The goddess’ new clothes: Cambridge study finds sculptures at the Parthenon were once painted in colour

12 October 2023

White marble sculpture is a cornerstone of Western art history. Archaeological inquiry, however, has now demonstrated that Classical sculpture and its associated architecture were once coloured.

The authors of a study published by Cambridge University Press examined the Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum to identify traces of colour and carving on their surfaces. Using close examination and archaeometric techniques, the study shows that the sculptors finished surfaces with textures that reflected specific elements (e.g. skin, wool, linen) and these were then enhanced through the application of colour, including a purple colourant and Egyptian blue. The latter was used extensively to paint elaborate figurative designs on the carved textiles. Despite the complexity of the carved drapery, elaborate ornament was applied to the finish. The findings encourage a reconsideration of the appearance of the Parthenon in the fifth century BC.

The Parthenon Sculptures are a collection of decorative marble sculptures taken from the temple of Athena (the Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens.

Made between 447 BC and 432 BC, Lord Elgin (the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire), was granted a permit between 1801 and 1805 to remove around half of the remaining sculptures at the Parthenon for transportation to Britain, a move that today is highly contested by Greek authorities who have formally requested for their return.

It has long been assumed that the sculptures were left unpainted, however, using visible-induced luminescence imaging, the researchers have been able to identify microscopic traces of an Egyptian blue pigment on the sculpture’s garments. Egyptian blue is a man-made pigment composed of calcium, copper and silicon, that was commonly used in Ancient Greece and Roman, and even as far back as 3,000 BC in Egypt.

According to a study, published in the journal Antiquity: “Small traces of white and purple were also detected on the sculptures. True purple pigment was very valuable in the ancient Mediterranean; it was produced from shellfish, but the Parthenon purple apparently was not. The exact nature of the purple remains unclear, but classical texts refer to recipes to make non-shellfish purple.”


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A closer analysis has revealed that the pigments were also used to create elaborate floral patterns and other designs on the garments of the sculpted figures, reflecting the rich and elegant nature of classical monuments.

The evidence pertaining to the carving suggests an absence of any discernible technical manipulation between the marble’s surface finish and the paint application. Instead, it points to the sculptors’ emphasis on faithfully reproducing the intended forms, such as wool, linen, and skin, without employing specific surface treatments like keying or abrasion to enhance paint adhesion.

“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 Wootton from King’s College London.

“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,” says Dr Giovanni Verri, from the Art Institute of Chicago, and formerly a Mellon Fellow at the British Museum.

Verri adds: “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”.

The study can be found here.

Main image: ©Trustees of the British Museum

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