Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

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Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:21 pm


The painted replica of a c. 490 B.C. archer (at the Parthenon in Athens) testifies to German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann’s painstaking research into the ancient sculpture’s colors. The original statue came from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina.

Ultraviolet light reveals how ancient Greek statues really looked

Esther Inglis-Arkell

Original Greek statues were brightly painted, but after thousands of years, those paints have worn away. Find out how shining a light on the statues can be all that's required to see them as they were thousands of years ago.

Although it seems impossible to think that anything could be left to discover after thousands of years of wind, sun, sand, and art students, finding the long lost patterns on a piece of ancient Greek sculpture can be as easy as shining a lamp on it. A technique called ‘raking light' has been used to analyze art for a long time. A lamp is positioned carefully enough that the path of the light is almost parallel to the surface of the object. When used on paintings, this makes brushstrokes, grit, and dust obvious. On statues, the effect is more subtle. Brush-strokes are impossible to see, but because different paints wear off at different rates, the stone is raised in some places – protected from erosion by its cap of paint – and lowered in others. Elaborate patterns become visible.



Ultraviolet is also used to discern patterns. UV light makes many organic compounds fluoresce. Art dealers use UV lights to check if art has been touched up, since older paints have a lot of organic compounds and modern paints have relatively little. On ancient Greek statues, tiny fragments of pigment still left on the surface glow bright, illuminating more detailed patterns.

Once the pattern is mapped, there is still the problem of figuring out which paint colors to use. A series of dark blues will create a very different effect than gold and pink. Even if enough pigment is left over so that the naked eye can make out a color, a few thousand years can really change a statue's complexion. There's no reason to think that color seen today would be anything like the hues the statues were originally painted.

There is a way around this dilemma. The colors may fade over time, but the original materials – plant and animal-derived pigments, crushed stones or shells – still look the same today as they did thousands of years ago. This can also be discovered using light.

Full size Infrared and X-ray spectroscopy can help researchers understand what the paints are made of, and how they looked all that time ago. Spectroscopy relies on the fact that atoms are picky when it comes to what kind of incoming energy they absorb. Certain materials will only accept certain wavelengths of light. Everything else they reflect. Spectroscopes send out a variety of wavelengths, like scouts into a foreign land. Inevitably, a few of these scouts do not come back. By noting which wavelengths are absorbed, scientists can determine what materials the substance is made of. Infrared helps determine organic compounds. X-rays, because of their higher energy level, don't stop for anything less than the heavier elements, like rocks and minerals. Together, researchers can determine approximately what color a millennia-old statue was painted.

The color? Always something tacky.




Via Harvard, Colour Lovers, Tate, The Smithsonian, Colorado University, and Carleton.



Last edited by eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:34 pm; edited 2 times in total

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:22 pm


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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:29 pm

Greek Statues Were Painted

Posted on August 20, 2008 by 100swallows

(Extracts from an article by Matthew Gurewitsch published in the Smithsonian magazine in July 2008)

“My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,” moans Helen of Troy in a play by Euripides:
“Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.”

“That last point is so unexpected,” says Gurewitsch, “that one might almost miss it: to strip a statue of its color is actually to disfigure it.”


A replica of a stele erected c. 510 B.C. on the grave of the Greek warrior, Aristion, commemorates his exploits in battle. He is dressed in yellow bronze or leather armor, a blue helmet (part of which is missing), and matching blue shinguards trimmed in yellow.

“Colored statues? To us, classical antiquity means white marble. Not so to the Greeks, who thought of their gods in living color and portrayed them that way too. The temples that housed them were in color, also, like mighty stage sets. Time and weather have stripped most of the hues away. And for centuries people who should have known better pretended that color scarcely mattered.

“[Now] German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann is on a mission. Armed with high-intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, cameras, plaster casts and jars of costly powdered minerals, he has spent the past quarter century trying to revive the peacock glory that was Greece. He has dramatized his scholarly findings by creating full-scale plaster or marble copies hand-painted in the same mineral and organic pigments used by the ancients: green from malachite, blue from azurite, yellow and ocher from arsenic compounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine.


The Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul in its present state


The Alexander Sarcophagus reconstituted by Brinkmann

(The “Alexander Sarcophagus” (c. 320 B.C.), was found in the royal necropolis of the Phoenician city of Sidon. But it was named for the illustrious Macedonian ruler, Alexander the Great, depicted in battle against the Persians in this painted replica. Alexander’s sleeved tunic suggests his conquests have thrust him into the new role of Eastern King, but his lion-skin cap ties him to the mythical hero, Herakles, and alludes to divine descent.)


