The ancient Greeks and Romans painted their statues in vivid colours to make them appear more lifelike.
The idea that ancient statues – especially Greek or Roman ones – were white has held great influence over the modern world and its own monumental aesthetic. However, we know that ancient statues were commonly painted, and painted in very bright, striking colours. Not only can we see this in small pigment residue on some statues, but also more blatantly on statues which still contain painted sections, offering a very vivid and detailed finish to an otherwise bland statue.
Aside from the plethora of physical evidence that is available, we also know they were painted because our written sources tell us that they were. In Plato’s Republic (4.420c), Socrates uses an analogy of a painted statue:
It is as if we were coloring a statue and someone approached and censured us, saying that we did not apply the most beautiful pigments to the most beautiful parts of the image, since the eyes, which are the most beautiful part, have not been painted with purple but with black.
Notice that the fictional complaint is not that the statue is being painted, but that the colour black is deemed inappropriate for the eyes. Outside of the world of philosophy and analogy, Pausanias describes at least two statues as being painted. The first was in the Achaian town of Phelloe, a statue dedicated at the sanctuary of Dionysus that was painted with vermillion, so a very bright red (Paus. 7.26.11). The second is another statue to Dionysus, found in the Arcadian town of Phigalia (8.39.6):
A temple also of Dionysus is here, who by the inhabitants is surnamed Acratophorus, but the lower part of the image cannot be seen for laurel-leaves and ivy. As much of it as can be seen is painted (…) with cinnabar to shine.
Once again, the striking colour of red is described, with the artist using cinnabar to achieve it. And it wasn’t just the ancient Greeks and Romans who painted their statues: all ancient peoples appear to have preferred their art rich in colour. A good example is the Great Sphinx, perhaps the first monumental sculpture in history, which served as the guardian of the pyramids in Egypt’s Giza Plateau. Research has shown the head of the statue was originally painted, and the rest of this statue may have been decorated, too.
While the myth that ancient statues were devoid of colour has a long tradition, it is false. Ancient statues were predominantly painted, and brightly so!
- Mark B. Abbe, “Polychromy of Roman Marble Sculpture”, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2007).
- Sarah E. Bond, “Why we need to start seeing the Classical world in color”, Hyperallergic.com (2017).
- Vinzenz Brinkmann et al. (eds.), Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World (2017).
- Roberta Panzanelli with Eike D. Schmidt and Kenneth Lapatin (eds), The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present (2008).
- Gisela M.A. Richter and Lindsley F. Hall, “Polychromy in Greek sculpture”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series 2.8 (1944), pp. 233-240.
- Hourig Sourouzian, “Old Kingdom sculpture”, in: Alan B. Lloyd (ed.), Companion to Ancient Egypt, vol. 2 (2010), pp. 853-881.