BMCR 2004.08.07

Bunte Götter: die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur

, , , Bunte Götter: die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur; eine Ausstellung der Staatlichen Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek München in Zusammenarbeit mit der Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Kopenhagen und den Vatikanischen Museen, Rom; Glyptothek München, Königsplatz, 16. Dezember 2003 bis 29. Februar 2004. Munich: Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, 2004. 272 pages: illustrations (chiefly color). ISBN 9783933200082 €35.00.

Not only do Museums and exhibitions fail to stress sufficiently the role of color in ancient sculpture and architecture, but apparently even many archaeologists today continue to ignore or deny the reality of its import. This criticism, offered by Hermann Born,1 may no longer be valid after the appearance of the book under review, which, since it is already in its second printing, must be reaching a wide readership. Ostensibly intended as the catalogue of an exhibition, this hefty — and very colorful — volume does not follow the usual formula of listing objects on display together with introductory essays on various aspects of interest. Indeed, I remain a bit uncertain as to what was to be actually exhibited, first in Munich (16 Dec. 2003-29 Feb. 2004) and then, in slightly modified form (p. 9), in Copenhagen (early 2004) and at the Vatican (Fall 2004). Instead, the text is composed entirely of essays, most of them by Vinzenz Brinkmann and a few by non-German authors (in German translation). The whole represents a formidable attack on our traditional positions and an exhilarating insight into the world of ancient art.

As we are repeatedly told, the conventional limits between art forms should be entirely dismissed. Greek and Roman sculpture, architecture, and painting interacted in indissoluble unity to convey iconographic messages that have often escaped us because of the loss of color through time. New photographic methods and technical analyses are bringing the lost hues back to life, and, even when some details remain uncertain, enough can be reconstructed to provide startling pictures of a complexity beyond our imagination. Coloring practices changed from time to time, but they stretched from the seventh century B.C.E. to at least the third or fourth century C.E., and some tempera techniques persisted into Byzantine and Medieval times.2 The Renaissance, following its discoveries of faded marble sculptures, established new canons of appreciation through the unpainted creations of Michelangelo and Canova until, in the nineteenth century, new finds of better preserved antiquities brought (debated) awareness of coloring on classical monuments.

Several essays in Bunte Götter relate the history of this realization, but they are scattered within the volume. In general, a considerable amount of repetition occurs throughout; in particular, the Aigina pedimental sculptures are frequently cited. Regrettably, no index is provided to ensure retrieval of all pertinent comments. Moreover, the presentations follow no uniform system: some give only general bibliography and few specific references, others have regular notes; one essay (pp. 213-215) is an abridged version of a lengthy article in a scholarly periodical,3 while an important discussion of Greek and Roman sources (pp. 219-237) is taken verbatim from Brinkmann’s major monograph: Die Polychromie der archaischen und frühklassischen Skulptur (Munich 2003).4

Four authors begin and end the volume by treating the historiography of the topic, although several others also include historical information. Five essays, all by Brinkmann, deal with the coloring practices of the Archaic and Early Classical periods and with four specific works from this time span; two more are concerned with figures from the Aigina pediments and their modern painted replicas; another explores the painting of the Parthenon sculptures. The polychromy of bronzes is reviewed in two sections (by H. Born and R. Wünsche), one of them a detailed analysis and reconstruction of a youthful head in Munich now dated to the first century C.E. We return to stone sculpture with two contributions on Classical funerary monuments (by U. Koch-Brinkmann and R. Posamentir), and another (by E. Walter-Karydi) on the background tinting of Archaic and Classical reliefs. In between, Brinkmann discusses the Alexander Sarcophagus and Hellenistic coloring practices. Next come eight articles on four Roman monuments: the Prima Porta Augustus, a portrait of Caligula in Copenhagen, a statue of Trajan with a star-studded mantle, and the wall “hanging” in the Aula del Colosso within the Forum Augusti. Four of these eight articles deal specifically with technical analyses and the construction of modern tinted replicas, while a final contribution by Brinkmann discusses pigments and painting techniques. He had earlier (pp. 29-32) detailed his own involvement in this research for over two decades, and the various methods used to recover the original patterns on ancient sculptures.

