A Colorful Past: Archaic Greek Sculptures

Discover the unknown world of colorful Archaic Greek sculpture in this article on polychromy during the Archaic Period.

Mar 7, 2021By Daphne Bika, PhD Philosophy, Classics & Ancient History, MSc Museum Studies
kore from chios
Statue and colorful reconstruction of the Kore from Chios, 510 B.C.; with a colorful reconstruction of the western pediment of the temple of Aphaia at Aegina, by Adolf Furtwängler, 1906


Few other topics in the scientific study of ancient art have met such strong disagreements and conflicting views as polychromy in ancient Greek marble statues.  The term “polychromy or polychrome” derives from the Greek ‘poly’ (meaning many) and ‘chroma’ (meaning color) and describes the practice of decorating sculptures and architecture with a variety of colors. Taking a historical look back at the bibliography of the 18th century, we discover a selective disregard for painted sculptures and their polychromatic appearance. However, by the end of that period, the use of color in Greek sculpture and, mostly, that of the Archaic period became scientifically accepted. As we will discover in this article, the Archaic Greek sculpture was initially richly embellished with colorful dyes. 


The Neoclassical Period: The Obsession With “Pure White” Ancient Greek Sculpture

three graces antonio canova
The Three Graces, by Antonio Canova, 1814 – 17, Italy, via Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Ancient written sources explicitly state that the Greeks painted the surfaces of their statues. However, the subjective study and misconception of ancient texts reflected neoclassicism’s perceptions (1750-1900) of ancient sculpture’s whiteness. The leading figure of the neoclassical movement was the German art historian and archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who defined the ideal of “pure white” ancient Greek marble sculpture. Winckelmann strictly separated painting from sculpture, adopting the “form,” the “material,” and the reflections of “light” as the major constituents of a statue’s ideal beauty.


Thus, although significantly influenced by ancient art, many contemporary sculptors were unaware of ancient polychromy and were led to colorless sculptures, such as the famous statues of Antonio Canova, one of the greatest neoclassical sculptors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. 


Besides, as A. Prater has characteristically stated, the neoclassical proponents of the whiteness of sculpture knew Greek art exclusively from Roman copies: an image as “the reflection of a reflection”. Moreover, the confirmed observations and descriptions of surviving color layers in amongst others archaic Greek sculptures discovered throughout the 18th century didn’t influence the neoclassicists’ obsession with the whiteness of Greek sculpture.


Quatramère De Quincy And The Term “Polychromy” 

jupiter olympius enthroned
Jupiter Olympius enthroned,  by Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, 1814, via Royal Academy of Arts

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The gold and ivory works of the Archaic and Classical Periods were the starting point for the study of ancient polychromy. In 1806 Quatramère de Quincy first used the term “polychromy” to delimit the use of color and its application technique, which took for granted the thin substrate of the “stucco” type as a “receiving base” of the limestone sculptures’ color layer. He also introduced the idea of the widespread use of color in architectural sculpture as a commonly accepted method. 


Quatramère marked the beginning of a long-term rethinking of polychromy in archaic Greek sculpture. Although he considered the statues to be covered in color, he carefully evaluated the style and the final color impression, perhaps as an attempt to balance the new colorful aesthetic, after the introduction of polychromy, with the prevailing neoclassical model.


“The use of marble by the ancients was so widespread that to leave it unadorned would have struck anyone who saw it as something rather cheap, especially in a temple. Colors were not merely used to make other materials look like marble, but to change the appearance of marble too” (Quatremère de Quincy, Dictionnaire historique d’architecture, 298)


The countless remnants of color which have come down to us are proof that the stucco was painted in a range of colors, that the various parts and divisions in an entablature were painted different colors, and that the triglyph and metopes, the capitals and their astragal collars, and even the soffits on the architrave were always colored.” (Quatremère de Quincy, Dictionnaire historique d’ architecture, 465)


19th Century Drawing Reproductions Of Archaic Greek Sculpture

temple of aphaia at aegina
Colorful Reconstruction of the classic eastern (top) and western (bottom) pediments of the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina, by Adolf Furtwängler, 1906


In the early 19th century, J.M. von Wagner’s and F.W. Schelling‘s Report on the Aeginetan Sculptures (1817) examined the Archaic Greek sculptures of the temple of Aphaia in Aegina, including a chapter on Greek colored sculptures and reliefs. In the following years, many distinguished architects dealt with the color of archaic Greek architectural sculpture, intending to study the surviving color layers on ancient buildings and create graphic representations. By the middle of the century, various sculptures with impressive colorful decoration were excavated, providing further evidence on the practice of polychromy in the sculpture of the Archaic Period and the subsequent centuries.


In 1906, the German archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler published the excavation work results on the temple of Aphaia in Aegina, including two drawing reproductions of the temple’s facades. These were dominated by three colors: cyan/blue, red and white. However, the most crucial element was the extensive description of the colors observed on the sculptures. 


During the following decades and until the beginning of the Second World War, the visible remains of color layers were described and depicted in drawings and watercolors. The best examples of drawing reproductions with a high degree of accuracy were made by the Swiss painter Emile Gillieron (1850-1924) and his son Emile (1885-1939) a century ago. The polychromy of ancient Greek marble sculpture was finally a fact. it was now indisputable…


Since then, many researchers (scientists, chemists, conservators of antiquities) around the world have promoted new technological techniques for the development of non-destructive methods of observation, analysis, and identification of pigment remnants on the surfaces of ancient sculptures. The scientific interest in this subject remains constant.


