Using digital imaging techniques and advanced technology, an interdisciplinary research team has used digital imaging techniques and advanced technology to answer the question: what did the famous Parthenon sculptures look like when they were first made? The results reveal that these ancient sculptures were exquisitely painted with different colors and a multitude of patterns and designs.
The Parthenon sculptures, sometimes called Parthenon marbles, are a collection of various marble architectural ornaments made for the temple of Athena (Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. These wonderful examples of ancient art have been on display in the British Museum since the early 19th century, a situation that has become controversial in recent years. As an archaeologist, I have often written that every artifact should live in the land where it was created.
But controversy aside, since their discovery, generations of scholars from various fields have studied them and tried to understand what they might have looked like when they were first created. Today, the statues are plain and unpainted, showing no signs of color. They were therefore initially thought to be colorless, and restoration techniques have been used to try to return them to their presumed “whiteness”. Only later did it become clear that another paint had appeared.
To solve this problem, Dr. Giovanni Verri of the Art Institute of Chicago and a research team of scientists, conservators, textile historians and archaeologists from the British Museum and King’s College London conducted visible luminescence imaging studies on the marbles.
The scientists utilized this technology to find minuscule residues of an old humanmade color called Egyptian blue, which is formed of calcium, copper, and silicon. This pigment was being used in Egypt as early as 3000 BCE and was pretty much the only blue used in Greece and Rome.
The team found traces of Egyptian blue in the Parthenon sculptures, revealing how the statues’ clothing was originally covered in elaborate floral patterns. There were also traces of white and purple, a pigment valued in the ancient Mediterranean world.
Interestingly, the artists who created the figures seem to have made little effort to make the paint stick and give them a special surface. It seems they focused solely on reconstructing the intended form, be it wool, linen, or skin.
“Even if the surfaces were not explicitly prepared for the application of paint, however, carving and colour were unified in their conception. The Parthenon artists were sympathetic to the final intended polychrome sculpture providing surfaces that evoked textures similar to those of the subjects represented. It is likely that the painters took advantage of these mimetic surfaces to achieve the final effects.” said Dr. William Thomas Wootton from King’s College London.
This research shows that the Parthenon sculptures are much more detailed and vivid than previously thought. We understand that the color of the sculptures was as important to ancient Greek artists as their form.
“The elegant and elaborate garments were possibly intended to represent the power and might of the Olympian gods, as well as the wealth and reach of Athens and the Athenians, who commissioned the temple. The painting is certainly contemporary to the building, as we could see clear traces at the back of the sculpture. After being placed on the building, the back would have no longer been accessible. We can only speculate as to why they painted the back.” said Dr Verri.
It is possible that the sculptures were dedicated to the gods who, unlike human viewers, were supposedly able to see them from all angles. Alternatively, the artists themselves may have wanted to include these details for the sake of completeness.
It is also possible that the Parthenon sculptures inspired the use of color in other later works. “It could be argued that the Parthenon was partially or wholly the inspiration for a wider interest in the use of rich and elegant polychrome sculpture.”