The beauty of ancient colors and their mineral sources is well served by the plentiful illustrations of this catalogue. Malachite, azurite, cinnabar, various types of ocher, Egyptian blue, hematite, and others were used in striking combinations and great abundance during the Archaic period, less so in the following phase that therefore deserves its common title of “Severe.” Often the original colors have leached away but have left behind their “ghosts”: areas of once-protected surface that therefore look different from the more weathered surround. Ultraviolet fluorescence and reflection, and raking light bring out details hard to see under normal conditions. Because the rate of disappearance varies from color to color, reasonable guesses can be made even in case where no pigment remains, but researchers emphasize the possible margin of error in their reconstructions and occasionally provide different versions of the same monument (e.g., figs. 158a-b, 177-178, 242 and 247) in digital or plastic models. The latter are variously constructed (in plaster, synthetic marble, marble); of particular interest is the portrait of Caligula which could not be duplicated by taking plaster molds of it, since this method would have damaged the extant traces of paint. A procedure by 3-D laser scanning developed by the Liverpool Museum allowed a “contact-free” replication in various stages, that was eventually translated into an identical marble head to be tinted accordingly. The results are striking, especially the upward-looking eyes — unexpected around 40 C.E. — and the use of black in between hair locks as well as an undercoating that provides highlights in the total coiffure (figs. 372-376).

A black undercoating was also detected in the valleys between the ridges of drapery on the Parthenon sculptures, thus enhancing their three-dimensional effect. The vivid colors and scattered ornaments of sixth-century garments, which imitated Eastern decorative luxury, were abandoned and would recur only during the Rich Style and the Hellenistic period. By contrast, the solid greens, reds, and ocher yellows of the Pheidian costumes were toned down, likely by the addition of white; the elaborate painted border of Archaic mantles were replaced by plastically rendered selvages.5 The sculptured metopes had a red background, while the frieze had a blue one. Here I would have liked some validation, if possible, of the early observation that, on the east side, different tones separated the sections showing deities from those showing mortals, especially since this use of two background colors to convey variation in setting, and perhaps even in time, is now documented on a fourth-century B.C.E. sarcophagus from Turkey.6

It is impossible, in the context of a review, to do justice to each contribution. Because of the current general concern with historiography, I shall expand on those essays, and will then mention random points of significance according to my own biased preference for Greek over Roman sculpture.

R. Wünsche (pp. 10-23) focuses on the theories of display within the Munich Glyptothek before and after the purchase of the Aiginetans, and on the considerable contrast with present installations after the original Museum building was destroyed during World War II.7 Only a few extant watercolors and archival photographs give a glimpse of its tinted walls and mythological frescoes. The important point is made that colored sculptures are far less startling against a painted backdrop, as they would have been, for instance, within a Pompeian house (cf. figs. 12, 21). It is also considered paradoxical that the newly refurbished but neutrally colored Glyptothek (figs. 19-20) should house the first major exhibition on the polychromy of ancient sculpture in over a century.

A. Prater (pp. 256-267) gives the most systematic account of the debate over ancient polychromy (already broached by Brinkmann, pp. 24-33). It was virtually initiated by A. C. Quatremère de Quincy with his 1815 publication that focused on chryselephantine statuary, itself an obvious indication of ancient coloring tendencies.8 I. Kader (pp. 244-255) extends the discussion to the tinting of modern casts, which some 19th-century authorities considered “dishonest” and misleading. She also details the various early attempts to make plaster reproductions of Akropolis korai and pedimental sculptures. H. Born (pp. 126-131) surveys tonal touches in extant ancient bronzes, both appliqués and statuary in the round, and reproduces a Pompeian fresco depicting the bronze statue of a “dumb waiter” within a symposium context (fig. 212). Finally, H. Bankel (pp. 70-83) presents the various attempts at recovering the painted ornaments on both the architecture and the pedimental statuary of the Temple of Aphaia — from the 1811 excavations, through the renewed efforts by A. Furtwängler (publ. 1906), to the present, much more accurate, fourth version based on the 1960s investigations at the site.9 According to this recent information, the last phase of the Temple of Aphaia (ca. 500-480 B.C.E.) had black exterior triglyphs and blue ones over the pronaos. Other elements of the entablature were picked out in red and blue. The metopes, presumably taken away by the Romans, were once probably carved with painted reliefs; the pediments had a blue background. All moldings and wall crowns carried decorative patterns, and the central aisle was paved with red ocher. 10

