"White Marble: When Sculpture Lost It's Color."

White Marble: When Sculpture Lost It's Color.

By David Yanez  Feb. 4, 2016

Philadelphia Museum of Art,  North Pediment,  Carl Paul Jennewein, 1932

Why did Renaissance sculptors work with unpainted white marble, when they were influenced by ancient Greek sculptures that were originally painted?

Polychromy means the art of painting in several colors, especially as applied to ancient pottery, sculpture, and architecture. This article will explore the influence ancient Greek sculpture had on the Renaissance culture, but will focus on why Renaissance artists were not influenced by the polychromy of that sculpture. Drawing from historical accounts in the Renaissance time period of when Greek sculpture first saw the light of day, I will determine why Renaissance artists were not influenced by ancient Greek polychromy and preferred white marble or uncolored sculpture instead. I will be using contemporary research on the polychromy of ancient Greek sculpture, and the science and technology involved in revealing it, which is largely being conducted at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum through a project called "The Glyptotek project and the Copenhagen Polychromy Network." 

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum website
This research is designed to systematically investigate the museums Greek and Roman stone sculptures for traces of color, using the latest scientific technology. It is the first of its kind anywhere. Understanding the science used to reveal ancient polychromy is key to understanding how it may have been perceived during the Renaissance.

After working thirty three years in the art industry, 26 of which I've worked as a paintings conservator, and having gone through my art studies complete with required world art history courses, it was not until very recently that I discovered that ancient Greek sculpture was painted. Largely due to the research conducted by archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann based on earlier research initiated in 1981 by Volkmar von Graeve at the Ludwig Maximilian University, which focused on the coloration of ancient sculpture. This research inspired a world traveling exhibition called "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity," which featured 20 painted full-size reconstructions of Greek and Roman originals, displayed alongside original colorless sculptures. This exhibition raised a lot of eyebrows and brought much needed awareness to the fact that ancient classical sculpture was painted.

A modern reconstruction of the polychromy of trojan archer of the Temple of Aphaia, ca. 485–480 BC (For “Gods in Color” exhibit

With this in mind, my curiosity was peaked. If ancient examples of Greek polychromy survived and are clearly visible in the sculptures of the "Triple-bodied Monster" from the Hekatompedon Pediment of the Athenian Acropolis, then why with the thousands of ancient Greek sculptural objects found during the Renaissance, did the polychromy of these sculptures not influence the artists of the time?

"Triple-bodied Monster”  from the Hekatompedon pediment of the Athenian Acropolis

The use of Polychromy in Antiquity

The Western monochromatic sculptural aesthetic has dominated artistic sculptural production ever since the dawn of the Renaissance. The white marble or the monochromatic depiction of three dimensional form has been the rule and the norm for nearly 700 years. But in reality, for much of human existence colored sculpture was the rule and the norm. It is now generally accepted by scholars that the use of polychromy on ancient sculpture was the rule and standard practice ever since sculpture was invented. Some of the oldest and earliest examples of human sculpture dating as far back as 25 to 40 thousand years ago have been found to be painted in red ochre, e.g. “The Venus of Willendorf.” As far back as Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, from China to the Etruscans, archeological evidence points to painted sculpture throughout the world.

Venus of Willendorf Oolitic limestone Created c. 28,000 B.C.E – 25,000 B.C.E. Discovered 1908 near Willendorf, by Josef Szombathy Present location
Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Depicting colorless humans and a colorless natural world would not make sense unless we lived in a colorless or monochromatic world. Ancient humans new the value of color in nature and in their own daily lives. One cannot help but notice that ancient humans unlike most animals are basically colorless and they realized the importance of color in the natural world and applied it to their own dull appearance. Being the most intelligent animals in the world, modern humans adapted via behavior, more so than via biology. Pre-historic humans survived by understanding nature. They had to rely on their keen observation of the animals, the weather, the stars, the moon and the sun. They had to learn through trial and error, which wild plants to eat, and which insects or snakes to avoid. Animals  evolved the use of seeing in color for a reason. Animals and plants employ color to communicate. This is a primitive and basic form of aesthetics that has evolved in nature 

