pattern on the rider’s pants was originally painted in richly contrasting red, blue, yellow, green, and brown. The rhythm of the colorful ornamentation progresses from right to left.

Experimental color reconstruction of the so-called Persian Rider (detail) Back view, Leibniz Prize O. Primavesi 2007

Colorful fabrics

Reconstruction of the polychromy makes clear that the horseman’s clothing resembles the traditional costumes of the Greeks’ northern and eastern neighbors. Above all the lavish colors and ornaments worn by the Persians and the war-like nomadic Thracian and Scythian tribes seem to have served as models for this horseman.

Scythian textile (saddlecloth), 5th–4th c. BC Russia, Altai Territory, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In Pursuit of Colors

In Pursuit of Colors

This unusual design adorned the garments of an archer.

Archer from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 480 BC | Experimental color reconstruction of an archer, the so-called Paris, in the costume of the horsemen of the neighbouring peoples to the north and east, from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, Variant A, 1989–2003 Greece, Aegina, marble, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich | Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, synthetic marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, 96 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

By contrast to the horseman, the archer is surprisingly well preserved, but the original paint is hardly visible to the naked eye.

Along with a number of other figures, the archer once stood many meters above the ground on the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. In antiquity, painting was used as a means of making individual figures easily visible from a distance, thanks to their vibrant colors. Their colorfulness made the individual figures appear alive.

Look—run your eyes up towards the sky, and take a look at the painted reliefs on the pediment.

Euripides, Hypsipyle Christopher Collard, Martin Cropp (eds.), Euripides, Fragments: Aegeus-Meleager, Cambridge: MA, 2008

During excavations of the Temple of Aphaia in the spring of 1811 traces of pigments, primarily blue and red, were found on the unearthed sculptures. The precise appearance of the original polychromy, however, remained the subject of debate for a long time. In the early 1980s scholars developed new scientific tests and techniques for reconstructing ancient works of art in plaster, marble, and synthetic marble.

Experimental color reconstruction of an archer (the so-called Paris), in the costume of the horsemen of the neighbouring peoples to the north and east, from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, Variant B, 2006 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, synthetic marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, lead, wood, 96 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main, Dieter Rehm

Ultraviolet light clearly reveals a complex diamond pattern on the archer’s leg and undergarment. The pattern on the archer’s leggings, however, only appears in shades of gray. How can we translate these into color?

UV-fluorescence photograph showing pattern on the leggings of the archer from the west pediment of Aphaia Temple

Whenever technical analysis cannot provide conclusive evidence, comparison with contemporaneous sculptures like the horseman can reveal clues. The polychromy of that statue allows us to draw conclusions about the colors used for the archer.

So-called Persian Rider in the present condition Athens, ca. 490 BC, marble, Acropolis Museum, Athens

Very few pigments survive on the archer. We cannot always determine the extent to which these may have changed over the course of the centuries. Hence, any color reconstruction is only an approximation of the original appearance

  • Experimental color reconstruction of an archer, the so-called Paris, in the costume of the horsemen of the neighbouring peoples to the north and east, from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, Variant A, 1989–2003 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, synthetic marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, 96 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich

    The first of now three reconstructions was created in 1989.

  • Experimental color reconstruction of an archer, the so-called Paris, in the costume of the horsemen of the neighbouring peoples to the north and east, from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, Variant B, 2006 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, synthetic marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, lead, wood, 96 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main, Dieter Rehm

    The second reconstruction, which shows an alternative color palette, followed in 2006.

Golden glow

In 2019 researchers returned to the archer once again. In this third reconstruction countless flecks of gold were added to his clothing. No gold was found, however, on the sculpture itself. So what was the basis for this last addition?

Experimental color reconstruction of an archer, the so-called Paris, Variant C, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, tin, wood, gold foil, 96 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main

Greek vase painting and surviving fragments of Scythian textiles provided the clues. Many vase paintings depict Amazon warriors shown in typical Scythian clothing.

  • Saddlecloth from the Scythian burials at Pazyryk, 4th/3rd c. BC Felt, leather, gold, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

    Textile finds from the Altai Mountains reveal how colorful the original garments of these equestrian peoples truly were. Along with colorful dyes in green, red, blue, and brown, the leather, fur, and felt textiles are also decorated with gold.

  • Indication of gold dots (?) on the diamond pattern of an Amazon’s pants Vessel for wine mixing (Volute krater), painted by the so-called „Niobid Painter“ ca. 450 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

    For technical reasons, Greek vase painters were limited to only a few colors. They nonetheless represented the rich coloring of the riders’ pants and jackets with great skill: the diamond patterns are covered in dots – points of gold as were found on Scythian fabrics.

Pure Form

Pure Form

Antiquity was awash in colors. Scholarship provides ample evidence of this. How is it, then, that the idea of a “marble-white antiquity” persists so stubbornly to this day?

After the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BCE many works of Greek art made their way to Italy. Here they were not only collected by the Romans, but also copied in large numbers. This appreciation of ancient Greek art and culture, however, was lost for a long time.

