When you think of ancient sculptures, what image pops in your head? It’s likely a white, grand, highly detailed, marble figure hand crafted by an artist. Which is correct, for the most part. Ancient statues used to be in full color, with a wide range of paints, but where did this myth of colorless statues come from?
The myth of white statues came from the renaissance, which was the time period when we were first finding these sculptures. Over time, these sculptures’ paint slowly faded away, leading to the white look. Artists who wanted to imitate the style of these sculptures often left their figures unpainted.
This trend of white sculptures continued into the 1700s, with more unearthings of sculptures brought into light. Around this time a man named Johann Joachim Winckelmann, considered the father of art history, wrote a book on ancient art. This shaped the modern view on this form of art. In this book he emphasizes whiteness in sculptures despite being aware of evidence showing how they were full of color. He stated how “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well” and that “Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty.”
The truth about these colorful figures has been revealed in a traveling exhibit called “Gods of Color”. This exhibit has been going on for over a century, and uses computers to generate 3D images of the sculptures in full color. The process for this starts out with just looking with the naked eye to see any details, then using ultraviolet light coming from a very low angle to find more obscure details. Due to the paint wearing off unevenly, there are bumps where paint used to be, and these paint bumps can be used to find the painting pattern.With all of these full color exhibits, some might think it’s weird to see a full color statue when all of the other statues are monochrome. However, it is a breakthrough to help archeologists globally.