With their keen observation skills and high intelligence, primitive humans must have made the connection that color can be used to attract and repel. By observing how animals used color in order to attract and repel, early humans set out to color themselves. The use of color by humans can be traced back as far as 100,000 years to Blombos Cave near Still Bay, South Africa. Here the oldest artist workshop has been found, where red ochre pigment was finely ground in abalone shells to make some of the earliest human made paint. Along with the art workshop decorative shell necklaces were found. It appears that humans had begun to elaborately decorate themselves similar to the way that nature decorates its life forms. Humans had found a way to use color to their own advantage. Eventually this led to other creative behaviors like music, dance, painting and sculpture making. The evolution of art had its beginnings with our keen observations of nature. Human dance is not much different from the dance of a bird, or its singing, but when symbolic painting and sculpture came into existence, intent was clear.

An ochre-rich mixture, possibly used for decoration, painting and skin protection 100,000 years ago, and stored in two abalone shells, was discovered at Blombos Cave in Cape Town, South Africa
Prof. Chris Henshilwood, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

As we can see, color and décor was essential to the survival of early humans. It gave early humans cultural identity. It was a way to distinguish one tribe from another rival tribe, similar to how bird’s plumage and color distinguish one species of bird from another. Humans where not monochromatic anymore. They were as richly colored as the rest of nature. Color and decor was a way to scare away potential enemies and attract mates. For humans color and décor communicate intent, while in nature, color and décor are perceived and understood.

The art of painting/polychromy was a form of communication. Prehistoric humans were  painting the bones of their dead with red ochre. Perhaps these painted human skeletons were the first symbolic three dimensional sculptural representations, but the Venus of Willendorf clearly shows that color depicted intent and established symbolic communication or expression in ancient humans. To think that early sculpture was colorless would be to ignore or not know of the origins of art in human evolution.

Queen Nefertiti of Egypt is on display in Berlin's Neues Museum (New Museum).

Statues found in ancient Mesopotamia dating back to 2900-2300 BC, are Polychromed. The Egyptians regularly Polychromed their sculptures, coffins, masks and bronzes. Who could forget the famous Queen Nefertiti? The 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti of Egypt. Made of Polychromed limestone, 1345 B.C., by the sculptor Thutmose. If Egyptian architecture was a clear influence on ancient Greek architecture, then it would be safe to assume that their Polychromed sculpture would be as well.

The terracotta army of Qin Shihuang was also thought to be monochromatic, but the evidence is overwhelming for them being richly painted. (Fig 8) As in these replicas of a high rank officer and a kneeling archer with reconstructed polychromy. 

Replicas of a high rank officer and a kneeling archer with reconstructed polychromy. They are 190 and 120 cm high, respectively.

It’s clear that polychromy was used throughout the world before during and after the ancient Greeks. The use of color was used to communicate symbolically and decoratively since the dawn of modern humans. Employing color on architecture and sculpture was in line with the way nature employs color throughout its history. To remove color from sculpture would take a whole new philosophical outlook upon the arts and aesthetic appreciation. One that the Renaissance was prepared for and misguidedly set into motion.

The reconstructions of the ancient architectural sculptures of Greece and China point to the use of bright vivid colors. Not delicately painted ones. Why? Simply because these sculptures were meant to be seen from a distance. The colors had to be strong to be visible from a distance and to withstand the harsh environmental conditions they were exposed to. The Greek sculptures that were displayed in street level conditions must have been painted less garish and with a more realistic delicate approach.

The Renaissance

 Nicola Pisano, "Self Portrait" Statue at the Uffizi Florence, Italy (1220-1278)
One of the first Renaissance artists to use contrapposto.