As early as the 14th century, scholars in Italy started consciously turning their backs on the medieval notion of the universe. They took Classical Antiquity as their cue for a new system of values and image of man. Until well into the 16th century finds of ancient sculptures and writings prompted a renewed debate on antiquity. This period was later called the Renaissance (French for “rebirth”). The sensational finds of ancient sculptures in the Renaissance were mostly Roman copies of Greek originals. How much of the initial coloring was existent during these excavations is a matter of speculation. Though it is certain, that the scarce traces of pigment have been lost to cleaning and contact with air and sunlight.

Sensational findings of renowned ancient sculptures were not Greek originals, but instead Roman copies. We cannot say for sure whether the artists who had made these copies also adopted the polychromy of the originals. Although some of the Roman sculptures retained traces of color at the point of excavation, these sparse pigments were soon later lost due to cleaning and contact with air and sunlight.

In 1489 an ancient marble sculpture, larger than life-size, was discovered in Rome and brought to the Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican. From far and wide scholars and artists flocked to the Apollo Belvedere to study and copy it. They extolled the skillful representation, noting that the white marble emphasizes the form of the body and creates a charming play of light and shadow. It seems as though Apollo, god of the arts and music, is about to take a step forward. The suggestion of movement makes him appear alive. At the same time his perfect proportions and pristine white marble skin grant him a supernatural and timeless beauty.

Apollo Belvedere, ca. AD 135 Roman replica of a Greek statue of Leochares, ca. 330 BC, white marble, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Focus on form

The monochrome nature of a sculpture emphasizes its form. For this reason light marble and dark bronze were declared the ideal sculptural media in the Renaissance. But why was form accorded such significance?

  • Pierre Jacobo Alari Bonacolsi, called Antico, Apollo Belvedere, 1497/98 Bronze, partially gilded, eyes inlaid in silver, H. 41,3 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main

    Like many artists of his time, the Renaissance sculptor Antico took the Apollo Belvedere as his model, copying the sculpture at reduced scale. The gilt hair, quiver, mantle, and sandals set off the body of dark, shiny bronze.

  • Discus Thrower by the Classical sculptor Naukydes, Roman replica of a Greek statue of the late 5th century BC Marble, H. 176,5 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main

    The Discus Thrower was one of only a few ancient sculptures already known in the early Renaissance. Like the Apollo, the athlete balances his weight between the engaged leg and the free leg. The noble posture of his body combines rest and tension – suggesting motion about to be unleashed.

Nature, created by God, is the artist’s model. The artist strives not only to emulate nature, but also to capture the core of her essence. Which art form is more suited to this goal, painting or sculpture? What presents the greatest artistic challenge? These questions instigated what would be known as the paragone: Theoretical debates, texts and even artworks dealt with the competition between sculpture and painting.

  • Giotto di Bondone, "Fortitudo" (Strength) (left) and "Inconstantia" (Inconstancy), ca. 1306 Fresco, ca. 120 x 55 cm, From the Series on Virtues and Vices, Padua, Arena Chapel (Cappella degli Scrovegni, left wall, base area

    The rivalry between painting and sculpture is obvious in this fresco from the 14th century: virtue and vice are presented in human form, and the artist Giotto di Bondone has given them the appearance of unpainted stone sculptures. Thus Fortitudo, or courage and Inconstante, fickleness, are examples of how the painter illustrates the superiority of his art over sculpture. A seemingly rolling wheel, a figure barely holding its balance, such things a sculpture couldn’t portray. Giotto demonstrates the great art of illusion in painting.

Proponents of painting praised its eye-deceiving, illusionistic treatment of color. Only painting, they argued, could successfully approach the model of nature and generate apparent vitality.

Advocates for sculpture argued, by contrast to a painting, a sculpture stands before the eyes of the beholder as a tangible, material object, and thus more closely approximates the natural model. They dismissed painting as superficial – all surface – with depth merely the result of optical trickery. They claimed that the illusions created using color distracted from what was most important. Only the enduring, timeless form of a sculpture could capture the true essence of nature.

Apollo Belvedere (detail), ca. AD 135 Roman copy of an original Greek statue of Leochares, ca. 330 BC, white marble, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City, © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

Form is truth

The artistry with which a sculptor carves a figure out of stone is compared to the act of divine creation. With his hands he transforms the rough stone into form.

Sculpture comes closest to the divine ideal, yet the artist can never be equal to the Creator. The sculptor Michelangelo Buonarotti expressed this sentiment in his sculptures by intentionally leaving some areas unfinished.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Captive (The Rebellious Slave), 1513-1515 Marble, 227.7 x 72.4 x 53.5 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris, bpk | RMN - Grand Palais | René-Gabriel Ojéda

Timeless forms and
ephemeral colors

The people of the Renaissance were certainly very familiar with colorful sculptures. Numerous figures of saints stood in churches, painted with costly pigments and covered in gilded decoration. So how did this contradiction arise, between the polychromy of the early-modern era and the alleged whiteness of the ancient world?

