The colours of the ancient world

The grave statue of Phrasikleia
The grave statue of Phrasikleia

Many of us might imagine the ancient world with its pale, spotless white marbling stones, but what if it wasn’t true? What if this glorious imagination of ours was deceived by many bright colours as red, yellow and blue? The statue of Phrasikleia, a 1.79 m tall grave statue, is preserved in an extraordinary good shape and is thus one of the greatest examples of polychrome in the ancient world.

Now just imagine you are entering on the holy mountain of Athens, the Acropolis. The Parthenon, the Erechteum, all of those important temples and sculptures we know from tales and saw at the museums, all of them were proved to be painted in those loud conspicuous colours. Since the discovery of the colour remains at the metope and cella moulding of the Parthenon there have been many attempts of reconstruction. There had to be some terrible urge in Phidias’ mind that made him paint his work in those colours. Maybe it was just a feeling, or maybe it just was the awareness of the ancient society that made white marble sculptures and monuments just feel…incomplete? The meaning of the three most frequently used colours, red, yellow and blue certainly had some value to the eyes of the ancient people. The sculpture of Phrasikleia does also prove the importance and frequency of those colours as they were used in large amounts for decorating the artful dress of the young woman.

In 1972 the sculpture of Phrasikleia was found in an old town called Mrryhinour, near to Athens. It was deeply buried in a pit and thus made this an extraordinary finding with incomparable good colour preservation. Together with a kouros (sculpture form of a male youngling during the archaic period between 7th and 5th century BC) the statue of a young girl (greek kore, meaning daughter, girl) was found buried in the earth just few years after its erection. There it remained hidden until it was found 2500 years later. The reasons for the burial of the kouros and the kore are mare speculative; however reasons might be connected with the identity of their ancestors.

A star ornament of the gown
A star ornament of the gown

The statue wears a typical floor-length gown, co-called chiton (greek χίτων) which was highly decorated with ornaments of stars, rosettes, swastikas and meander ribbons on sleeve and feet hem. Just above her hips she wears a belt which is also richly decorated in three registers. On her left hand she holds a closed lotus flower on her breast and on her right hand she holds on her gown. This habit is very common during archaic period and is often explained as to tighten the dress and thus reveal her womanly body.

Her head is covered with a crown which is tooled with more lotus flowers. On her neck, ears and wrists she has jewellery that orders her to the upper class of the attic society. The sculptor paid in many ways attention to a detailed production of his work, from the decoration of the gown ornaments to the coloration with different colour mixtures.

The Colours of the Phrasikleia
a colourful reconstruction of the Phrasikleia by Vinzenz Brinkmann
a colourful reconstruction of the Phrasikleia by Vinzenz Brinkmann

Since its finding in 1972, there have been many researches on the colours of the Phrasikleia. The main goal on the polychrome studies is to understand the meaning of colours in ancient cultures. Thus obviously certain colours, like red, yellow and blue, had a greater preference than today.

A greater research was started in 2003 by Vinzenz Brinkmann and was carried on until 2009 (Note: The first researches already started over 20 years ago in collaboration with the then directress of the National Museum of Athens, Katerina Romaiopoulou). With the assistance of science methods as UV-VIS absorption spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence analysis, a colour databank was created in five years’ time, and all retained colours on the sculpture could be analysed. As a result eleven different colours were ascertained, many of them part of complex colour blend.

a flower ornament on the gown: detaction of gold foil
a flower ornament on the gown: detaction of gold foil

Surprisingly the sculptors were far more skilled in coloration than it was supposed. Therefore the polychrome researches resulted that many different red shades were used, not alone on her gown, but also on the ornaments. Her dress was painted in a highly complex combination of red ochre (iron oxid) which can only be gained through a specific calefaction of Cypriot earth (600° – 800°C). But especially her skin was treated with a complex combination of different colours. After diverse experimentations the right relation could be achieved of white lead, red ochre earth and light brown umbra (relation 6:1:1). The domination of lead white caused a shining effect on the skin colour which is also recommended by ancient authors in the written sources and also can be seen in mummy masks in Egypt.Image

Another speciality of the Phrasikleia was discovered in 2009. On two rosettes traces of gold foil was found where the eye could only detect a shimmer of ochre. A darkish shade on other ornaments was found to be lead tin foil. Therefore, it is assumed that various ornaments on the gown, on the meander ribbons and the flower crown were not only coloured, but also tooled with gold and lead tin foil.

traces of gold foil
traces of gold foil

The sculpture of Phrasikleia raises many questions. We ask ourselves how colours were sensed in the Antiquity – if it was sensed equally or differently than today. After many years of research on colours it remains obscure to us why such colours as red, yellow and blue were used so frequently in public monuments in the ancient world. Obviously those colours were eye catchers and should draw the attention of every viewer, but why then do we not do the same today? Why are our public buildings not red or blue but in light and warm colour shades? Naturally do colours mean differently in countries, so certainly it must be the same in different periods? Fact is, we cannot answer to these questions, we can only accept that there were favoured colours in the old Greek (and also Roman) world for the usage of public monuments. Today we can dislike it, judge it, discard it, but it still will remain an evidence for what we almost always forget – that we might share the same world with those ancient cultures, but we certainly have another way of awareness. And of this we have to be conscious of whenever we deal with in this periode: their ways of thinking and sensing things are not equal to modern thinking, as will most certainly our ways of thinking today not equal to the future peoples’ mind.


Bibliographic references: Brinkmann, V. and Scholl, A. 2010, Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulpturen, Ausstellung Berlin 2010, Berlin; Brinkmann, V. 2003, ‚Die Polychromie der archaischen und frühklassischen Bildwerke‘, in V. von Graefe (ed.), Studien zur Antiken Malerei und Farbgebung 5, Cat. 174 A, Munich; Brinkmann, V., Koch-Brinkmann, U. and Piening, H. 2010, ‚The Funerary Monument to Phrasikleia‘, in V. Brinkmann, O. Primavesi and M. Hollein (eds), Circumlito the Polychromy of Antique and Mediaeval Sculptures, Munich, 189 – 217.
Images: All rights belong to Prof Vinzenz Brinkmann
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