Giorgio Vasari was the first to coin the term Renaissance or ‘Rinascita’ in Italian. According to Giorgio Vasari, the first artist to show the influence of Classical sculpture and the first to reintroduce ‘la bella maniera’ of the ancients to the art of Christianity was Nicola Pisano. This is a "Self Portrait" Statue at the Uffizi Florence, Italy. The contrapposto pose is clearly expressed. Vasari relates that Nicola Pisano constantly studied Roman remains and that Roman sculptures seem to have marked a deep impression on him. Putting the early Renaissance and its sculpture into the context of the period is essential for understanding why white marble was the preferred sculptural material and why colorless form has dominated our perception of sculpture since the times of the Renaissance.

Renaissance means re-birth or to be reborn in Italian. But what exactly was reborn to warrant such a name for this time period? Was art and culture reborn? By the early 15th century interest in Classical Rome, its Literature, ruins and sarcophagi, were making an impact upon the early Renaissance. This new interest in the Classics brought about the first archaeological study of Roman remains by the architect Brunelleschi and sculptor Donatello. The influence from classic sculpture can clearly be seen in Donatello's "David." It is the first unsupported standing work of bronze cast during the Renaissance, and the first freestanding nude male sculpture made since classical antiquity. 

“David” Bronze, by Donatello between 1430 and 1432. It is currently located in the Bargello Palace and Museum.

Polychromy was nothing new to the early Renaissance. Even Donatello practiced polychromy as seen in his sculpture of John the Baptist. Filippo Brunelleschi's Madonna with Child, is another example. The polychromy of religious sculpture and architectural elements was common throughout the middle ages. Church interiors and exteriors were covered in polychromy of which not much survives today due to exposure from the elements and weathering. Artists like Donatello and Leonardo da Vinci would have been raised in a world full of sculptural polychromy. Perhaps ancient polychrome techniques were never lost, and were handed down since classical Roman times. By the early Renaissance the polychromy of religious icons was wide spread throughout Europe.

  “St John the Baptist” 1438 Painted wood, height 141 cm, The Chapel of St John the Baptist, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice
Madonna with Child, Filippo Brunelleschi, 1405
Italy,  Palazzo Vescovile, Fiesole, Italy

With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Italy experienced an influx of classical Greek scholars and texts. Classical Greek Philosophy, Prose, Poetry, Drama, and Science, lost to scholars for centuries was now widely available and sought after. The Medieval Church image was losing ground to this new interest in an enlightened classical age. Italian culture was literally being re-born and influenced by ancient Roman and Greek culture.

“Apollo Belvedere” Circa 120–140; copy of bronze original after Leochares, 350–325 BC, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

The late 15th century and the early 16th century saw the emergence of two major Greek sculptures. The "Apollo Belvedere" discovered in 1489, is said to have been above ground for nearly a century before it received much attention. It is a roman marble copy of an original Greek Bronze, which was held in the highest regard by the later neoclassical movement. "Laocoön and His Sons," another roman marble copy, was discovered in 1506 and is perhaps the biggest influence of Greek sculpture on Renaissance artists. 

  “Laocoön and his sons,” also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after an Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BC. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Upon its discovery, the Pope sent Architect Giuliano da Sangallo to the discovery site, who then asked Michelangelo to accompany him. As soon as the sculpture was raised everyone present started to draw. The sculpture received instant fame and was copied throughout the Renaissance. This is the sculpture that the Greek historian Pliny had described as 'superior to any other work in sculpture or painting' and Renaissance artists took note. Literally thousands of ancient sculptural objects were found during the course of the Renaissance. Pope Julius the second (1503 to 1513) was a lover of classical sculpture and when he had the 'Belvedere Courtyard' constructed, he permanently moved his vast collection of classical sculptures there. By this time and earlier, the discovery of white or monochromatic Roman sculpture was influencing the sculptural ideology of the time.

