Thursday, December 03, 2009

Color in Ancient Sculpture

From the Greek and Roman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum comes this head of a deity wearing a Dionysiac fillet (14-68CE). It's a Roman copy (image on the right).

This head is the only replica of this type known to preserve evidence of its original polychromy (Greek: many colors). The flesh areas retain a fine, lustrous polish, a hallmark of high-end Roman workmanship. The fillet was painted red; the hair was gilded over a yellow ground and then embellished with red painting; and the lips, eyes, eyebrows, and eyelashes were all locally defined with red paint. The irises, eyelashes, and eyebrows may have originally been gilded, as evident in other Roman marble works. These remains of ancient polychromy suggest the brilliant, often sumptuous, appearance of marble sculpture in antiquity.

The problem with what we have of ancient statues is that they are monochrome because the colors have faded. Thus, we concentrate on interpreting form and style. But restoration of color to ancient sculpture opens a new layer of interpretation. Of course, how this is done is contested.

In 2008, the Getty Museum created an exhibit "The Color of Life" which put sculptural polychromy on the map. The catalogue has been well received and reviewed here. From this exhibit comes the beautiful "Madonna and Child with an angel" (top left).

The artist of this work skillfully used the colored streaks in a piece of chalcedony (a variety of quartz) to differentiate flesh color, dress, and the religious symbol of the cross. The Madonna's face is carved from the purest section of the stone, symbolizing her beauty and virtue. The yellow-brown of her diadem and drapery and the Christ child's clothing evokes goldlike splendor. The cross is formed from the brightest vein of red, which alludes to the blood Christ shed during the Crucifixion.

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