All White? – The Colorfulness of Ancient Sculpture

By Landesmuseum Württemberg

Portraits of Roman Emperors and their families (1st Century AD)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Gleaming White...

...this is how we see the marble sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome in museums today. However, they were not white in antiquity but colored and therefore unaccustomedly vibrant to our eyes.

Knowledge of this was long suppressed, even though scholars had already shown that this image of a “white antiquity” was a distortion. Since the 18th century, sculptures with evidence of traces of color frequently came to light in excavations.

Watercolor of Akropolis Kore 692 (1891) by Emile GilliéronOriginal Source: Antike Denkmäler (Vol. 1), Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (ed.), Berlin 1891

On the Trail of Color

The remnants of color on this torso of a kore (statue of a young woman) discovered on the Acropolis in 1886 are clearly reproduced in the publication from 1891.

Leda and the Swan (380–370 B.C.) by TimotheusLandesmuseum Württemberg

Making the Invisible Visible

Although the issue of the polychromatic (multicolored) appearance of ancient sculptures flared up time and again, it always receded into the background once more.


Research in this field intensified in the second half of the 20th century, including the implementation of new methods of investigation such as pigment analysis or the use of techniques that could make traces of color no longer discernible with the naked eye visible.

Alexander the Great (2nd half 2nd century – 1st century B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Faded, Vanished, Removed

Remnants of color on stone sculptures are for the most part faded through being buried in the earth or have disappeared due to exposure to light and oxygen after excavation. In addition, possible traces of color were deliberately removed in the past.

Nevertheless, in many cases fragments of color can be seen even without the use of complex technical aids, like on the portrait of Alexander the Great.

Around the mouth is a good place to see traces of red pigment.

Hermes Hermes (1st century B.C. – 1st century A.D)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Eyes Open!

This head of the god Hermes, messenger of the gods, also reveals its original colorful decoration...

This head of the god Hermes, messenger of the gods, also reveals its original colorful decoration...

Hermes right eyeLandesmuseum Württemberg

Blue pigment is also visible in the area of the left eye.

Agrippina the Younger (50/58 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Agrippina in Color?

Portraits of the Roman emperors and their families were also not pure white in the classical era. Although this portrait of Agrippina the Younger (the wife of Emperor Claudius and mother of Nero) shows no evidence of remnants of color, either with the naked eye or under ultraviolet light.
But details such as hair or eye color can be reconstructed from the example of other portraits.

For example, red pigment on the hair can be seen on a portrait of the empress found in Herculaneum (Italy).

Archaeometric analysis of a portrait of her brother Caligula in the Glyptotek in Copenhagen revealed traces of yellow, black, and blue pigment in the hair. We assume that he had red-brown hair.

Experimental reconstruction of Agrippina the YoungerLandesmuseum Württemberg

Experimental Reconstruction of Agrippina the Younger

Agrippina Restoration ProjectLandesmuseum Württemberg

Agrippina Minor is one of the most prominent women in the history of Ancient Rome, and although this portrait head is surprisingly complete, the marble required a lot of cleaning and smoothing.

Agrippina Restoration ProjectLandesmuseum Württemberg

Experimental Reconstruction of Agrippina the Younger

This reconstruction gives an excellent impression of how the portrait of Agrippina could once have looked.

Further investigations of our portrait of the empress may enable more detailed conclusions in the future.

Experimental reconstruction of Agrippina the Younger by Stephen ChappellOriginal Source: Torso: © Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Stephen Chappell wanted to take the project further than just digitally restoring the portrait, and decided to replicate the full effect of the original sculpture:

a complete head and torso (of a so-called small Herculaneum Woman), fully pigmented (polychromed) and set into an environment that would show a modern audience how she might have appeared in antiquity.

Placed into a frescoed room, lit only by a bronze oil lamp, Agrippina’s face glows, and she seems to finally be given the prominence and respect she once commanded.

Relief of Diana from the Pedestal of a Jupiter Column (ca. 200 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Color on Reliefs

However, not only marble sculptures and portraits were painted but also reliefs. The pedestal of the Jupiter Column from Hausen an der Zaber illustrates this extremely well.

You can see traces of red alongside the white primer on the relief of Diana, goddess of the hunt.

Bes (2nd century B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Painted Terracotta Figurines

Terracotta figurines made from clay were also painted. This statuette of Bes, which was found in Egypt, is excellent evidence for this.

His breastplate appears green and pink can be made out on the shield.

His crown of feathers was multicolored. Alongside pink and black, reddish brown is also visible. The sword was black.

Terracotta Figure of a Woman (Tanagra figurine) Terracotta Figure of a Woman (Tanagra figurine) (3rd century B.C.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

Painted Terracotta Figurines

This so-called Tanagra figurine, a statuette of a well-dressed woman from the 3rd century BC, also shows traces of colour...

...reddish-brown in the hair,

blue on the himation,...

...and pink on the chiton.

Terracotta Figure of a Woman (Tanagra figurine)Landesmuseum Württemberg

This reconstruction of the figurine gives a good impression of how the painted statuette would once have appeared. Pink and light blue is a frequently documented color scheme.

Mummy Portrait of Eirene (40–50 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

The Colorful World of Antiquity

In conclusion, it is clear that stone sculptures and terracotta figurines show evidence of being as vibrantly colored as mummy portraits …

Fresco of a Harpist (ca. 50 A.D.)Landesmuseum Württemberg

… or wall paintings.

Credits: Story

Concept/text: Nina Willburger

Editorial work/realization; Anna Gnyp

Digital restoration of Agrippina the Younger: Stephen Chappell

English translation: Sharon Adams

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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