In assessing the quality of a religious sculpture, people would judge the craftsmanship that went into its making – and that included the painted decoration of the completed figure. An unpainted sculpture? Such a state would usually have implied a lack of funds and would have served as a call for donations.

This changed with the marble white sculptures of the Renaissance. Form and raw material took center stage, embodying an idea instilled by divine inspiration. Monochrome sculpture thus arose as the contrasting alternative to colorful figures.

Form or color: conflicting opinions clashed in 15th and 16th-century sculpture. Subsequent generations of artists were strongly influenced by the one-sided image of a “marble-white antiquity” and the Ideal of pure form.

Artemis and Her Smile

Artemis and Her Smile

New excavations in the 18th century provided conclusive evidence: ancient sculptures with visible traces of color were discovered. Nonetheless, the popular image of a “marble-white antiquity” was so deeply entrenched, it remained.

A new revival of ancient art and culture occurred between 1770 and 1830. With its clear forms and artfully carved white marble, ancient sculpture continued to be revered as a timeless model. The role of polychromy in all of this was largely ignored.

Neoclassicism

The term Neoclassicism refers to the period between 1770 and 1830. Artists and architects looked back to what they saw as the ideals of antiquity. The enlightened rational consciousness was rooted in the quest for aesthetic harmony and perfection, as well as for a balance between emotion and reason. According to the popular opinion of the time, the “pure” formal language of antiquity reflected exactly these ideals.

Statue of Artemis, the so-called Winckelmann Artemis, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD Pompeii, marble, 116 cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Pompeii, July 19, 1760: a marble statue of the goddess Artemis is unearthed. According to the excavation report, the original polychromy is still clearly visible. The volcanic ash that buried Pompeii due to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE had preserved the pigments.

Detail of the face with yellow ocher on hair, reddish brown ocher in iris and vine black in pupils and eyebrows Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Pink madder lake on the diadem Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Pink madder lake on the hem of Artemis’s mantle Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Detail of the face with yellow ocher on hair, reddish brown ocher in iris and vine black in pupils and eyebrows Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Pink madder lake on the diadem Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Pink madder lake on the hem of Artemis’s mantle Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Detail of the face with yellow ocher on hair, reddish brown ocher in iris and vine black in pupils and eyebrows Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Pink madder lake on the diadem Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
Pink madder lake on the hem of Artemis’s mantle Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples

Contradictory eye-witness accounts

The discovery of the statue of Artemis was recorded in writing. According to the excavation report, the sculpture was completely painted. Hair, clothing, and sandals all bore traces of red paint. A lighter skin tone was clearly recognizable on the arms. The sculpture was brought to the Herculanense Museum in Portici. Only four days after its discovery, the museum curator Camillo Paderni first saw it there. His description diverges from the excavation report: although he also describes the sculpture as completely painted, his notes identify the hair color as blonde, not red. He mentions neither the painting of the red sandal straps, nor the color on the arms.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann first saw the Artemis in 1762 in Naples. The German archaeologist and art historian admired the unmistakable traces of paint. At this point he erroneously attributed the sculptor to the Etruscan culture, rather than the Greek. This false attribution was based more on the fact that the figure’s lips are drawn in a smile, than on its coloration.

  • Angelica Kauffman, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1764 Oil on canvas, 97 x 71 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich

    Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s (1717–1768) life’s work established classical archaeology as a modern science. Winckelmann is hailed as the founder of modern art history. He spoke out against studying solely from books and for direct engagement with the original works of art through close observation.

Shortly before his death in 1768 he identified Artemis’s smile as a characteristic feature of the Archaic period, one of the oldest styles of Greek art. In consequence, Winckelmann revised his first impression. In fact, he thereby acknowledged the painting of sculpture as a common practice among the Greeks. His insight, however, lay unpublished for centuries.

Face of Artemis with “Archaic smile” Pompeii, 1st c. BC–1st c. AD, marble, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples
  • Front page of: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, History of Ancient Art, 1764 © Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

    The first edition of Winckelmann’s History of Ancient Art was published in 1764. The detailed descriptions bring ancient Greek art to life. The work ranks as one of the most influential books of European art history.

In fact, Winckelmann’s insights regarding the Artemis were not published until 2008. Up until that point he had been viewed as one of the most important proponents of the notion of “marble-white antiquity.” The belated publication of his reinterpretation of the Artemis proves that he was neither hostile nor derogatory towards the polychromy of ancient sculptures.

Winckelmann and the notion of a marble-white antiquity

In the dispute over the colorfulness of antique forms, passages from Winckelmann’s writings have repeatedly been quoted, but often out of context. In the first edition of his History of Ancient Art he writes: “[…] thus a beautiful body will also be even more beautiful the whiter it is.” In this context, however, Winckelmann is not talking about the superiority of white marble over painted marble. He goes on to say that the beauty of the forms is enhanced by color – above all by white and black.

Experimental color reconstruction of a statue of the goddess Artemis, the so-called Winckelmann Artemis, Variant A, 2010 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on plaster cast, natural pigments in egg tempera, 116 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on loan from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Leibniz Prize O. Primavesi 2007)

Finds like the Artemis show that the polychromy of ancient sculptures was indeed known in the 18th century. Unsuitable research methods and diverging understandings of ancient written sources, however, left room for interpretation and doubt. To this day many questions remain open, and are being addressed by current scholars.