“Call them gaudy, call them garish, his scrupulous color reconstructions made their debut in 2003 at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, which is devoted to Greek and Roman statuary. Displayed side by side with the placid antiquities of that fabled collection, the replicas shocked and dazzled those who came to see them. As Time magazine summed up the response, ‘The exhibition forces you to look at ancient sculpture in a totally new way.’”

Gurewitsch gives a short history of our misconception of Greek statues and buildings.

“White marble has been the norm ever since the Renaissance, when classical antiquities first began to emerge from the earth…..Knowing no better, artists in the 16th century took the bare stone at face value. Michelangelo and others emulated what they believed to be the ancient aesthetic, leaving the stone of most of their statues its natural color. Thus they helped pave the way for neo-Classicism, the lily-white style that to this day remains our paradigm for Greek art.

“By the early 19th century, the systematic excavation of ancient Greek and Roman sites was bringing forth great numbers of statues, and there were scholars on hand to document the scattered traces of their multicolored surfaces. Some of these traces are still visible to the naked eye even today, though much of the remaining color faded, or disappeared entirely, once the statues were again exposed to light and air.
Some of the pigment was scrubbed off by restorers whose acts, while well intentioned, were tantamount to vandalism. In the 18th century, the pioneering archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann chose to view the bare stone figures as pure—if you will, Platonic—forms, all the loftier for their austerity. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well,” he wrote. “Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence.” Against growing evidence to the contrary, Winckelmann’s view prevailed.”

A comment by Gregory Meeker at the end of the article reads:
“It’s reasonable to assume that the painting on the figures was at least as sophisticated as the figures themselves. By the time of the Alexander Sarcophagus the subtlety of the sculpture has far outstripped the colors identified and applied by Brinkmann. This does not mean that Brinkmann has left the path of accurate reconstruction; it may mean that his ultimate goal is impossibly distant. The colors he has identified on later pieces are clearly just underpainting for a far more realistic final finish. This was the process used in Renaissance oil paintings of equivalent visual sophistication. The assumption that the painting was as sophisticated as the figures is an extremely conservative one. The artistic and manual skills required for realistic sculpting are far greater than those required for life-like painting of a finished figure. And the painting task was a relaxed one, far more amenable to messing around until the artist got it right. So painting was easier, less risky and, because of weathering, constantly in demand. It is reasonable to conclude that until sculpting reached its zenith, painting of figures was substantially more sophisticated than the figures themselves. With luck, Brinkmann will eventually find a piece with all the layers intact.



Last edited by eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:41 pm; edited 2 times in total

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:39 pm



A reconstruction in bronze of the head of a young athlete shows he has been crowned with the fillet of a victor. Based on an original dating from the early 1st century A.D., the head was found in Naples in the 1700s as part of a complete figure. Reportedly, its discoverers detached the head when they realized the metal statue was too heavy to carry away intact. The striking effect of the portrait is accentuated by inlaid eyes made of silver, with pupils of red semi-precious stones, and gilding on the lips, brows and fillet.


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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:44 pm



The partial color reconstruction of Athena is based on a c.490 B.C. sculpture of the Goddess from the pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina. Vinzenz Brinkmann typically leaves areas white where no evidence of original coloration is found. This rear view of the statue emphasizes the elaborate detailing of Athena’s aegis, or cape, trimmed with the life-like bodies of partially uncoiled green snakes.


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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Fri May 27, 2011 11:45 pm



“If people say, ‘What kitsch,’ it annoys me but I’m not surprised,” says Brinkmann, who, with his wife, archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, colored this reconstruction of the c.550 B.C., “Lion from Loutraki.” Its stunning blue-colored mane is not unique on ancient monuments. Lions often sat atop tombs in ancient Greece, where ornamental details such as the animals’ tuffs of hair and facial markings were painted in bright colors that accented their fur.


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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  pinhedz on Sat May 28, 2011 12:09 am

Way more fun and exciting with the paint.

Those who would say "What kitsch" are probably a real drag at parties. tongue

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  eddie on Sun Jun 26, 2011 12:51 am

Here's a 20th c take on the debate:


Mask- Rene Magritte.

