Were Greek & Roman Statues Painted ? <br>The True Colors of the Classical World

Were Greek & Roman Statues Painted ?
The True Colors of the Classical World


Polychrome is the art of painting with colors, whether it is two-dimensional (pictures, walls) or three-dimensional (sculpture, architectural elements).

Classical Greek statues painted

Well-known are the colorful statues and buildings of the Assyrians and Egyptians temples, but when it comes to the Greeks, a surprising fact to many people is the polychrome sculpture of the classical era. Certainly, the majority of statues or architectural elements like capitals, columns and friezes were richly painted with bright colors, in some cases complementary. In such a way, the master painters of the Greek world were able to enhance the beauty of sculptural forms with contrasting tones that would allow the appreciation of details of the Greek statues painted from a far distance.

Greek statue painted

Trojan Archer of the Temple of Aphaea.
Photography taken in the museum of Munich
(Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek)

An interesting video about the research and reconstruction of a relief from the Temple of Aphaea in colors:

The pigment rests found on buildings and statues in the Acropolis of Athens, in addition to the microscopic research in the last centuries have proved that the Greeks were not only coloring temple's floors with red stucco, but also entablatures from top to bottom: capitals and architraves typically with carmine pigments, cornices were richly decorated with blue, ochre, yellow and green. Tympanums were blue and roof tiles were colorfully pigmented.

Reconstruction of painted Greek entablature.

The sculptures of the Greek world were in some cases completely, or partially painted. Colors were delimiting the elements of Greek statues painted like the clothes, hair, lips or nipples, as a mere way of enhancing the artistry of the classical forms and achieving a lifelike, polychromed statuary.

Roman emperor Caligula statue portrait painted with polychromy

Portrait of Roman emperor Caligula.
Photography by Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Differences between Greek and Roman painted statues

Unfortunately, most of the surviving classical sculpture are models made of marble, the majority Roman and their marble copies of original Greek statuary. While the Greeks tended to work with wood or bronze, materials that do not survive sacks, fires or the unforgiving time, marble statuary would last longer than any other material, still an abundant resource in Italy and Greece.

Evidently, Ancient Greeks used marble to build architectural wonders, and therefore, also used marble to create statuary that would perfectly match with the building housing them. While marble made a statue special and strong, this material was not that costly like bronze, ivory, and gold, neither ordinary like wood.

There are many theories questioning whether Roman sculpture tends to be monochrome or less colorful than the Greek polychromy. Possibly the majority of Roman sculptures could have solely one, two or three colors by the combination of paint and marble of different colors. Truly a fascinating topic still being researched that cannot be easily presumed.

Based on research, the following video shows various proposals of colors of the renown painted Roman statue of Augustus of Prima Porta:

Conclusion

Richly decorated with colors, even though classical sculpture is usually associated with pure white marble, the reality was much different. We are so accustomed to pure white sculpture that the idea of painted statuary is shocking.

This idea does not sound that absurd when considering as an example the ancient Romans, famous about other polychrome art forms: colorful wall frescoes, polychrome mosaics, employment of marbles with different colors and painted faux marbles.

Bust sculpture, Roman statue painted with faux marble technique

Faux marble painted bust sculpture of Antinous

The Ancient Home proudly offers Greek & Roman sculpture for sale painted in different colors such as bronze finishes, black basalt, various colorful faux marbles, and gold gilding upon request.

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4 comments


  • Juan Gamero

    Thorbjørn, you are totally right. If you look at the few marbles that remain painted until today, you can see some example in the Naples museum, the work was very fine, resembling those of frescoes. The pigments look natural, not just modern opaque paint because of use of acrylics and opaque artificial pigments. Probably they used natural pigments mixed with water, and perhaps a mixture of natural binders such as egg, punic wax, waxes, wheat paste, oil… All depends on the effect they wanted to achieve taking into account durability of course.


  • Thorbjørn Kühl

    What bothers me about these painted statues is that when I saw one in Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, the face was painted a single colour and everything was painted in quite garish looking single colours, no shading, no highlights or shadows. I don’t think any artist in their right mind would have ever painted like that. It looked like if someone who never had ever held a brush in their life used ms paint.

    I’d much rather some artist actually made a copy of an Ancient Greek statue and went to work on it with modern paint and made it look absolutely real.


  • Mel Hendrix

    This is great……………actually, I knew about this long ago, thru my readings, but I am glad , that someone is saying something…………..finally, now!


  • James

    Another interesting video with suggested colors: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dixoeGWkWwM


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