Each reconstruction project brings new information to light. The experimental reconstruction of the Artemis shows how the sculpture may originally have looked. The sculpture of Artemis is a Roman copy of a Greek original from the Archaic period (700–500 BCE). The statue was copied faithfully, but it remains to be seen whether the color scheme also reproduces that of the original as closely.

Light in Darkness

Light in Dark­ness

Germany in the 1980s: a research team uses new technologies to reveal traces of paint on ancient sculptures, traces which are not visible to the naked eye.

Funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Athens, ca. 380/70 BC Marble, 95 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Variant A, 2003 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Thassos marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, 92 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Up until this point the only research method available to scholars beyond close examination was to perform chemical analysis. This involved taking samples from the sculptures, which damaged them. New technical methods such as light and laser measurements now make it possible to analyze the millennia-old originals as non-invasively as possible. These investigations bring to light what was previously invisible, and provide new evidence for the polychromatic treatment of the sculptures:

Funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Athens, ca. 380/70 BC Marble, 95 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Traces of pigments and scoring in the stone attest to the former painted decoration of the grave stele.

Funerary stele as seen in UV fluorescence

Examination under UV light makes the painting visible. An image of two individuals clasping hands appears on the vase.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Variant A, 2003 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Thassos marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, 92 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Based on the results of this examination, a reconstruction is created showing the once-brilliant color scheme.

Funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Athens, ca. 380/70 BC Marble, 95 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Traces of pigments and scoring in the stone attest to the former painted decoration of the grave stele.

Funerary stele as seen in UV fluorescence

Examination under UV light makes the painting visible. An image of two individuals clasping hands appears on the vase.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Variant A, 2003 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Thassos marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, 92 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Based on the results of this examination, a reconstruction is created showing the once-brilliant color scheme.

Funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Athens, ca. 380/70 BC Marble, 95 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Traces of pigments and scoring in the stone attest to the former painted decoration of the grave stele.

Funerary stele as seen in UV fluorescence

Examination under UV light makes the painting visible. An image of two individuals clasping hands appears on the vase.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary stele of Paramythion and Pheidiades, Variant A, 2003 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Thassos marble, natural pigments in egg tempera, 92 cm, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich, Foto: Renate Kühling

Based on the results of this examination, a reconstruction is created showing the once-brilliant color scheme.

Traces of pigments and scoring in the stone attest to the former painted decoration of the grave stele.

The life of Paramythion

The tall vase with elongated neck shown on the tombstone was used in ancient marriage rites. It held the water with which the bride prepared herself for her upcoming marriage in what was known as the “bridal bath.” This suggests that the deceased was probably an unmarried woman. Her name, Paramythion, is etched into the stone.

Researchers at the Glyptothek in Munich first made use of ultraviolet photography in the 1960s. This inspired the archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann and his team of researchers in the 1980s to continue the search for traces of color using numerous newer technologies. By doing so, they established a scientific basis for chromatic reconstructions.

Drama and emotion

Billowing robes, faces contorted in fear, and powerful gestures: the life-like figures on the Alexander Sarcophagus are frozen in action.

For 2000 years the marble sarcophagus was protected from light and weathering in a burial chamber. To this day numerous traces of paint thus remain visible to the naked eye. They clearly reveal how closely painting and sculpture are linked, as the different hues allow each individual figure to stand out dramatically within the overall composition.

So-called Alexander Sarcophagus, Lebanon, Sidon, ca. 320 BC | Experimental color reconstruction of the battle between Greeks and Persians on one of the short sides of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, Variant A, 2006 Marble, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, akg-images / Rainer Hackenberg | Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on laser-sintered plastic, natural pigments in egg tempera, 56,5 cm x 137,5 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project)

The sculptural decoration of the monument depicts episodes from the life of Alexander the Great. Mounted on a horse, the ruler is easily recognizable in the middle of a detailed battle scene. The relief shows the conqueror with his army in battle against the Persians.

  • So-called Alexander Sarcophagus, Lebanon, Sidon, ca. 320 BC Marble, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul

    The Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered in 1887. It was made in the year 320 BCE and is an unusually well-preserved example of Greek art. Its name derives from the reliefs on both long sides, which depict Alexander the Great. It contained, however, the earthly remains of Abdalonymos, King of Sidon.

Examination of the sculptures revealed evidence of over 300 traces of paint. The reconstruction of the sarcophagus combines these to create an impressive whole. The color palette allows the various characters to be distinguished. While Alexander the Great’s Greek-Macedonian warriors are depicted naked or in simple, monochromatic clothing, the Persians wear gaily colored, patterned pants and shirts. Although color traces were absent on some passages (left white in the reconstruction), these were certainly also once painted. Only the background of the relief probably remained unpainted in the original.