Brinkmann’s reconstructions of three pieces from those gables are perhaps the most spectacular features of this Catalogue. The Oriental Archer from the west pediment (“Paris”) is resplendent in his multicolored costume; the recovered pattern shows that his sleeved jacket was fashioned from two halves meeting front and back. The West Athena wears a voluminous aigis covered by scales in three colors.11 A helmeted head from the east gable displays an unexpected overall pattern on the calotte and, on the neckguard, a lotus-and-palmette chain familiar from architectural members and vase painting.

In the section on Archaic monuments, the so-called Peplos Kore (Akr. 679) appears in a luminous gold-colored costume with matching cape. It partly overlaps the figured ependytes worn over the long chiton and finally establishes without a doubt that the figure is not wearing the traditional peplos. Because of attire and coloring she should represent a divinity. This important discovery may open up the way to many additional identifications of allegedly anonymous korai.12 The New York Kouros shows the pubic hair format usually associated with works of much later date. The anomaly can only be explained as a repainting of the statue around 500 B.C.E. (p. 40) — an intriguing suggestion that may affect our conceptions of stylistic developments.13 Aristion’s Stele (figs. 85, 87) is vastly enriched by new observations, but the lay viewer who has not read Wiegartz’s article may still wonder about its reconstruction with a Corinthian helmet; I too, although better informed, would have liked some explanation for the lotus-like ornament on the corselet against which the red strap ends.14

Vinzenz Brinkmann had already earned our admiration and gratitude for his important publication of the Siphnian Treasury frieze (1994). Our debt has now been vastly increased by his promotion of this Exhibition which is bound to foster a new appreciation of ancient polychromy and stimulate new investigations of well known monuments from a fresh point of view.


1. P. 127. In direct quotation, the passage reads: “Un noch immer werden nicht nur Museums- und Ausstellungsbesucher nicht korrekt und zeitgemäss informiert und Millionen von jährlichen Mittelmeertouristen zum Thema ‘Skulptur- und Architekturpolychromie in der antiken Welt’ gar nicht oder nicht genügend aufgeklärt, sondern die farbige antike Wirklichkeit wird offensichtlich auch noch von vielen Archäologen ignoriert oder negiert.”

2. See, e.g., pp. 205, 210.

3. B. Freyer-Schauenburg, “Die Statue des Trajan auf Samos,” AM 117 (2002) 272-298, with Appendix on restoration by K. von Woyski, pp. 296-298.

4. To the thorough textual and contextual treatment by O. Primavesi, short biographical notes have been added for the general public. Particularly convincing is the passage in Eur. Hel. 260-263, where the protagonist refers to the lost beauty of a washed-out statue. The essay corresponds to pp. 91-106 in Brinkmann 2003. The latter book deals also with all the early Greek monuments highlighted in this catalogue and should be consulted by all serious researchers for its much ampler coverage.

5. Although this general statement (p. 125) about the unique simplicity of the High Classical costumes can be generally accepted, it seems remarkable that the Pheidian Zeus at Olympia, chronologically later than the Parthenon but earlier than the “Rich Style,” should have had a highly ornamented mantle: Paus. 5.11.1. For a recent discussion, see K. S. Lapatin, Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford 2001) 79-85. Perhaps the very scale of the image demanded articulation of its vast surfaces. In the context of Hellenistic practices, Brinkmann states (p. 174) that Pergamene copies of Classical originals retrospectively used undiluted colors, thus harmonizing painterly and sculptural styles, but he gives no references, nor does he express an opinion on the (colorless?) background of the Pergamon Gigantomachy (p. 178).

