Recent imaging and scientific research conducted by a team that includes an academic from King’s College London has unveiled surprising information about the Parthenon Sculptures on display at the British Museum. These iconic artifacts, originally from ancient Greece, have long been celebrated for their stark white appearance. However, the new evidence strongly suggests that they were once adorned with vibrant colors.
A collaboration between researchers from King’s College, the British Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago employed cutting-edge digital imaging techniques and scientific instruments to delve into the sculptures at a microscopic level. Their meticulous examination revealed a “wealth of surviving paint,” showcasing that these sculptures were originally adorned with multiple colors, intricate patterns, and designs.
The findings of this study have been officially published in the journal Antiquity. According to Dr. Will Wootton, Reader in Classical Art and Archaeology and Head of Classics Department at King’s College London, “Even if the surfaces were not explicitly prepared for the application of paint, however, carving and color 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.”
To uncover these hidden traces of paint, researchers used visible-induced luminescence imaging, a non-invasive technique developed by Dr. Giovanni Verri from the Art Institute of Chicago. This method can detect minuscule remnants of a pigment called Egyptian blue, which was used in ancient Greece and Rome. Additionally, small traces of white and purple pigment were also detected, shedding light on the intricate color palette of these sculptures.
The survival of paint on ancient sculptures is rare, especially when exposed to the elements over centuries. Consequently, for a long time, it was commonly believed that ancient Greek art primarily featured white marble. Furthermore, historical restorations aimed to reinstate the assumed original “whiteness” of these sculptures, which further obscured their true colorful history.
“The Parthenon Sculptures at the British Museum are considered one of the pinnacles of ancient art and have been studied for centuries now by a variety of scholars. Despite this, no traces of color have ever been found, and little is known about how they were carved,” emphasizes Dr. Verri.
The research indicates that there was no distinct separation between the carving of the marble and the application of paint. Instead, it suggests that sculptors aimed to faithfully replicate the intended form, such as wool, linen, and skin, without focusing on creating a specialized surface for paint adhesion through techniques like keying or abrasion.
These initial findings challenge the previous perception of the Parthenon Sculptures, revealing that the painting process was a far more intricate and crucial part of their creation than previously believed. This reinforces the notion that the colors, along with the sculptural designs, held great significance for both the creators and the original audiences of these Ancient Greek masterpieces.
Source: King’s College London