Hellenism

The Hellenistic period (330–30 BCE) begins with the reign of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). With his conquests, Greek culture spread well beyond its original borders and pervaded the cultures of the neighboring realms. The term Hellenism can also be translated as “imitation of the Greek lifestyle.” Hellenistic sculpture is characterized by ever more realistic figural rendering. Instead of individual statues, multifigure sculptural groups full of life and movement become more common.

Evidence and Conjecture

Evid­ence and Conjec­ture

Lively ornamentation and delicate pastel tones: a current research project plumbs the secrets of the painting of Hellenistic sculpture.

Statue of Thalia, a Greek muse, Delos (?), 2nd c. BC Marble with traces of polychromy, 118 cm x 54 cm x 40 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main

The Muse Thalia

The Muses, daughters of Zeus, are the patron goddesses of the arts and learning. Better preserved images portray the Muse Thalia with a theater mask in her hands. This identifies her as the Muse of poetry and comedy.

Downscaled copy with surviving traces of polychromy, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, Marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

Pigment traces in shades of white, blue, red, yellow, and rose were found on the sculpture. Scientific techniques such as UV-visible absorption spectroscopy or infrared luminescence photography reveal these traces of coloration. The researchers recorded the results on a reduced-scale replica. In order to compare various color variations, a total of six versions of the Frankfurt Muse have been created, one at original scale and the others at a smaller scale.

  • UV-visible absorption spectroscopy

    Example of a spectrum obtained through use of UV-Visible Spectroscopy Heinrich Piening

    UV-VIS absorption spectroscopy is used to make pigments and dyes visible. Light directed at a point on the sculpture is reflected or absorbed. The measured values are collated to form a reflection or absorption spectrum, which is presented as a graph. The results are then compared with the reference data of known pigments. This gives the researchers precise information about the original color palette of the sculpture under examination.

  • Infrared luminescence photography

    Luminescence of Egyptian Blue visible in infrared light on the seam of the standing muse’s mantle

    Infrared luminescence photography captures the luminescence of certain pigments, which glow in the dark under infrared light. Traces of Egyptian blue, for example, are clearly visible on the Muse’s garment.

Statue of Thalia, a Greek muse (detail) | Luminescence of Egyptian blue on mantle in infrared light
Luminescence of Egyptian blue in infrared light | Experimental color reconstruction of the so-called Small Herculaneum Woman (detail)

Despite scientific examination, not all paint traces can be clearly identified. Even here scope for interpretation remains.

Experimental color reconstruction of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant A, 2016/2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 117 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main

The full-scale reconstruction is based solely on the traces of color found on the sculpture. The painting reveals that the figure wears a rose-colored undergarment with stripes of light and dark blue.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant B, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

Other Hellenistic artworks show garments with one vertical stripe in a different color. These observations are applied to the reconstruction of this variant of the Muse. For the undergarment the researchers chose green, with rose for the central stripe.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant C, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

The cloak revealed traces of rose and white pigments. The white was probably initially applied as a primer, with the rose as a second layer. A dark-red lining also adorned the cloak.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant D, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

This version not only shows all the surviving colors and ornaments, but fills in the gaps to create a multi-part band of decoration at the hem as was typical for the Hellenistic period: sea monsters, griffins, vegetal ornament, and a corona adorn the cloak, along with horse-drawn chariots.

Experimental color reconstruction of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant A, 2016/2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 117 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main

The full-scale reconstruction is based solely on the traces of color found on the sculpture. The painting reveals that the figure wears a rose-colored undergarment with stripes of light and dark blue.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant B, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

Other Hellenistic artworks show garments with one vertical stripe in a different color. These observations are applied to the reconstruction of this variant of the Muse. For the undergarment the researchers chose green, with rose for the central stripe.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant C, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

The cloak revealed traces of rose and white pigments. The white was probably initially applied as a primer, with the rose as a second layer. A dark-red lining also adorned the cloak.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant D, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

This version not only shows all the surviving colors and ornaments, but fills in the gaps to create a multi-part band of decoration at the hem as was typical for the Hellenistic period: sea monsters, griffins, vegetal ornament, and a corona adorn the cloak, along with horse-drawn chariots.

Experimental color reconstruction of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant A, 2016/2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 117 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main

The full-scale reconstruction is based solely on the traces of color found on the sculpture. The painting reveals that the figure wears a rose-colored undergarment with stripes of light and dark blue.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant B, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

Other Hellenistic artworks show garments with one vertical stripe in a different color. These observations are applied to the reconstruction of this variant of the Muse. For the undergarment the researchers chose green, with rose for the central stripe.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant C, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

The cloak revealed traces of rose and white pigments. The white was probably initially applied as a primer, with the rose as a second layer. A dark-red lining also adorned the cloak.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant D, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

This version not only shows all the surviving colors and ornaments, but fills in the gaps to create a multi-part band of decoration at the hem as was typical for the Hellenistic period: sea monsters, griffins, vegetal ornament, and a corona adorn the cloak, along with horse-drawn chariots.

The full-scale reconstruction is based solely on the traces of color found on the sculpture. The painting reveals that the figure wears a rose-colored undergarment with stripes of light and dark blue.

