What led to the myth of whiteness in ancient sculpture?

What led to the myth of whiteness in ancient sculpture?

On the Greek island of Aegina, a sculpture of a youthful archer was formerly visible as one approached the Temple of Aphaia. The sculpture was painted in vivid hues to seem as realistic as possible. The play "Hypsipyle," written by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides and premiered about 410 B.C., has a passage about the temple that says, "Run your eyes up towards the sky and take a look at the painted reliefs of the pediment."

The fact that statues in ancient Greece were painted and not left with the white marble exposed is mentioned in contemporary publications on art, notably a book by Roman author Pliny the Elder. Nevertheless, the fact that ancient sculptures were vibrantly colored surprises a lot of people nowadays. So how and why did the legend of the monochromatic marble sculptures start?


According to archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, "This bizarre idea of colorless statues goes back to the Renaissance," a time when form was prioritized above color. Renaissance painters fashioned their works in accordance with the belief that ancient sculptures were made of raw marble, contributing to the myth.

Colorful objects were hidden.

It was considered that most ancient sculptures had always been colorless because the colors on them had faded by the time they were first uncovered. But when additional information came to light, Brinkmann noted that the public was purposefully kept in the dark in order to conform to societal values.

For instance, according to Brinkmann, the statue "Laocoön and his Sons," which was discovered in Rome in 1503, featured colors that were "deliberately glanced over," and the color traces were often ascribed to "barbarians."

The exhibition "Gods in Color," which Brinkmann and his wife, archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, produced, has been traveling the globe since 2003. It includes more than 100 sculptural copies that have been brightly painted based on theories about what the originals would have looked like; color traces were detected using contemporary technology. The continuing show "Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which is on view through late March 2023, also included work by Brinkmann and his colleagues.

The pure and clear ideals of the 18th-century Enlightenment era were similar to those of the white sculptures of the ancient world. The sculptures' absence of color also diminished their sensuality and distinguished them from the colorfully embellished works of art that were typical of the Ottoman Empire.

Due to this, even if statues with traces of color on them were discovered during extensive digs in the 18th and 19th centuries, the colorful discoveries did not become known to the general public.

integrating beliefs into art

The 18th-century German art historian and archaeologist Johann Winckelmann, who is often referred to as the founder of art history, is responsible for some of this myth of whiteness. He allegedly claimed, "Color adds to beauty, but it is not beauty," and "The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is," according to an article in "The New Yorker" magazine.

Winckelmann was an Enlightenment thinker, and the era's emphasis on science gave birth to contemporary ideas on racism. Ancient white sculptures also contributed to this.

In the past, cultures have shaped how they perceive the world with their own ideas, according to Nikos Stampolidis, general director of the Acropolis Museum, in an interview with DW. Because most of these sculptures had lost their hues by the time they were dug, and because the people at the time admired the elegance of the marble's pure white tint because it complemented their views about the superiority of white people.

Painting statues was a prevalent technique in the ancient world, as should have been shown by the Pompeii excavations in the 18th century. Many of the sculptures, including one of the Greek goddess Artemis, were saved with some colors still intact after the city was devastated by a volcanic explosion in 79 A.D. However, it has been questioned if the sculptures had been painted due to "inappropriate research methodologies and divergent understandings of ancient textual sources," according to material found on the "Gods in Color" website.

The "Peplos Kore," which is presently on display in Athens' Acropolis Museum, is one of the most well-known instances of a statue on which pigment traces were discovered. It was found in the 19th century in Greece during extensive Acropolis excavations. The figure of a young lady was fashioned of marble from the Greek island of Paros and dated to the Archaic era, about 530 B.C. Her hair contained hints of orange hue. Archaeologists saw the paint remnants and documented them, but they also manufactured castings right away from which they built sculptures out of white plaster. The public was further led to identify the sculptures of the ancient Greeks with whiteness when they were taken to international fairs.

The white sculpture and Hitler

The concept of white figures from antiquity was hijacked by fascists in the 20th century as a representation of white dominance. The art and architecture of classical Greece and Rome were highly valued by both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and the notion of white classical sculptures was helpful in conceptualizing racial supremacy. For the Nazis, this meant harmonizing the legendary Aryan race's visual representation with Greek sculptures, such as by displaying males with exquisitely carved torsos.

The Acropolis Museum's exhibition "Archaic Hues" addressed the theory that the many colors employed in ancient Greek sculptures were connected to numerous category notions.

Blonde hair, often seen on Greek Gods, warriors, and athletes, represented strength. According to the museum's description, white skin of young ladies "proclaimed elegance and shine of youth," while gray skin represented virtue and fortitude. Ancient Greek art also likely often employed color to indicate gender: Men were shown as having darker skin tones since they frequently worked outside, while ladies were frequently painted white because it was ideal to remain inside and out of the sun.

More "genuine" color techniques are required.

Many people now have a better understanding of the mystique surrounding traditional white sculpture because to shows like "Gods in Color" and the one now running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, more has to be done in this area to ensure authenticity, since some, like Stampolidis, claim that the displays provide a "false image" of how colors really appeared.

DW quoted him as saying, "In my view, a statue must be built of marble, and on this material you should attempt to utilize either mineral or herbal colors as they were done in antiquity to achieve a more accurate image of what it looked like back then." Each kind of marble, according to Stampolidis, has a unique crystalline composition: "Some are larger, smaller, and have characteristics of more or less light. Cycladic marbles from Thassos and Naxos, for instance, are not the same."

The ideal scenario for Stampolidis would be to test out unique paint formulations on various kinds of marble. At least a fresh and vibrant reality is beginning to dawn on the planet in the meantime.