Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
July 5, 2022 - March 26, 2023
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original Photography by Anne Lloyd
The ancient Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art create a high theater of drama. Here, a daily symphony of shafts of natural light and the counterpoint of shadow awakens the Met's Greek and Roman antiquities from the sleep of the ages.
The portrait busts of Alexander and Caesar Augustus do appear about to speak. But they never do. This is a realm of marble and bronze, where noble words linger on rigid lips. Well-muscled arms and legs do not move, drained as they are of life and color. Until now.
Color has returned to the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in a fantastic exhibition, Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color. The exhibit will be on view at the Met until March 2023, an added bonus since art lovers are certainly going to want to return for for a second or third look.
Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color is a collaborative effort of the Met and a German research institute, the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, located in Frankfurt. A husband-and -wife team, Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, have performed the scientific equivalent of the labors of Hercules, studying and recreating the vibrant color schemes which once enlivened the features of statues and bas-reliefs.
An important feature of the exhibition is the use of plaster casts, rather than original works of art. These copies are displayed in the Met's ancient Greek and Roman galleries, replicating ancient masterpieces. Each is painted with colors matching the palate of ancient artists or the metallic finish of bronze statues. The latter category includes reconstructions of the celebrated Riace warriors, discovered by a diver off the coast of Italy in 1971.
In a sense, the use of copies is a reversion to standards of museum curatorial policy of the nineteenth century. Recreations of famous works of art once filled the galleries of museums like the Met, but were exiled to storage rooms as actual works of ancient art were purchased or donated. Now, copies of classical masterpieces are back, this time in "living color."
Sun, wind, rain and rust have all but effaced the skin tones and the hues of garments which Greek and Roman artists skillfully imparted to sculpted portraits of the Olympian gods and lesser mortals.
Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann and Dr. Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, in a decades-long effort, have begun to undo the damage wrought by the hand of time. Using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, ultraviolet-visible absorption spectroscopy, chemical analysis of residues of metallic corrosion and other state-of-the-art technological processes, the Brinkmann's diligent research has revealed the color-drenched world of classical Greece and Rome.
Pliny insisted that painters should follow the example of Apelles, the court-painter to Alexander, and use a four-color palette - black, white, red and yellow. Yet, across the Bay of Naples from Pliny's country estate, paintings excavated in Pompeii reveal that 29 different pigments were used in the art works preserved by the layers of volcanic ash which buried the city in the year 79 - and killed Pliny as he courageously tried to rescue survivors.
One of the most striking painted replica statues in the Chroma exhibit is known as the Small Herculaneum Woman. This is rather ironic as Herculaneum was destroyed by Vesuvius along with Pompeii in 79.
The Brinkmann's research revealed that blue and green hues, notably absent from Pliny's restricted palate, had been extensively used on a version of the Small Herculaneum Woman excavated on the island of Delos. Numerous copies of the sculpture have been found throughout the Graeco-Roman world.
Deploying their high-tech toolkit, the German researchers detected that a light Egyptian blue color and a shade of green made from malachite had been used to paint the garments of the Small Herculaneum Woman from Delos. The artistry involved in applying these scientific insights to the replica is positively sensational, making it a true work or art in its own right.
The noted British scholar, Philip Ball, in his book, Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, believes that artists in Greece and Rome largely ignored the strictures of Plato and Pliny. The advance of the Greeks to the frontiers of India during the campaigns of Alexander brought them into contact with a whole range of new pigments. During the Hellenistic Age which followed Alexander there appear to have been few inhibitions about using the new colors.
One of the key works in appreciating ancient color is known as the Treu Head. The original was excavated on the Esquiline Hill in the heart of Rome. It is the head of a statue of Venus or Minerva (Athena), created during the years, 140-150.
The Treu Head is one of the key works of art in the study of polychromy in ancient art. The original is too fragile to travel for international exhibits. But the Brinkmanns pulled-out all the "stops" in their replica to show the stages by which an ancient artist created lifelike features for this goddess. Particularly interesting is the carbon-black under-drawing, first applied to the marble head to define the features, especially the eyes, as shown here.
As works of art like the Treu Head were excavated with traces of paint clearly discernible, scholars were faced with a quandary. Clearly, the ancient use of color served important purposes or satisfied cultural tastes in antiquity. But aesthetic sensibilities in the West, especially since the Renaissance, had been shaped by the design vs. color debate, with the highest accolades going to design, the careful crafting of shape whether in drawing or sculpture.
This quandary remains. Would we today prefer museum galleries displaying row after row of painted statues and bas-reliefs from antiquity rather than time-worn examples which more clearly reveal the creative genius of the sculptors who made them?
A little time in the company of one of the most infamous men from ancient Rome may help answer that question.
