Colouring in the past

Every February, Cambridge plays host to a festival called “E-luminate“, which the organisers describe as “a celebration of the infinite possibilities created by light at the intersection of art and science” – as well as talks, concerts, and workshops, the most popular feature is always the illuminations on various buildings in the centre of town. One of these is on the outer wall of my college, Gonville & Caius: called “The Colours of Caius College“, it illuminates part of the facade in bright multi-coloured lights:The Colours of Caius College

As well as being pretty, this illumination is designed to make people look at the building differently – architectural features such as the statues and decorative carvings, which might normally blend into the background, are picked out by being highlighted in different colours.

This, technique, called ‘Chromolithe‘ (chromo- = colour, lith- = stone) has been used all over the world on historic buildings – and it can also be used to recreate the colours of buildings which would once have been painted to show their original appearance. Although this isn’t the case for Caius, seeing the illumination and how differently the colours make you look at the architecture still made me think of another instance when adding colour makes us look at historical objects completely differently – classical Greek and Roman statues.

We tend to think of ancient marble statues as we see them now in museums, or as we see later copies of them – made of pure white marble, expressing a very particular idea of beauty and perfection that is often thought of as characteristically “classical” (and “neo-classical”, when it inspires modern art/architecture). But this view of what “classical” art is has been entirely created by the fact that most ancient statues have lost the coloured paint they would have originally been decorated with. Recently a lot of research has been done on detecting small traces of this paint and reconstructing how the statues would originally have appeared – and the results, when we’re used to seeing plain white statues, can look quite surprising.

This reconstruction (right) of an archer from the pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina, Greece, shows a lot of features you wouldn’t expect from how the statue looks today (left) – bright colours showing facial features and elaborate patterning on the clothes and quiver (photos from Wikipedia). It’s from an exhibition called ‘Gods in colour‘, the work of classical archaeologists in Munich, which has been travelling around the world to be shown at different museums and galleries for the last 15 years. I saw it at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford a couple of years ago, and definitely encourage you to go see it if it comes to a museum near you – it’s a really fascinating new look at ancient sculpture. Apart from simply seeing the statues in a way that’s as close as we can (currently) get to how they would originally have been seen in ancient Greece or Rome, it also makes us rethink the whole way in which our conception of the classical world and its art, and the influence that has had on Western art from the Renaissance onwards, has actually been created.

Of course, we don’t always know exactly how a given statue would have looked – depending on how many traces of paint have been preserved there are likely to be multiple different possible reconstructions of its decoration. Below are two different reconstructions of the same statue, the ‘Peplos Kore‘ (girl wearing a kind of dress called a peplos), from the Gods in Colour exhibition, as well as a third from the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, alongside an unpainted cast showing what the statue actually looks like today (below). Cambridge-based readers can come visit the MoCA to see our Peplos Kore(s) in person – but in the meantime, which reconstruction do you like best?


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

2 thoughts on “Colouring in the past”

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