The modern vision of pure white classical sculpture and architecture is conditioned by classical statues galleries in museums, palaces and historic homes and by collections of plaster casts, for example in the Victoria and Albert Museum where the building is richly-coloured but the casts – whether classical, gothic or renaissance – are generally uncoloured. In Britain, remnants of colour remain on the stonework of cathedrals, where the original brilliantly-painted walls would have complimented the coloured stained glass, as seen in the La Chapelle Royale in Paris, and Victorian “High Gothic” relates back to these colour schemes, albeit not to modern taste.. The exhibition “Gods In Colour: Painted Sculpture in Antiquity” at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford displays over twenty full-size colour reconstructions of Greek and Roman sculptures painted with authentic pigments based on evidence remaining on the statues displayed alongside the Museum’s own collection of unpainted casts of Greek and Roman sculptures.
Gods in Color (Bunte Götter – Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur) is a travelling exhibition that has been shown in other European cities and at Harvard and the Getty Villa in the USA. It is based on research into polychromy by the archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann working with Raimund Wünsche, the director of the Glyptothek in Munich .
The exhibition shows that classical statues and buildings were colourful and decorative. Of course, some of the modern interpretation is conjectural – scientists can’t tell from remaining fragments if the paint was applied in one or two coats, how finely the pigments were ground, or which binding medium was used – all of which would have affected the brilliance of the finished piece and, of course, how the initial colour schemes were designed to fade in the bright Mediterranean sun.