For the reconstruction Variant D the researchers drew on numerous ancient objects for comparison. Vases and marble or terracotta sculptures provide evidence of the typical ornamentation of Hellenistic garments.

Downscaled color reconstructions of a statue of a Greek muse, Variant D, 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Bianca Larissa Kress, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, 39 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)
  • Fragment of a mantle or veil from the group of cult images from the Temple of Despoina at Lykosoura, early 2nd century BC Marble, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

    This fragment of a garment shows a hem with multiple decorative bands, carved in relief. The decoration alternates between ornamental and figural. This design served as a point of reference for Variant D.

  • Female statuette with a pink mantle over a robe that is decorated with a wide, violet central stripe, 2nd century BC Marble, Archaeological Museum, Delos

    This sculpture shows the typical central stripe on a garment, as used in Variant B of the Muse.

  • Attic red-figure amphora by the so-called „ Suessula Painter“ (The Olympian Gods battle the Giants), Beginning 4th century BC Clay, Musée du Louvre, Paris, bpk / RMN - Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier

    Comparison with vase paintings allowed the traces of yellow color on the hem of the Muse’s cloak to be identified as horses’ legs. The position of the surviving traces of color match the vase paintings almost exactly!

Downscaled color reconstructions of a Greek Muse From the left: Indication of preserved color traces, 2019; Variant B, 2019; Variant C, 2019, Variant D, 2019 Downscaled color reconstructions of a Greek Muse From the left: Indication of preserved color traces, 2019; Variant B, 2019; Variant C, 2019, Variant D, 2019 Downscaled color reconstructions of a Greek Muse From the left: Indication of preserved color traces, 2019; Variant B, 2019; Variant C, 2019, Variant D, 2019 Downscaled color reconstructions of a Greek Muse From the left: Indication of preserved color traces, 2019; Variant B, 2019; Variant C, 2019, Variant D, 2019 Downscaled color reconstructions of a Greek Muse From the left: Indication of preserved color traces, 2019; Variant B, 2019; Variant C, 2019, Variant D, 2019

Colors of antiquity

In order to approximate the original appearance of the polychrome sculptures as closely as possible, the reconstructions are created using the same materials and techniques used in antiquity. The most important source of information for this process is the Roman author Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia. He describes the formulas for and preparation of the pigments, and also their use in painting and sculpture.

  • Minerals and Egyptian blue as base materials for the production of pigments Minerals and rocks (malachite, azurite, cinnabar, goethite, bole, hematite, orpiment, realgar) and Egyptian blue (on loan from Georg Kremer, Aichstetten), Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main

    Ancient artists produced their colors themselves. They used minerals such as azurite and malachite for blue and green. The mineral cinnabar was used for red. Brown and yellow hues were derived from earths.

  • Banded dye-murex © Hans Hillewaert

    Some colors can be made from plants or even animals. The most expensive color, for example, comes from the marine or sea snail (murex). 12,000 snails are needed to produce just one gram of this violet pigment.

  • Pigments, mortar and binding agents

    The various raw materials are ground to a fine powder in a mortar. Mixed with natural binders such as egg, casein, or oil, they form paints. These are applied to the smooth surface of the marble with a fine brush.

Deterioration of
the colors

The pigments used in antiquity have one disadvantage: their differing durability. While ochre is lost relatively quickly, mineral-based hues like red and blue can last for centuries. This led scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries to draw the wrong conclusions on ancient sculptures. Proponents of a “marble-white antiquity” thus refuted the claims of the polychrome revisionists. Many scholars positioned themselves somewhere in the middle, accepting that ancient sculptures were painted, but debating the degree to which they were and questioning the manner of coloration. Only with modern methods can we draw more precise conclusions and make inroads in scholarship.

The mystery of the colors

In order to gain more insights into the colors used in the Hellenistic period, another statue is under examination in the Frankfurt research project.

By contrast to the Muse, the traces of color on the marble figure called the Small Herculaneum Woman remain clearly recognizable to this day. The figure was found in 1894 by the archaeologist Louis Couve on the Greek island of Delos. He describes his discovery in detail:

Statue of the so-called Small Herculaneum Woman type, Delos, 2nd c. BC Marble, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, National Archaeological Museum © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports / Archaeological Receipts Fund

The undergarment was painted blue, at the bottom a broad rose-violet band is recognizable with a thin blue stripe. [...] The mantle itself was painted rose.