Leonardo da Vinci's argued that sculpture had no color and is only concerned with form in his “Treatise on Painting.” He pitted painting against sculpture arguing:

“The painter has ten considerations with which he is concerned in finishing his works, namely light, shade, color, body, shape, position, distance, nearness, motion and rest; the sculptor has only to consider body, shape, position and rest. With light and shade he does not concern himself, because nature produces them for his sculpture. Of color there is none. With distance and closeness he only concerns himself in part, in that he only uses linear perspective but not the perspective of color which varies in hue and distinctness of outline with different distances from the eye. Therefore sculpture has few considerations and consequently is less demanding of talent than painting.”

Leonardo da Vinci essentially ignored the sculptural polychromy of his time, even though major artists were now experimenting with polychromy throughout Europe. The aesthetic ideology of his time was being transformed, into an aesthetic ideal of classical antiquity. It was a pro-enlightenment and anti-Religious aesthetic. Leonardo da Vinci was mistakenly assigning a monochromatic classical aesthetic to sculpture, based on the monochromatic Greek and Roman sculptures discovered. In doing so, he was making sculpture subordinate to painting, stripping it of all association with color. Sculpture would no longer serve the confined intellectual scope of the Christian faith, but a new reborn intellectual and enlightened one. 

In addition to Leonardo’s influence, Michelangelo played an important role in magnifying white marble as the preferred sculptural material. Even before the discovery of the “Laocoön and his Sons” Michelangelo’s “David” was a monumental work in white marble, that epitomized classical sculptural ideals. With every new discovery of classical sculpture, this white marble monochromatic ideal was re-enforced.

“David” Michelangelo, 1501 to 1504, Palazzo della Signoria, Florence, Italy.

While this new some what misguided monochromatic white sculptural ideal was gaining favor in Italy, Europe continued to be a polychromy haven for sculpture all the way into the 17th century. Church dominance still had a hold on other parts of Europe especially in Spain, but the classical influence was beginning to be felt. Artists like Gregor Erhart of Germany was making life size Polychromed sculptures, as in the Saint Mary Magdalene c. 1515-20. Although his use of polychrome is an influence of Gothic religious tradition, classical influence can clearly be seen in her contraposto pose. The Spanish took Polychromed sculpture to a new level in the 17th century. Perhaps never to be surpassed, as in the sculpture by Pedro de Mena, Mary Magdalen meditating on the crucifixion 1664. Unlike the bold garish polychromy of classical Greek temple sculptures that were meant to be seen from a distance, these Spanish Polychrome sculptures were carefully crafted to give the illusion of reality. They were finely sculpted and painted to be seen up close so detail and realism were important.

Gregor Erhart Saint Mary Magdalene c. 1515-20 / Pedro de Mena (1628-1688), Mary Magdalen Meditating on the Crucifixion

The Rise in Archeology

The Renaissance saw a rise in Humanist antiquarians, but it was not until the seventeenth century that antiquarians would make an impact upon the growing interest in archaeology. Antiquarians studied history with particular attention to ancient artifacts, manuscripts, archaeological and historical sites. During the time of the Renaissance Archaeology was in its infancy. Archaeology would not blossom into a systematic empirical science of examination until the late eighteenth and early 19th century, with the arrival of Johann Winckelmann, (1717–68) who is considered the founding father of scientific archaeology. Regarding Greek sculptural aesthetics, Johann Winckelmann is often quoted with saying “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” Winckelmann promoted the ideal of simplicity and whiteness of Greek sculpture and went on to inspire the colorless neoclassical movement.

