EDITOR’S NOTE (Nick Stamatakis): Most of us have the wrong idea that ancient Greek sculpture is all in sparkling white marble. This is totally WRONG. Ancient Greeks and Romans lived in a very colorful world and the new exhibition “Chroma” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which just opened (July 5 – March 26 2023) displays just this beauty…
This story has a very personal meaning for me, as it was the main reason for developing my small business in natural sea sponges. Here it is: In the early 1990s, as I was working for the National Herald (main editorial writer) and was finishing my doctoral thesis on Cyprus, I was among the first to grasp the development of a new fashion – the use of natural sponges for painting walls and canvas, what became later known as “sponge-painting” or “faux finishing”. Painters who used sponges to paint walls had various techniques (among them “marbleizing”…) Yours truly was among the very few who knew that Ancient Greeks used sponges to color temples and statues and that the Parthenon was not sparkling white in antiquity. The Ancients used sea sponges – and NOT brushes for painting… I took full advantage of this and started a small business that is thriving to this day. Like any other business it has evolved in many ways and sponge painting is not the “main trade” for us anymore… But at the beginning (1994-96) we supplied 550 SEARS stores out of a garage and a basement – a real “American” story for starting a business… Later on, we supplied (2005-08) Home Depot and Walmart simultaneously, and we kept supplying Home Depot until 2014 when the sponge-painting fashion started fading… In addition to us in New York, all other sea sponge producers (mostly in Tarpon Springs, FL but also elsewhere) benefited…
It’s amazing how life works, how history repeats itself, and how history’s lessons can have very personal effects…
We know Greek statues weren’t white. Now you can see them in color.
Walk through the Greek sculpture galleries of most museums and you’ll see pedestal after pedestal of white, marble statues with sightless eyes. That’s just how Ancient Greek sculpture was, right?
A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York scatters recreations of what these statues ACTUALLY looked like throughout its galleries: they’re painted in garish colors with multiple patterns.
“For some, it will be a shock,” said Max Hollein, the director of the museum. “But one has to understand that our current, whitewashed idea of Greek and Roman antiquity is wrong. It’s false.”
The knowledge that the Greek and Roman sculpture was brightly painted isn’t new. In one gallery, there’s a watercolor of parts of the Acropolis when it was excavated in 1888 – it’s clear that the architectural segments came out of the ground vibrantly colored. And in museums around the globe, hints of color remain on statues from antiquity.
Yet somehow, that knowledge was lost. Vinzenz Brinkmann, Head of the Department of Antiquity at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt am Main, said when he first started researching polychromy 40 years ago, “no one had interest in this for years, no one collected the clearly visible evidence. Except for me. I collected the evidence like a stamp collection.”
Brinkmann and his wife, archeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, researched their reconstructions using photographic and spectroscopic technology. They also looked at as many ancient works of art in collections around the world as they could get their hands on.
One of the pieces they’re proudest of is a reconstruction of a sphinx in the Met’s collection. Commissioned in about 530 B.C. by the parents of a young man who had died, the sphinx was originally placed high on a pedestal.
“Color conveys a lot of information, and when you see it from a distance, it really helps to identify different features,” said Seán Hemingway, lead curator of the Met’s Greek and Roman Art department. “Also, a lot of these sculptures were outside, and in Greece with that very strong, bright Mediterranean sun, you need those bright colors because they get muted a little bit, they get washed out.”
The Greeks were great storytellers, Hemingway said. And these sculptures were often set in temples to the gods or as memorials. When people saw them, they would have immediately understood the different threads of story and myth they allude to. “Like the sphinx, which is the guardian figure. There’s that famous story of the sphinx at the crossroads and having to answer the questions — that sphinx stood on a column, too. So anyone who saw this sphinx would have thought about this dangerous creature that can kill you and can speak to you.”
The reconstructed sphinx is placed near the original sphinx, where visitors can see smudges of color on the figure’s body. The 17 Greek and Roman reconstructions are placed near similar pieces in the galleries, and stretch from the early bronze age to the second century AD. They include two bronze figures caught in the moment after a boxing match, with the wounds painted red and the eyes so realistic that one could imagine they are actually looking at each other.
The Greeks learned artistic techniques from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Asia. “At the final point in this evolution, they learned how to deceive the human eye,” Brinkmann said. “We know from written sources that bronze sculptures of this period were perceived as super-realistic, Often people reached those statues in Greek sanctuaries and didn’t know exactly — is this talking to me? Will this stand up? Or is it just bronze?”
Chroma will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 2023.
Excellent article Nick, by the way Sphinx is
the emblem of Panchiaki Korais Society of N.Y
and did you know ,that great Society ( 110 years history ) on
Jan. 14th 2023 is Honoring Capt. Stelios Tatsis
for his 52 years commitment to the Society and his contribution to Omogeneia, Hellenism ,Orthodoxy and humanity.
Congratulations Captain – well deserved!
) ” Yours truly was among the very few who knew that Ancient Greeks used sponges to color temples and statues and that the Parthenon was not sparkling white in antiquity. The Ancients used sea sponges – and NOT brushes for painting… I took full advantage of this and started a small business that is thriving to this day.”
Congratulations on this! It is a great achievemenr!