The Parthenon in colour

15. June 2009 16:36

The Parthenon in Athens

Today, the Parthenon temple that watches over Athens is a pure, white building, dazzlingly bright on sunny days against the deep blue sky. But it wouldn't have looked anything like this in ancient Greek times. Researchers at the British Museum announce today that they have detected tiny traces of blue paint on the building's sculptures - suggesting that the temple's statues and friezes would have been not stark white, but a riot of colour.

I've just written a short story on the work for New Scientist, which you can read here. Although only a few hints of a pigment called Egyptian blue have been detected so far, experts think that the original paint job would have included red as well, with the original marble showing through white in places, and highlights of gold in others (see second pic below for one interpretation of what this might have looked like). Although we have the benefit of seeing the sculptures on display at eye level, for the ancient Greeks they were fixed around the top of the temple - 40 feet high. "Colouring would have hugely enhanced the visibility," says senior curator Ian Jenkins, who is responsible for the Parthenon sculptures held at the British museum.

Scholars have long known that the Greeks painted their marble buildings and statues, but they're particularly excited about this work because despite two hundred years of searching it hasn't been seen before on the Parthenon's sculptures (there used to be some visible traces on the mouldings just Reconstruction of sculptures on the Parthenon's west pediment, showing some imagined coloursunderneath the roof, but not on the sculptures themselves). In the end, post-doc Giovanni Verri used a clever imaging technique called photo-induced luminescence to pick up microscopic specks of pigment. When red light is shone onto the molecules of Egyptian blue, they absorb it and emit infrared light. Seen through a camera sensitive to infrared, any parts of the marble that were once blue appear to glow.

So far Verri has found the blue in a few different places - for example on the belt of the messenger goddess Iris from the temple's west pediment (see the pic below from the British Museum - there's a normal photo on the left, and an infra-red image showing Iris's glowing belt on the right). Depicted as she descends to earth, she's famous for her life-like flapping tunic. Verri also detected blue stripes on a cloak draped over the knees of the goddess Dione, from the east pediment. It's amazing to think that when in full colour, the Parthenon's sculptures showed details down to the weave pattern of a figure's clothing.

British Museum image of Iris, normal photo on left, and infrared photo (showing glowing pigment) on rightOne thing that interests me, though, is why the public perception of Greek temples and sculptures is of simple white buildings, when there's so much evidence that they were actually brightly coloured. I asked Jenkins about this and he described it as "a conspiracy of collective amnesia".

"We don't want to know it," he says. "We want to believe that ancient sculpture was white and pure." He believes that instead of paying attention to how the Greeks really lived, we're judging them according to our own aesthetic standards - for example the idea that it would be abhorrent to cover up beautifully-carved quality marble with coloured paint. He thinks the delusion stems from the Renaissance - when artists producing sculptures inspired by those of ancient Greece left them white to dissociate them from the previous Gothic style.

Jenkins also told me of his intriguing theory that the Parthenon's colour was affected by a severe climate disruption which caused a "year without summer" in the sixth century AD. I'll write about that in the next post...


Comments (12) -

6/17/2009 12:03:00 AM #

So Happy to see you are writing again after your travels.

Daniel United States

6/18/2009 3:27:00 PM #

Thanks Daniel, it's nice to be back!

Jo Marchant United Kingdom

6/18/2009 5:34:00 PM #

Thanks, Jo.  One reason for the "collective amnesia" about color on Greek temples, I think, is that a lot of people like to think of "classical" art as associated with order, proportion, and restraint.  Actually, Greek temples were pretty cluttered places.  People dedicated things to gods in thanksgiving for healing or other favors rendered.  Some of these objects were pretty mundane and tacky:  little wood or terra-cotta plaques, wreaths, tools of one's trade (on retirement), articles of clothing.  Temple administrators were sometimes faced with the awkward problem of how to clear out the clutter while still respecting sacred property.  People also came (not into the temple itself, but into the sanctuary around it) to sacrifice animals, usually followed by a barbecue and picnic (one sheep feeds about 40).  In festival season, the place must have smelled like a feed lot.  Temples were much livelier places than the art history books make out.  --Wyoming Classics professor