Portrait of Johann Winckelmann By Raphael Mengs,1761 – 1762, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Is it possible that until then almost all the Classical sculptural artifacts discovered since the early Renaissance had been discovered without any traces of color? The book “Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture” by Leonard Barkan, is a comprehensive investigation into the influence of classical sculptures and artifacts on the Renaissance culture, yet there is no mention of polychromy at all. It is hard to believe that in the 400 years of unearthing and rediscovering classical artifacts, no one would mention or document any polychromy found. In the light of contemporary interest in ancient polychromy, new readings into the work of Johann Winckelmann shows that he was on the contrary, one of the discoverers of polychromy on statues of Classical Antiquity, and noted that polychromy was a feature not only of Egyptian or Etruscan, but also of Greek art. Instead he chose to white wash the importance of polychromy to ancient civilizations in favor of no color, due to the prevailing ideals of his time, based on the ideals of the Renaissance. 

It was in the late 18th century and early 19th century that saw the rise of archaeological interest, when the French led by Napoleon swept over Europe. Until then the French academy was dependent on Rome to supply classical masterpieces, but Napoleon had other cultural ambitions. Not only did the French want military dominance, but cultural superiority as well. Classical Rome and Greece became coveted, and the Vatican collection of classical masterpieces would soon become property of the French, and its national treasures bought and sold throughout Europe. The archaeological ambitions of the new French Empire became clear in 1797 with the Treaty of Tolentino, which provided for the shipment from the Vatican to France of the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere, amongst many more archeological Roman treasures. Pressure was also put on many Roman leading families to sell their collections at below market prices. These works were to be housed in the new Napoleon Museum (The old Louvre). The Treaty of Tolentino meant the loss of many of Rome’s greatest treasures, as well as undermined its position as center for culture and tourism. With this in mind Rome increased its archaeological activity in the hopes of replacing the classical masterpieces it had lost. This was a period that national interests in nations own archaeological treasures developed. Other than looting Roman treasures, the French also undertook important archaeological work in Rome and Pompeii, and laid a foundation for the science of archaeology.

Colorful Reconstruction of the archaic Western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia at Aegina  1906, by Adolf Furtwängler.

Until the 19th century Rome had been the focus of classical archaeology. With the influence of Neoclassicism and Romanticism, interest in Greece opened up a floodgate of tourists, artists and scholars interested in classical Greece. It was not until the early 19th century when excavations started on a large scale in Greece and Athens, that color was clearly to be seen on the Parthenon and other classical monuments.  Excavations began in 1811 on the island of Aegina, uncovering the extensive remains of polychromy on the late archaic sculpture and architecture of the Temple of Aphaia. French architect Quatremère de Quincy who was a die-hard neoclassicist, was one of the first to publish accounts of the polychromy on ancient Greek sculptures, in a book called ‘Le Jupiter Olympien.’ He concentrated on the lost statue of Zeus at Olympia, a work by Greek sculptor Phidias at the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, and erected in the Temple of Zeus. A reconstruction of it was on the front piece of his book. In his book he concluded that color has clearly been a constituent element of classical Greek sculpture.

 Zeus at Olympia, A work by Greek sculptor Phidias around 435 BC at the sanctuary of Olympia, Greece, and erected in the Temple of Zeus. A reconstruction from the cover of ‘Le Jupiter Olympien.’ A book by Antoine- Chrysosthome Quatremère de Quincy.

The Neoclassicist’s were up until then, interpreting freshly emerging Classical sculpture as monochromatic, and misinterpreting Greek and Roman sculpture as white and colorless. Just like the Renaissance did. Most of the Greek sculpture unearthed during the renaissance were Roman marble copies that were weathered and had lost their color, leading them to believe that most Greek sculpture was done in white marble. In the time of the Renaissance the empirical science of archaeology, which utilizes systematic examination and documentation was yet to be established. 

Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, Laocoön and His Two Sons Devoured by the Snake, engraving, c. 1506–20, 283 × 250 mm. British Museum, 

Although drawings were made during the renaissance period shortly after these sculptures were discovered, they were only artistic interpretations rather than scientific illustrations, which are based on careful examination. If the Laocoön and the Apollo of Belvedere had been discovered today. It is most certain that with the strict rules of scientific archaeology and modern conservation science, traces of polychromy would have most likely been found. Sadly no traces of color have survived, but according to “Circumlitio: The Polychromy of Antique and Medieval Sculpture,” older photographs, however, exhibit remnants of the polychromy in the eyes of the Apollonian priest, of the Laocoön group.