6. The observation is due to W. R. Lethaby, “The Central Part of the Eastern Frieze of the Parthenon,” JHS 49 (1929) 7-13, esp. 11 and fig. 5. See also B. S. Ridgway, Prayers in Stone. Greek Architectural Sculpture ca. 600-100 B.C.E. (Berkeley 1999) 117-118; my entire fourth chapter discusses the use of color. For the sarcophagus, see N. Sevinç, et al., “A New Painted Graeco-Persian Sarcophagus from Çan,” Studia Troica 11 (2001) 383-420; on one long side, a boar hunt has a green background, whereas the adjacent stag hunt, separated from the other by a tree in relief, has a blue background.

7. Its splendor is extolled in emphatic terms: “Zerstört war eines der schönsten klassizistischen Museen, der erste Museumsbau Deutschland, ja sogar der erste Museumsbau der Welt, der für antike Kunst konzipiert war” (p. 21).

8. A good example at full scale is now provided by the colossal Athena recreated by A. LeQuire in the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, with its gilded attire and tinted details.

9. On p. 77 of this article, for “Fig. 17” read “Fig. 118” and for “Fig. 9” read “Fig. 111.” The topic of all color models of the Aigina pediments is taken up again by Brinkmann (pp. 84-107 and 108-113).

10. See figs. 123-131 for this latest model; fig. 129 shows the palette of this newest reconstruction. Fig. 130 at first gives the misleading impression that the inner columns rest on a red dado, but the latter reproduces instead the floor of the central aisle.

11. I wonder why the back of this statue was painted with as much care as the front, although it would have been invisible because of its position against the tympanum wall. By contrast, the back of the presumably free-standing “Chian Kore” (Akr. 675) is said to have been left undetailed by both sculptor and painter because the figure “probably” stood against a column (p. 47).

12. Peplos Kore: pp. 53-59, figs. 83-84. I regret that this reconstruction does not consider the elaborate head ornaments of the figure. Brinkmann believes that it represents Artemis, against my theory that it could be an Athena/Palladion type. In fairness, I too had suggested Artemis and even Aphrodite as possible identifications, both in the article Brinkmann cites and in later publications: see, e.g., GettyMusJ 12 (1984) 29-58; AJA 94 (1990) 583-612, esp. 609-610; and the much expanded 2nd ed. of Archaic Style (Chicago 1993) 130-131, 148. For important discussion see C. M. Keesling, The Votive Statues of the Athenian Acropolis (Cambridge 2003)135-139 (cited in Bibl. but not acknowledged). Additional korai wearing a similar costume: e.g., from Eleusis, Athens NatMus 5: N. Kaltsas, Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Los Angeles 2003) 42 no. 26 (dated ca. 480). But the Aphrodite of Aphrodisias, according to all sources, was a creation of the Late Hellenistic period, rather than an Archaic cult image replicated by Roman copyists (p. 56 and fig. 79).

13. Unfortunately, fig. 46 has been cropped so that the all-important central peak of the pubic hair is invisible; contrast Brinkmann’s 2003 book, Catalogue fig. 313.3.

14. Since the inscribed base is not included in the illustration, no apparent reason for the name Aristion is given. H. Wiegartz ( Boreas 19 [1996] 110-114) explains the recutting of the helmet, the removal of the once-exposed penis and of the beard tip as an early-Christian adaptation of the image into a “soldier martyr” but as recently as Kaltsas 2003 (supra, n. 12),70 no. 100, Aristion’s helmet is described as Attic. The lotus-like ornament was once, erroneously, identified as the pommel of a dagger; it cannot be a tassel at the end of the shoulder strap, since it lies at an angle from the peg around which the strap is fastened.