Philip Holt United States

6/18/2009 7:15:00 PM #

Verri's work was presented at the SPIE Europe Optical Metrology meeting in Munich this week. His paper "Application of visible-induced luminescence imaging to the examination of museum objects" should be available by early July at

Rich Donnelly United States

6/23/2009 2:22:00 PM #

The reason why people think of classical sculpture and architecture as glowing in white is that THAT'S HOW WE ALWAYS SEE IT. There are virtually no examples of ancient Greek sculpture or architecture painted the way the Greeks would have painted it. If you can't believe that, just go Google up some random images of Greek sculpture and artchitecture and count up how many of them show historical color!     We don't need to invoke any silly ideas about culture amnesia and conspiracy theories to account for it. Just look at what people experience on a daily basis and open your eyes! Sure, it's frustrating to academics when the rest of the world ignores what they have to say about what they know, but what the heck--academics should be used to that by now!

Robert Bethune United States

6/24/2009 7:25:00 AM #

believe that, just go Google up some random images of Greek sculpture and artchitecture and count up how many of them show historical color!

Nation High School United States

6/27/2009 3:10:00 PM #

Two cheers for Robert.  Of course people believe ancient Greek sculptures and buildings were white and pure, because they have never seen them any other way. Until recently, most scientists didn't know what the colors were, either! Otherwise, we wouldn't be reading this thrilling article about the discovery of color particles!  Most have no frame of reference for what they have never seen. It's not that people don't want to know, they simply DON'T know what color the Parthenon was; it's been bone white for centuries.   "We don't want to know it..." is a silly statement. I'm sure the average shmoe couldn't care less whether the Parthenon is in color or black and white, as long as they can watch a movie about it in high def Blue Ray.

Colleen United States

7/3/2009 1:20:00 PM #

Of course they were in colour!!! I am sadly surprised with the ''revelation'' in this article. The British Museum has been more than aware that Lord Elgin scraped the marbles to ''CLEAN'' them. Hence the difference with the remaining pieces in Greece. (Anyone heard of the repartiation claim???)   Everything was in colour... sculptures, ceilings everything. Our constructed and misguided perception of the past has been damaging to the monument and has created a false idea of the world and the aesthetics that these people lived in. Hey maybe all greco roman buildings in the US need a bit of colour now!!

Eleni Greece

8/6/2009 2:21:00 AM #

Being an art history fan I'm so glad I found this! I've studied the amazing buildings and sculptures from text books for years but this is the first I've read that they believe they were highly colored. It's interesting, however, how we always associate white with purity in so many aspects of our world from art all the way through to health care.

Golden rule United States

4/9/2011 3:30:00 PM #

We have visited the Parthenon in Athens last year. Definately impressive and worth a visit if you are around Greece. We recommend not going there in summer cause it can get very very hot.

Grill Team Germany

4/22/2011 8:09:00 PM #

This is fascinating and goes with other places that some colors have been found on ancient structures which suggests a riot of color in many places may have existed beyond the bare stone we have today. It would be interesting if skin may have been colored to be like real skin along with colors on cloths.  This goes along with whatever colors were used on building as has been found in egyptian constructions and slowly being restored. It may do something to modern building to add colors

Kent United States

7/8/2011 5:05:00 AM #

That they painted the buildings and statues is no surprise. They liked color as much as we do. Black and white is unnatural.  I've seen painted reproductions of the statues that look like cartoons? So?  There are things that are new under the sun, like cell phones, but human beings have been drawing in color on caves since Lascaux and Altamira.   Black and white art, or pure ivory, can be very elegant. But most people choose to watch TV in color and buy cars in other colors!  

Patti C United States

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