 Sphinx with Pigeons

What the science of conservation tells us about ancient Polychromy is that all objects, whether painted or constructed will undergo decay in the form of erosion and weathering, due to their exposure to environmental elements. Light, water, rain, snow, humidity, wind, erosion, animal excretions, microorganisms, heat and cold, all act to decay any surface, especially painted surfaces, which are extremely thin. By the time of the Renaissance discoveries, almost all visible traces of polychromy would not have been visible to the naked eye. If any visible traces were present, they would have remained unnoticed by the unscientific antiquarians and artists of the time, or simply not paid attention to and forgotten like in the case of Johann Winckelmann.

The Glyptotek project and the Copenhagen Polychromy Network, along with many other museums, are starting to research the polychromy of ancient sculptures. They are using the many contemporary technologies at their disposal for the examination of their sculptures, in order to determine the extent to which these sculptures were Polychromed. These technologies include photography, Ultraviolet and Infrared examination, Raking light examination, Microscopic examination, including scanning electron microscope with X-ray, Fourier transform infra-red absorption spectroscopy, Raman laser spectroscopy (measures vibrational interactions on a molecular level) and inductive plasma mass spectroscopy. (Detects metals by ionizing the samples)

Add caption
Left: Original Warrior's head from the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina. in ultraviolet light, showing scales on the helmet. Greek, ca. 480 B.C.; marble, height 24 cm; Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich. Right: Color reconstruction (Photo courtesy Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)

All of these techniques contribute to the better understanding the materials employed by the ancients when they painted their sculptures, and gives us an insight into how they may have looked when they were freshly painted. Polychrome reconstructions of these sculptures are changing our perception of the white colorless classical sculpture we’ve grown used to. What we now know about ancient classical polychromy is still in its infancy, but promises to be a well-researched field of study.


The Renaissance interrupted and changed the course of Polychromed sculpture, which dominated the way humans made sculpture ever since its invention by our prehistoric ancestors. It did so unknowingly by concentrating on colorless form, thinking this was the aesthetic preference of classical Greece and Rome. It changed the way humans thought about sculpture and the ideals it conveyed. The Renaissance artists went against the religious and artistic convention of its time, which dominated the way art was made.

Although Greek and Roman sculptural form was ancient, for the Renaissance artists it was something new and Avant-garde. The introduction and assimilation of the Greek and Roman arts into the late Medieval period pushed the boundaries of the cultural norm or status quo, and was truly the first avant-garde art movement in history. Transforming the aesthetic appearance of Medieval Europe into the modern and culturally enlightened era called the Renaissance. It paved the way for all future artistic movements against the status quo, and lead the way to thinking critically about the art of making art. Conventional, stagnant and dogmatic human systems were eventually what many artist’s would consider worth changing. Almost every artistic movement that followed, questioned the role of art in the contexts of its society. Art and society had become malleable in the artists minds and hands. Art and society didn’t have to remain the same. Art and society could evolve.

The artist and art had again become an agency for change, in the same manner that the art of our primitive ancestors was. The art of our primitive ancestors affected change through the use of creative educational expression. It was critical thinking and expression at its best, utilizing not just one art form, but all of them at once. Art evolved alongside language, ritual, and spirituality. It employed color, form, mimicry, symbolism, abstraction, music, song, dance, storytelling and ritual. It was a means to express and communicate intent. To affect both change in the minds of their children, and communicate cultural identity and unity to others. The age of enlightenment that was the Renaissance recaptured the original purpose of artistic expression. Art would never be the same.

Published on 2/03/16
Copyright: David Yanez


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