Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ineradicable falsity

Color in ancient sculpture
24 04 07 Æ32  16.62g  axis 12h.  Copper drachm.  Egypt, Alexandria.  Severus Alexander, laureate, "draped and cuirassed bust from behind" (surely with the aid of other specimens!)  Rev., bust of Serapis, with ornamented kalathos; palm at r., date L I (year 10) at l.
Also supplied by the dealer, who, I'm sure is right, "Köln --Dattari 4439; Milne 3043l Ennett 3174"

Late in the 19th century, when Greek independence was well established and new excavations and firsthand study by both Greek and transalpine scholars became very important, not least because photography and in due course color lithography led to broadly distributed publication of new finds and ideas, in the non-specialized press and in popular books great emphasis was given to the put-down of sculptors who, like Canova, had made their statues white and poets like Keats whose Grecian Urn was of white marble (that urn, of course, was part of the neo-classicism of the Augustan age).  Of course, Canova, when he first saw original Greek sculptures is said to have cried, Oh, if only I could begin again!
Inevitably, since the idea of an all-white Greek world was patently ridiculous, the popular press began exaggerating and generalizing the use of color.  As recently as the 1980s I found a freshman-level history textbook asserting that the Parthenon was red: you could see its traces.  When writing for or lecturing to students who might not be in another course on ancient art, especially if they were working for degrees in Nursing or Accounting or Economics (or any other that left little room for elective coursework), it is inexcusable that the author paid to produce the textbook and the lecturers allowed to regurgitate it did not wonder about the rusty color of the Parthenon, which is due to the amount of iron in Pentelic marble, and of a hue quite different from the genuine paint-traces of red and blue and green that do exist.  What is worse is that similar false platitudes now are copied and pasted, from out-of-copyright sources, or second- or third-hand from such sources, on the internet.
Coin collectors usually encounter some of the primary evidence for statuary, especially cult images, that were richly colored and so are led to read the ancient sources that describe their color and rich materials, sources that were, of course, always available to those who were interested.  So, invited to contribute to Numiswiki in Forum Ancient Coins, I wrote a brief article summarizing that evidence.  There you will find the principal texts for the statues at Alexandria and Antioch, illustrated by the coins that show the details of the decoration most emphatically.  I also can show you one of Antioch with that same Sol-Serapis image where only the patterns on the garment are not quite so emphatic:

And, at the head of this post, for the headdress of Serapis at Alexandria, a lovely big bronze of Severus Alexander, dated to the tenth year of his reign (222–235), the most evocative portrait of this last of the Severans that I know.  The kalathos (basket) headdress of the Serapis, with all its figure work, also is reproduced, not always exactly alike, in most of the sculptured replicas of that famous image, of a god that because almost as important as Zeus himself, and sometimes subsumed Hades as well, as came about easily given his Egyptian heritage.  Of course, Clement of Alexandria's description leaves no doubt as to the rich color in mixed media of that image.  And, we must add, such statues did not of course stand outdoors, any more than the Virgin Mary at Seville does.
Yet these big cult statues in mixed media (not to mention chryselephantine work with pieces of gold and ivory mounted on a wood and metal armature / framework, such as the Zeus at Olympia by Pheidias) are exceptional.  What about color used more routinely?
Following Egyptian usage, Greek sculpture in wood or limestone was usually sealed with gesso and painted with encaustic (or anything other than plain water-based paint).  Pigments with egg, for example, or honey were available, and naturally also beeswax.  As for a fine icon, the gesso surface was carefully smoothed.  As soon as color was added to give emphasis to the details in architectural orders, it was important to use mineral pigments and a medium that would adhere to marble (limestone temples, of course, were coated with fine marble-dust stucco to protect them and provide a surface for color) and withstand weather.
Now, in the seventh century BC, a whole limestone statue might be wholly painted.  The little "Dame d'Auxerre" now in the Louvre was so painted, but the poster-paint colors used on top of plaster of Paris in illustrations purporting to show the use of color are misleading.  Not that such statues weren't bright, but they would have had the brightness of a fine Byzantine icon or of Duccio's Maestà altarpiece.
The statues that actually preserve quite a lot of original color, the Korai from the Athens Acropolis, have it on their hair, eyes, mouths, details of their garments.  They did stand in the full sunlight of the Acropolis and, no matter how good the paint, owe their preservation of it to their having been buried less than a century after they were set up.  If most of the traces of paint are red, that is because the other pigments were less permanent, not that ancient Greek girls had red hair and eyes!
Athens, Acropolis #679, the Kore wearing a peplos, c. 530 BC
The Kore from Keratea in Berlin, often called a Goddess, of c. 580, does have a wholly red garment (not the same red as, mixed with black, made brown hair), but that must be because she had died unmarried, and was set up dressed as a bride, like the Kore found in my own lifetime, Phrasiklea, a funerary statue, found with her own epitaph that informs us that she died still a maid, though of marriageable age.  Greek brides wore red.
How soon, if ever, Greek statues of deities and mortals had blank eyes, even if the beauty of marble came to be more and more valued for its own sake, I do not know, but even the portrait of Caligula in Copenhagen has the eyes of a living person, and, at the other end of the empire, eyes were given a glint of life (and one in Berlin preserves colored inlay in that carving) with drillwork, and hair was often painted.  Of course, the artists who worked for the Roman upper class were usually Greeks themselves.
So, what prompted me to write this essay and call it "Ineradicable Falsity"?  I was opening my mail and having a MacD cherry-berry drink when a man, easily about my own age, came by my booth and caught sight of a brochure I'd just opened from the Hixenbaugh Gallery in NYC.  On its cover is a statuette, just over a foot tall, of Aphrodite Anaydyomene, with dolphin support, and a quite good one for a statuette, obviously a nice cabinet piece and probably datable to the Late Republican period as the dealer suggests, since the very popular late-Roman statuettes of deities do not preserve such proportions or such delicate nudity.  Needless to say, it has no paint, perhaps never had any, since at just that dating one expects the sort of classicism that makes whiteness one of its ideals; still, this statuette lacks its head, and, frankly, I'd expect an Anadyomene to have color to her hair and to her eyes, at least, and a bit of color would set off the dolphin nicely.
Anyhow, the man who saw her just as I took the brochure from its envelope, immediately expostulated that the Greeks always painted their sculpture, that "we" (speak for yourself, sir) were wrong to think they didn't, that all those temples were gaudily painted, that he was a philosopher who lectured on the Greeks, and so on.  After trying to qualify his assertions (especially about a Parthenon with red columns), to no avail, and he kept saying that the experts who knew all agreed with him, I just decided to be rude and identified myself as a classical archaeologist.  He said, well, he was a philosopher and had read everything for himself.  He really didn't seem to be drunk or high on anything, merely to hold a century-old and always ill informed package of unexamined popularizing.  
Indeed, there is something ineradicable about generalizations and simplifications that are felt to be éclatants or even impressive.  There was nothing the man said (sorry, he didn't introduce himself) that I haven't heard and read over and over.  Just like the Sunday School paper that talked about the whoredom of Corinth that tried to tempt ancient sailors...
Is there no cure for talk about "the Greeks", "the Romans", "the Americans", not to mention "the liberals", and the rest?  Why does the infinite variety of humanity and human history always need to be ruthlessly reduced so as to be disposed of?


  1. Thank you so much for this article. I've done many years of research for my young adult book situated in Greece 480 BCE and have tried as best I can to get my details right. One thing I have struggled with is the question of color for statues and temples. What do you know about the massive statue of Apollo in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi? Am I right that it was gold-plated?

  2. Whether "it" was gold-plated: which "it"? There is an ivory head, about life size, c. 550 BC, of Apollo that has a gold wig; I guess it probably had a gold robe, but none of that is preserved (Boardman, Gr.Sc., Archaic, no. 127; with wig, Oxf. Hist. Classical Art, no. 55)--too early and too small for such a temple, and too early even for the Alkmaionid one (the sculpture preserved from it is architectural). I was startled to realize that I did not know the answer to your question, that I could not recall any discussion of a cult statue that would be there c. 480 BC, that I had assumed that just the huge tripod stood over the oracle (see Joseph Fontenrose, Python, for the use of the temple). Architectural sculpture, pediments, etc., would have had some color, and the background was usually dark blue, with the figures standing out, pale, against it; See C. Rolley, Sc. Grecque, II, color plate 3. There's lots of pieces preserving color in Boardman Gr Sc Archaic (a treasure of a book). An invaluable reference for texts is J. Pollitt, Art of Ancient Greece (rev. edition): Sources & Documents; I checked there for any mention of colossal cult statues, or chryselphantine work, at Delphi.
    You may have encountered a mention of an ivory Apollo of the kind of writing I excoriate here, putting the too early and too small Apollo head in a temple of c. 480 which had none.
    If I find more, I can post another comment here, or address you directly, with images if I find any, by e-mail, if you send an address to me at