Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Towards a 'Polychrome History' of Greek and Roman Sculpture

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Towards a 'Polychrome History' of Greek and Roman Sculpture

Article excerpt

Ancient and medieval sculpture was normally painted and at times gilded. Today most of the original paint is lost, but scientific methods have made it possible to trace even slight remains of paint no longer visible to the naked eye. Hypothetical reconstructions of polychromy have been displayed at many recent exhibitions in Europe and the USA and documented in a growing number of publications.1 While the proposed reconstructions obviously are open to discussion and revision, the colouristic 'revelation' invites further art historical considerations on perceptual and aesthetic aspects of sculptural polychromy. The history of ancient art therefore needs to be revised and rewritten in the light of new research.2

In the ancient world, colour was an integral part of sculpture, and to combine sculpted and painted form was common practice throughout antiquity. In Egypt and the Near-East, sculpture in soft and hard stone and wood was normally painted. The Egyptian material still retains much colour, while Assyrian and Achaemenid reliefs tend to have suffered heavier losses.3 This polychrome tradition was continued in the Greek and Roman world. Since marble is a fine and expensive material, it may surprise modern viewers that the antique artists chose to cover it wholly or partly with paint. But in Greece, the terms chros and chroma embrace the totality of the surface including its colour, which is an inherent part of the whole.4 Colour being a constituent element of a plastic artwork, an uncoloured sculpture would presumably have been seen as lacking a significant element; it would have been regarded as unfinished.5 Colour served many functions, ranging from the communicative, to the aesthetic, to the symbolic. An important reason for valuing painted statuary was the sheer cost of the pigments.6

All through the Middle Ages, sculpture in stone, wood and stucco was painted.7 Some medieval wooden sculpture is still colourful, and even blackened church facades on closer scientific inspection, have proven to have been similarly polychrome. Experiments have been conducted with digital colour projections on the facades of the cathedrals at Amiens and Chartres, a non-invasive way of visualizing lost colour.8 While the strong colours may appear shocking to modern eyes, a large colourful cathedral towering over a neighbourhood of small dark houses must have made a lasting and uplifting impression on the medieval visitor. So the idea of monochrome ancient and medieval statuary and relief has now come to appear almost as a ghost of the past conjured up by a chromophobic tradition.9

Methodological problems of reconstructing colour

While the sculptural polychromy of pre-modern art is now generally acknowledged, the colouring raises new questions and poses new problems. For while the monochrome white is historically incorrect, the suggested reconstructions must be regarded as almost equally incorrect, given that they cannot be other than largely conjectural.10 Even when based on physical evidence, it is close to impossible to recreate the ancient polychromy as it would originally have appeared. As gradual adjustments are made to the proposed reconstructions of individual works, it becomes apparent that the proper solution to the precise colouring of a given object is hardly within reach.

The manner of interpreting colour traces evolves over time and is coloured, so to speak, by the cultural outlook of the period; thus the very same paint traces may be interpreted differently by different scholars at different times. When the mysterious Iberian Dama de Elche, c. 400 BC, was discovered in 1897, red and blue were noticed on her eyes, lips and dress. Visible to the naked eye are now merely faint traces of red on lips and jewelled collar.11 It is instructive to compare three colour reconstructions made respectively in 1914, 1934 and 2000: moving from slight, via medium to strong colouring, the subsequent reconstructions become increasingly intense in hue. …

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