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  Guest on Sun Aug 21, 2011 1:34 am

eddie wrote:

The partial color reconstruction of Athena is based on a c.490 B.C. sculpture of the Goddess from the pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina. Vinzenz Brinkmann typically leaves areas white where no evidence of original coloration is found. This rear view of the statue emphasizes the elaborate detailing of Athena’s aegis, or cape, trimmed with the life-like bodies of partially uncoiled green snakes.

I only see ass


aren't his legs too long? he has the ass in the back

eddie wrote:

A reconstruction in bronze of the head of a young athlete shows he has been crowned with the fillet of a victor. Based on an original dating from the early 1st century A.D., the head was found in Naples in the 1700s as part of a complete figure. Reportedly, its discoverers detached the head when they realized the metal statue was too heavy to carry away intact. The striking effect of the portrait is accentuated by inlaid eyes made of silver, with pupils of red semi-precious stones, and gilding on the lips, brows and fillet.


I like this one and the lion

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Our aesthetics are shaped by art of the past, not vice versa

Post  Guest on Sat Sep 03, 2011 12:13 am

I believe the reconstructions do not accurately represent what the statues looked like when they were painted. The paintwork must have been just as skilled as the sculpting, and the final effect might have been something closer to Madame Tussaud's than the reconstruction pictured here, with large areas of primary colors. The ancients learned to sculpt better than anyone before and after them, but didn't have the ability to mix paints? If they were first primed with one color, the consecutive layers must have added hues of a million variations to construct something what might look like a real living Alexander or Augustus.

Aesthetically, before the advent of synthetic colors and plastics, strong colors were considered beautiful and signified power and wealth. Only the advent of plastics and synthetic colors and the consecutive overflow of strong primary colors has shaped our tastes to appreciate a more toned-down spectrum. Such expressions as "tacky" and "kitsch" might have existed in the ancient world but their exact tastes will forever remain a mystery for us. If you look at an average mediterranian landscape, the colors are quite down-toned, sand, rocks and dark green trees washed in the hot sun. Imagine then arriving to a city awash with bright colors, colorful flags flying in hundreds of flagpoles and seeing lifelike statues of ancient heroes adorning the buildings and marketplaces. For example, read the history of Imperial Purple in Rome and you will understand why it was a color reserved for emperors only.

It would be interesting to give a replica of a famous statue to the artists of madame Tussaud's to work with, tell them to work only with pigments available to the ancients and see what they could make out of it. After all researchers are still researchers, and artists are artists. With paint jobs such as the ones above, they could have been lucky to be awarded a color mixing boy's job in the atelier of an ancient painter. A statue of Augustus in it's original state propably looked more like this statue of a contemporary hero (well, propably better, but you get the idea).

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  Guest on Sat Sep 03, 2011 12:45 am

Marecus wrote:Aesthetically, before the advent of synthetic colors and plastics, strong colors were considered beautiful and signified power and wealth. Only the advent of plastics and synthetic colors and the consecutive overflow of strong primary colors has shaped our tastes to appreciate a more toned-down spectrum. Such expressions as "tacky" and "kitsch" might have existed in the ancient world but their exact tastes will forever remain a mystery for us.

Interesting. I knew there was something attractive about the manifestations of the kitsch.

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  pinhedz on Sat Sep 03, 2011 7:22 am

Marecus wrote:Such expressions as "tacky" and "kitsch" might have existed in the ancient world but their exact tastes will forever remain a mystery for us. ... Imagine then arriving to a city awash with bright colors, colorful flags flying in hundreds of flagpoles and seeing lifelike statues of ancient heroes adorning the buildings and marketplaces. For example, read the history of Imperial Purple in Rome and you will understand why it was a color reserved for emperors only.
I agree that we will never know, but this image would seem to argue for the solid primary color approach. Were the statues painted for people visiting the buildings and market places, and observing the statues from a distance, or for close up examination--as in a museum?

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  Guest on Sat Sep 03, 2011 1:04 pm

...this is off topic but with this detour to waxworks, here I am in Amsterdam in the 70s (I'm on the left, with a very bad perm inflicted on me in London)


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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  pinhedz on Sat Sep 03, 2011 1:10 pm

blue moon wrote:...I'm on the left, with a very bad perm inflicted on me in London
If you're on the left, who's that with her left hand on your shoulder? alien

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

Post  Guest on Sat Sep 03, 2011 1:19 pm

...ah the page has turned. Back on track.

...I like the austerity of the unpainted statues, although that's most likely because that's what I'm accustomed to. I even prefer the wax figure unpainted.

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Re: Would you feel differently about classical Greek statues if you knew they were originally painted?

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