Originally published in STIR®
The real palette of ancient Greece defies monochromatic mythology.

From the stately Acropolis in Athens to a 21st-century reproduction of Michelangelo's David, nothing evokes ancient Greece more than white marble. The ideal of Western art, in its highest form, as being austere and color-free has been around since the Renaissance. When explorers unearthed ancient Mediterranean statuary, time and moisture had stripped the marble of its original paint, leaving the stone translucent, almost otherworldly. In its apparent aesthetic restraint, white marble seemed to embody the "pure" ideals of classical Greece: democracy, moderation, rational philosophical inquiry.

But new research is challenging this centuries-old assumption. "We have a vision of Greece as antiseptic; that people moved around in pristine white garments," says Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, a lecturer in classics at the University of Edinburgh. "But Greece was a riot of color."

Nowhere is this historical reality check more vivid than "Gods in Color," a traveling exhibit that has stunned museum-goers and scholars around the world with its reconstructions of what newly painted marble might have looked like circa 500 B.C. Its curator, German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, has spent more than 25 years recovering the ancients' vibrant hues and patterns by means of ultraviolet light and other techniques. Brinkmann applied pigments to replicas of sculptures and architectural elements – then stood them next to the originals. The result has surprised even the experts.

"Scholars have long known about the colors of ancient sculpture," says Susanne Ebbinghaus, curator of ancient art at Harvard's Sackler Museum. "But there's a big difference between knowing it was painted and seeing it painted."

Take the Peplos Kore, a graceful statue from 530 B.C., long thought to represent a high-born maiden. Brinkmann's painstaking research revealed that elaborately colored images of lions, ibexes and sphinxes had once decorated the statue's tube-shaped outer skirt. This style of sheath, originally worn by Eastern rulers, was borrowed by the Greeks to depict their female deities. Color solved the mystery of the statue's identity: She's the goddess Artemis, not just a rich Athenian teenager.

Brinkmann's work shows how the ancients responded to the limitations of technology and environment with a surprisingly rich sense of polychromy (the use of multiple colors). In some ways, the infinite palette available in the modern world has diminished our appreciation for just how meaningful color can be.

"Given the past insistence on imagining Greece in black and white, color has great potential to individualize ancient clothing and culture – to help us see it as human, rather than humanist," says Liza Cleland, author of The Clothed Body in the Ancient World.

The early spectrum

"The first thing to remember is that the Greeks had no real fixatives," says Llewellyn-Jones. "There were no products that could keep a color stable." The technical challenges of dyeing clothes gave the Greeks a fascination with color change (both natural and man-made) and a conception of color very different from ours.

"Greek language used color in a fluid way," he explains. "What might be classified as 'red' could be anything from a light pink to almost purple. 'Green' encompassed shades of gray, blue and bottle green."

Achieving (and maintaining) vivid color in ancient Greece demanded expert skill, notes Cleland, so wearing intense hues usually meant you had the money to pay for them. The costliest color was known as Tyrian purple, a rare dye harvested from snails found off the coast of Phoenicia. When applied to textiles, the clear fluid turned fabric permanently purple. The color quickly became a favorite of royalty. (Pliny the Elder deemed that the ideal shade of purple should resemble "clotted blood.")

Color in daily life

Duller, "mixed" colors were more common for everyday use. The average Athenian wore unbleached garments or used saffron to give robes a warm yellow tint; colorful patterns often were woven in at the hem.

As a culture, Greece "placed high value on complexity, both intellectual and visual," says Cleland, so interaction between colors, as well as the use of pattern, was a way to flaunt style – and a sense of the sacred. Detailed temple records show that women about to be married would dedicate favorite garments to Artemis for good luck. Llewellyn-Jones is struck by how color-specific the items are: "'A mantle, blue, with a purple border. A small summer dress, yellow, with red dots. A cloak, frog green.'"

The Greeks also prized color in living spaces. In her pioneering work on domestic spaces, Ruth Westgate , a lecturer in ancient history and archaeology at Britain's Cardiff University, notes that the Greeks used dark blue and green pigments for paintings and mosaics in the "best rooms" that visitors would see.

Art and culture

The Greeks were highly sensitive to the role of light in color. "Plato talked about vision and color as 'fire entering the eyes,'" says Cleland. "It's important to remember that the bright sunlight of the Mediterranean climate gives a high level of tonal contrast." Artists used strong tones to ensure maximum visual impact.

"Color in architecture enhanced simple visibility, and picked out sculptural details that might have otherwise been lost to distance," she says. The wildly decorated frieze of the Siphnian Treasury in Delphi, for example, would have been high on the building, so its strongly contrasting colors helped viewers at ground level see all the details.

No less an authority than Leonardo da Vinci declared that sculptors shouldn't concern themselves with color. But ancient sculptures were designed to captivate, to create an occasion.

"In ancient villas people would stroll around and stop at a statue of a philosopher or mythic hero and use the artwork as a jumping-off point for a debate or discussion," explains Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

That experience was intensified in religious spaces. Lapatin cites the impact of the ivory and gold statue of Zeus in the temple at Olympus, known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

"This wasn't like seeing Michelangelo's David in a museum," says Lapatin. "You'd enter into a dark sanctuary. There was music, incense burning. In the half-light, the gold would reflect off surfaces. If you normally lived in a simple, slightly dirty place, this kind of experience would be an epiphany. The artist even played games with proportion. Zeus was too big – if the statue stood up, it would break through the roof. But that was, of course, intentional. Is there an equivalent today? Maybe the latest Star Wars. But even that experience is virtual."

Color represents what has been missing in our portrait of ancient Greece: a complex civilization with a deep appreciation of sensual beauty and festival. "In some ways we made the Greeks better than they were, but also less exciting," says Ebbinghaus. "I'm reminded of my parents' resistance to switching to color television. 'You can imagine so much more in black and white,' they'd say. The more fragmentary something is, the bigger the surface it offers for projection."

Lapatin agrees: "Classical art still carries such a charge. If we're going to successfully interrogate our own culture's values, it's important to examine their underpinnings."

The 'reel' Greece?

Hollywood has often turned to the ancient world for inspiration, with varying results. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, who served as a consultant to Oliver Stone's Alexander, admired the film's commitment to historical accuracy – with one exception: the costumes worn by Angelina Jolie, who played Alexander's mother.

"We had her in the appropriate clothes, loose linens fastened with pins and brooches. She deemed them too frumpy and had costume designer Jenny Beavan create something with more, shall we say, Christian Dior tailoring." He laughs. "History or no history, a star still has the power to dictate her look."

Color symbolism in ancient Greece

  • Red:A transitional color, indicating a change in life status. Boys on the threshold of becoming men wore red cloaks. Brides wore red veils. Death shrouds were red.
  • Black:Worn for mourning, but also to draw attention to the mourner's social status. "True blacks were hard to achieve," says Llewellyn-Jones. "You often see the term 'thrice-dyed' to describe deep black."
  • Purple:Indicated royalty or high rank, due to the rarity of purple dye. Alexander the Great was fond of wearing purple from head to toe.
  • White: As much a state of being as a color; the ancients used the word to designate youthful or feminine, pale skin.