The Role Of Color In Archaic Greek Marble Sculpture

various raw materials ancient pigment
Various raw materials used for ancient pigments in Greece, via geo.de


For about three centuries, from 1000 B.C. to the middle of the 7thcentury B.C., a substantial aesthetic change took place in Greek art; polychromy was abandoned almost universally. The correlation of the two opposite values (light-dark, white-black) dominated in combination with the limitation of iconography, as human scenes and the choice of plant motifs shrank. Art focused on simple geometric shapes and designs, which explains why it was called the “Geometric period”. Also, the simple color alternation between white and black was this period’s color pattern.


minerals colorful paints
Minerals used by ancient artists to make colorful paints, via M. C.Carlos Museum


However, at the beginning of the Archaic Period (7thcentury B.C.), the dominant red color was added to the ancient color palette, marking the creation of ancient polychrom. Hematite and cinnabar were the minerals used for red pigments. Hematite is iron oxide in mineral form and often appears as a reddish-brown color known as natural red ochre. The name hematite is derived from the Greek word blood, which is descriptive of its color in powdered form. Cinnabar, the most common ore of oxidized mercury found in nature, occurs in granular crusts or veins associated with volcanic activity and hot springs. It was used as a precious resource by ancient painters. The word comes from the ancient Greek kinnabaris, later changed to cinnabar. 


In the Archaic Period, all sculptures were painted regardless of their function. The sculptor initially created the three-dimensional form and then painted the sculpture. Historical sources tell us that a sculpture without colorful paint would be unthinkable for its creator in antiquity. The famous sculptor Phidias employed a personal painter for all his works. At the same time, Praxiteles had more appreciation for those works painted by the eminent artist and painter Nicias. Nevertheless, for the average ancient viewer, an unpainted statue would have been something incomprehensible and, quite possibly, unattractive.


Colors “Breathe Life” To The Sculptures Of The Archaic Period

calf bearer acropolis museum
The “calf-bearer”, 570 B.C, Acropolis Museum


The sculpture of the Archaic Period was not just “painted”. The colors were a medium that complemented the narrative character of the work. The sculpted form was the initial stage of construction that “came to life” with painting. Bringing the archaic Greek sculpture to life was also the artist’s primary goal. An example of this practice is a male sculpture of the Archaic Period, the so-called “Calf-bearer” dated around 570 B.C. The sculptor initially made the iris of his eyes from a different material. In this way, the work became even more vivid in the viewer’s eyes. 


statue kore from chios
Statue of the Kore from Chios with colorful reconstruction, 510 B.C., Acropolis Museum


Furthermore, the color increased the “readability” of the form. Some elements that the sculptor could hardly distinguish from each other, for example, clothes from different fabrics, were rendered clearly visible through varying tones of color, as in the well-known archaic Greek sculpture of the kore of Chios. Similarly, the pupil and iris of the eye, the decorative ribbon of a garment, or the skin of an animal or mythological creature were made readable through colors.


head kore archaic eleusis
Head of a kore from Eleusis and colorful reconstruction, end of 6th century B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Athens, via Ph.D. thesis photo archive D.Bika


The ultimate goal was to make the plastic form “legible” so that its imposition on the viewer would be entirely understandable. Primary colors commonly used on archaic Greek sculptures included red, blue/cyan, black, white, yellow, and green. The artist applied the paint in layers of various thicknesses.


Colorful Archaic Greek Sculpture: The Example Of Kouros Kroisos

statue kouros kroisos
Statue of the kouros Kroisos, 530 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Athens


One of the most imposing and well known archaic Greek sculptures of the kouros type (naked youth) is “Kroisos”, a funerary statue made in Anavyssos around 530 B.C. The sculpture’s name is preserved on the epigram of its pedestal. Many areas are covered with color observable with the naked eye (macroscopically). However, microscopically, more pigments can be identified as different color layers. The hair’s ribbon has red ferrous pigment, the well known Hematite. 


kouros eye detail
Detail of the eye, via Ph.D. thesis photo archive_ D.Bika


Two separate layers of color – red and underneath yellow – are observed on the hair. The X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy analytical method suggested that these layers consisted mainly of iron, identified as Hematite and Goethite. Consequently, these positions’ original color would be dark brown.


kouros macroscopic images
Microscopic images, detail of iris, red, black, and yellow colors, via Ph.D. photo archive  D.Bika


As for the eyes of this archaic Greek sculpture, the iris is black overlaid by red pigment, as identified by microscopic examination. Obviously, the original color was a dark red-brown. Also, the white of the eye is yellow. The color of the eyebrows is lost. Only the ghost of the paint can still be seen. The nipples are engraved with traces of red pigment. 


detail pubic area kouros
Detail of the pubic area, via Ph.D. thesis photo archive D.Bika


The surface of the pubic area has traces of red color, and the decorative pattern resembles two opposites’ leaves. There were engraving lines not precisely followed by paint. We can still see the ghost of the color on this archaic Greek sculpture.

Author Image

By Daphne BikaPhD Philosophy, Classics & Ancient History, MSc Museum StudiesDaphne is an art historian, museologist, and conservator of antiquities and works of art. She received her PhD (Hons) in Classical Archaeology from the National University of Athens and her MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester, UK. She holds a BA in Conservation of Antiquities and Works of Art from the University of West Attica and a BA (Hons) in Art Theory and History from the Athens School of Fine Arts. She has been working as a researcher and conservator of antiquities at the Greek Ministry of Culture for the past 21 years. Her special interests are ancient art, archaeology, theory and history of art and architecture, philosophy of art.