Louis Couve, 1897 Note sur une statue de femme trouvée a Délos, RA 1897, pp. 23–27.
Detail of the polychrome paint on the hair of the so-called „Small Herculaneum Woman“ from Delos
Mantle hemline with traces of gilding and and its violet corrosion product
Detail of the mantle hemline with traces of gilding
Luminescence of Egyptian blue in infrared light
Detail of the polychrome paint on the hair of the so-called „Small Herculaneum Woman“ from Delos
Mantle hemline with traces of gilding and and its violet corrosion product
Detail of the mantle hemline with traces of gilding
Luminescence of Egyptian blue in infrared light
Detail of the polychrome paint on the hair of the so-called „Small Herculaneum Woman“ from Delos
Mantle hemline with traces of gilding and and its violet corrosion product
Detail of the mantle hemline with traces of gilding
Luminescence of Egyptian blue in infrared light

Traces of Egyptian blue, various shades of ochre earth tones, lead white and lead yellow, and traces of gilding: modern analysis confirms Couve’s observations. The magnificent reconstruction is based on historical accounts and new scientific conclusions:

Experimental color reconstruction of a statue of a woman wrapping herself in a mantle (so-called Small Herculaneum Woman), 2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on plaster cast, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, 181 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on permanent loan from the Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abt. I: Klassische Archäologie, Abgusssammlung)

A green mantle? The discovery of malachite green confronted the researchers with a puzzle, because the mantle is described in Couve’s notes as rose-colored. How can this be? The possible answer lies in a comparison with terracotta figures and painted Greek pottery. The fabric of the mantle could have been transparent. In places where it lies tightly over the body, the rose color of the robe shines through. Couve’s observations and the technical measurements thus do not contradict each other. With the color reconstruction we can deduce the original coloration from trace pigments and gain a more complete understanding of the sculpture.

In antiquity sculpture and painting went hand in hand. From the combination of these two artistic media arose the ideal work of art, a colorful sculpture. The completed form of the figure was enhanced through the use of color, drawing the viewer’s attention to certain aspects.

Color and Vivacity

Color and Vivacity

A sensational find: in 1885 two original ancient bronzes were found on the Quirinal Hill in Rome.

Only seven large-scale bronze sculptures from Greek antiquity are known to exist, and these “Quirinal bronzes” are among them. In 2012 researchers examined them and discovered that not only marble statues, but also sculptures cast in bronze were colored in antiquity. They also revealed numerous details: swollen ears, lacerations, and bandaged hands suggest that the statues depict two boxers. The researchers assume that different materials such as various metals, colored glass, or precious stones were used to emphasize the wounds and make them particularly vivid. This creates an impression of tremendous power and vitality.

Satue of a Ruler (left) and statue of a Boxer (right), bronze, 4th-3rd c. BC Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome
Statue of Amykos (so-called Terme Boxer), end of 4th or beg. of 3rd c. BC, Bronze, Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome Experimental color reconstructions of the so-called Terme Boxer (Amykos), 2018 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, bronze, copper, jewelry, asphalt, pigment, 128 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (with support from the Städelscher Museums-Verein and the Christa Verhein-Stiftung)

In the reconstructions, the individual features of the sculptures emerge ever more clearly, allowing us to draw conclusions regarding their identity. Ancient texts support the theory that they represent two figures from Greek mythology: the opponents Amykos and Polydeuces.

Experimental color reconstructions of the bronze statues of the so-called Terme Ruler and the so-called Terme Boxer (Polydeuces and Amykos), 2018 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, bronze, copper, jewelry, asphalt, pigment, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (with support from the Städelscher Museums-Verein and the Christa Verhein-Stiftung)

Amykos and Polydeuces

The bronzes probably depict the pugilist Amykos and the young hero Polydeuces. King Amykos was infamous for his unbridled power. His fists are firmly wrapped in leather and straps. When the demigod Polydeuces wanted to enter the powerful king’s land, he had to face him in battle. Clearly the underdog in this uneven match, the strong young man defeated the experienced warrior. Shining blood seeps from Amykos’ wounds. He sits, exhausted and defeated. Beside him stands the victorious Polydeuces. His youthful face shows only a few marks of the fight.

The sculptures’ secrets

Ornaments, animal symbols, and gold appliqué: the way to unlocking the secret of the figures’ identity was through the colors and decorations on their garments.

There is no true appreciation of the radiant, joyful beauty of ancient Greek art, without knowing of its colorful decoration.

Adolf Furtwängler, 1906 Adolf Furtwängler (ed.), Aegina. Das Heiligtum der Aphaia, Munich 1906, p. 308.

Simple girl or goddess? Only a few surviving paint traces suggest the former chromatic brilliance of the figure known as the Peplos Kore. The reconstruction, however, brings to light an elaborately designed gown, used by the Greeks exclusively to clothe sculptures of deities and priests, to mark their heightened significance.

So-called Peplos Kore from the Athenian Acropolis, ca. 520 BC Marble, Acropolis Museum, Athens

What is a Peplos Kore?

The term kore refers to a figure of a young woman, either free-standing or used as a column in a temple. The peplos is a particular type of garment. The rectangular cloth is folded, wrapped around the body, and fastened at the shoulder with a pin. It remains open at the side. Scholars previously assumed that the sculpture represents a young woman wearing this type of garment. But the polychromatic treatment reveals otherwise: the garment the figure is wearing is not, in fact, a peplos, and the sculpture must therefore be reinterpreted.

The position of the arms and the drill holes in the hands suggest that the figure once held weapons. Which type of weapons we cannot say for sure. She may have held a knife and sheath, attributes of Artemis, goddess of the hunt. Many things now indicate that the designation “Peplos Kore” is incorrect. The figure does not wear the garment known as a peplos, and is much too richly clothed to represent a simple girl.

