A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Leave your preconceived notions of ancient art at home. A groundbreaking exhibition at Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows how marble statues actually looked in antiquity: covered from head to toe in vibrant paint. Based on 25 years of research by Vinzenz Brinkmann, formerly a curator at the Glyptothek Museum in Germany, Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity features more than 20 full-size color reconstructions of Greek and Roman works, alongside 35 original statues and reliefs.
"The exhibition corrects a popular misconception," says Susanne Ebbinghaus, curator of ancient art at the Sackler, who points out that people generally associate classical art with white marble sculpture. "What you would have seen when you walked through an ancient city, cemetery, or sanctuary," she explains, "would have been colorful sculpture: painted marble, colorful bronze, gold and ivory cult images. It completely changes our picture of the ancient world."
Head of CaligulaOriginal (not on view in the exhibition): Roman, A.D. 39-41; marble, height 31 cm; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Left: Original (Courtesy of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)
Right: Head of Caligula, color reconstruction (Photo courtesy Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)
Walking through the galleries, I pause in front of a color reconstruction of a marble portrait of the Roman emperor Caligula, who ascended the throne in a.d. 37 at age 25, and ruled until his assassination four years later. I'm used to seeing him in "classic white": his pupil-less eyes set against a ghostly pallor, frozen in a regal gaze. But color makes me focus on different facial features, such as the mop of thick, brown hair that frames his fleshy face, which is accented by bright hazel eyes and soft rosy lips. His cheeks are shaded in areas that bring out a plumpness, revealing his youth. I feel as if the deceased despot from my dry history books was actually once young, handsome, and alive.
Most scholars haven't paid much attention to the light traces of pigment that remained on the surface of marble statues. One reason is that ancient artists used mineral-based paints with organic binding media that disintegrated over time. Also, as statues were later collected and displayed, paint remnants were likely lost during cleaning. And even after extensive visual and scientific analysis of the original sculptures, Ebbinghaus admits, scholars still don't know if the paint was applied in one or two coats, how finely the pigments were ground, or exactly which binding medium would have been used in each case--all elements that would affect the appearance of a finished piece. Generally, though, the color reconstructions in the exhibition "truly look closer to ancient sculpture than just the plain white marble," she says.
Color makes us rethink what ancient artists were actually trying to achieve, Ebbinghaus notes. "To me," she says, "it was a revelation."
Gods in Color is a traveling exhibition, previously shown throughout Europe. It is on view at the Sackler, the first U.S. venue, through January 20. Some pieces will be displayed at the Getty Villa in Malibu in an exhibition titled The Color of Life (March 6-June 23, 2008).
Additional images from the exhibition:Click thumbnails for larger versions.