Experimental color reconstruction of the so-called Peplos Kore as Artemis Tauropolos, Variant B, 2005/2019 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on plaster cast, natural pigments in egg tempera, crown and weapons of gilded/silvered wood, 136 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main

Life and death

Numerous decorations adorn the young woman’s dress. Vibrant colors and shining golden metals give it the final touch. The sculpture is a funerary statue. The inscription on the base reveals the name of the deceased: Phrasikleia may have died young, but the varied painting of the sculpture brings the memorial to life.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia, 2010 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, garnet, tourmaline, labradorite, gum arabic (iris), 200 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on loan from the Ludwig- Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Leibniz Prize O. Primavesi 2007) Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia, 2010 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, garnet, tourmaline, labradorite, gum arabic (iris), 200 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on loan from the Ludwig- Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Leibniz Prize O. Primavesi 2007) Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia, 2010 Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, marble stucco on PMMA, natural pigments in egg tempera, gold foil, garnet, tourmaline, labradorite, gum arabic (iris), 200 cm, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (Liebieghaus Polychromy Research Project), Frankfurt am Main (on loan from the Ludwig- Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Leibniz Prize O. Primavesi 2007)
Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

The head bears a crown of lotus blossoms, symbol of the human life cycle: alternately open and closed, they represent life and death.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

Examination of the sculpture revealed traces of gold foil on the star- and flower-like ornaments. All of these decorative elements were probably gilded, as eye-catching accents on the red dress.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

The surface was polished with oil, giving a soft glow to the girl’s skin. To realistically represent the structure of the hair, the artist left the stone there rough and unworked.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

Along with the gold, traces of lead were also found on the sculpture. The garment was probably also decorated with shiny lead-tin foil. The whole figure must have gleamed brightly in the sunlight.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

The head bears a crown of lotus blossoms, symbol of the human life cycle: alternately open and closed, they represent life and death.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

Examination of the sculpture revealed traces of gold foil on the star- and flower-like ornaments. All of these decorative elements were probably gilded, as eye-catching accents on the red dress.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

The surface was polished with oil, giving a soft glow to the girl’s skin. To realistically represent the structure of the hair, the artist left the stone there rough and unworked.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

Along with the gold, traces of lead were also found on the sculpture. The garment was probably also decorated with shiny lead-tin foil. The whole figure must have gleamed brightly in the sunlight.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

The head bears a crown of lotus blossoms, symbol of the human life cycle: alternately open and closed, they represent life and death.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

Examination of the sculpture revealed traces of gold foil on the star- and flower-like ornaments. All of these decorative elements were probably gilded, as eye-catching accents on the red dress.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

The surface was polished with oil, giving a soft glow to the girl’s skin. To realistically represent the structure of the hair, the artist left the stone there rough and unworked.

Experimental color reconstruction of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia (detail), 2010

Along with the gold, traces of lead were also found on the sculpture. The garment was probably also decorated with shiny lead-tin foil. The whole figure must have gleamed brightly in the sunlight.

The head bears a crown of lotus blossoms, symbol of the human life cycle: alternately open and closed, they represent life and death.

On the front of the garment ornaments adorn the dress. On the back they are carefully arranged to form a constellation. We can therefore assume that the front represented the day, and thus symbolized life, while the back stood for the night. The polychromatic treatment would have dramatically underscored the symbolic power of the sculpture.

Who was Phrasikleia?

“Eternally shall I now be called girl and daughter, the gods have willed it so.” The inscription on the base of the statue from the 6th century BCE reveals that Phrasikleia died unmarried. Traditionally the parents of a deceased girl commissioned a grave statue and erected it in their daughter’s memory.

Inscription on the limestone pedestal of the funerary statue of Phrasikleia

To date, hundreds of Greek and Roman works of art have been examined for evidence of their original polychromy. Thanks to the emergence and refinement of new scientific methods, scholars can now create an ever-more precise picture of the type and extent of the painting. Color can now hardly be denied, and yet the notion that ancient sculptures were white persists not only in museum collections, but also in the minds of their visitors. With the goal of introducing the colors of antiquity to a broad public, this touring exhibition will continue to go on show at museums around the world.

Hint

Hint

In the midst of the fray a Persian soldier flings his arm upward, revealing the painted underside of his shield: here we see a ruler on his throne, being fanned by a servant. But what does this scene have to do with the battle?

So-called Alexander Sarcophagus, detail in UV light | Experimental color reconstruction (Variant A) of the battle between Greeks and Persians (detail)

UV photography reveals a richly detailed miniature painting on the Persian warrior’s shield on the Alexander Sarcophagus. Painted in fine brushstrokes, we see the scene of an audience at the Persian court, where a subject approaches the king. Surprisingly, the image on the back of the shield is an exact copy of a relief that once actually existed at the Persian court. The painter of the Alexander Sarcophagus must therefore have been familiar this work of art, or at least a copy of it. The small painted scene perfectly complements the sculpture. It makes the identification of the warrior as Persian indisputable, and shows once again how ancient sculpture and painting went hand in hand.