One of the premier works in the Met's collection of Roman art is a portrait bust of Emperor Gaius, the notorious Caligula. In the Met's likeness of Gaius, the exceptional skill in the sculpting of the emperor's features is beyond dispute. This is a work of three-dimensional artistry of the highest caliber. After examining it for a while, we are left pondering if Caligula really was the most "ignoble" Roman of them all.
The painted head of Gaius/Caligua leads to a very different reaction. It should be noted that the Brinkmanns selected a slightly different portrait bust for their model, but not enough to account for the shock value that one feels when looking at the painted Caligula.
There are no doubts, no questions of whether or not Caligula was the monster as portrayed by hostile historians like Suetonius. Look into those eyes and one sees the menace of an autocratic ruler which can so easily turn into madness.
Polychromy can obscure or deflect our attention from the design values of ancient sculptures like the Met's portrait bust of Gaius/Caligula. But the reason for painting statues is clear enough. The color applied to statues in ancient times was chiefly intended to influence and educate a public audience, looking from a distance, rather than for the close study by scholars working in elite institutions like the Library of Alexandria - or The Met.
The spectacular uniform and equipment of the statue of a kneeling archer on view at the Met is a case in point. The original marble archer was part of a Trojan War battle scene positioned on the roof pediment of the Temple of Aphaia, located on the island of Aigina, south of Athens.
Most of the details of the kneeling archer which we can see at close hand would have been obscured to visitors to the temple, standing below. However, the vibrant colors, especially of the exotic headgear, would have insured that the identity of the archer, an Amazon warrior fighting on the side of the Trojans, would have been clearly apparent.
Visitors to Athens would also have seen the figure of a winged Sphinx crouching on top of a tall marble stele or grave marker, dedicated to a youth and a little girl. This much-loved Finial in the Form of a Sphinx, which has been in the collection of the Met since the 1930's, was sculpted around 530 B.C.
Greek art of these years, known as the Archaic period, is especially expressive. To facilitate study, the Met displays the actual Winged Sphinx at ground level, with a cast copy on top of the column, where it originally perched. Now a third version, modeled and painted by the Brinkmanns keeps them company in Gallery 154.
This Reconstruction of a Marble Finial in the Form of a Sphinx, to give this wondrous beast its full title, is the show stopper of the exhibition. The Sphinx was created specifically for the Chroma exhibition at the Met, with Dr. Brinkmann's team working in close collaboration with the Met's Greek and Roman curators and the museum's Objects Conservation and Scientific Research departments.
Rather than recapitulate the backstory of the creation of the Winged Sphinx replica, it is far more appropriate at this point to highlight the Met's exhibit webpage. Here a full array of useful digital resources is deployed, ready for detailed study. Even by the Met's accustomed standards of excellence, these exhibition aids are truly remarkable.
Of particular value to me, in reviewing the Chroma exhibition, was the glossary page which provided pithy explanations of the technical tool-kit used by the Brinkmanns and the Met curators. Also, the glossary definitions extend to information on the types of pigments used by ancient artists.
The Met also has a special feature for smartphone users, entitled The Chroma AR experience. With this feature, they will be able to follow the reconstruction process of the Winged Sphinx. Chroma AR can be accessed from the Met web page devoted to the exhibition.
One of the surprises of Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color is the significant role of bronze casts in the story of polychromy. Given the high artistic value which the Greeks and Romans attached to bronze statues, it makes sense that these metallic portraits should have received added details like inlaid eyes. But close study of two bronze statues, known as the Terme Ruler and Terme Boxer offer fascinating evidence of how the ancients' love of dramatic effect extended to unexpected embellishments.
I was particularly fascinated to study the reconstruction of the Terme Boxer. Back in 2015, a "once in a lifetime" exhibit of ancient bronze statues, organized by the Getty Museum and the National Gallery, had included the Terme Boxer in its lineup. In that exhibit, the bronze statue was entitled "Boxer at Rest."
When I saw the ancient original, I was really impressed with the fidelity to lifelike details, especially the boxer's battered, "cauliflower" ears. However, the reconstruction of the Terme Boxer has taken the delineation of his scars and bruises to a level that an unpracticed eye, like mine, could not easily detect.
According to the commentary on the Met's web page, ancient masters of bronze casting used a wide range of techniques to enhance their statues.
Scientific research and ancient written sources show that colorful effects were achieved via multiple methods, including the use of different alloys during casting; artificial patination with sulfurous substances; and the addition of bitumen lacquer, other metals (including gold, silver, copper, tin, and lead), and precious stones. The naturalistic effect of these sculptures was apparently so strong in ancient times that many visitors to the sanctuaries believed them to be alive.
Looking at the Terme Boxer, one might well believe him to be alive. The ingenious effort that went into creating that "trick of the eye" is astonishing. For instance, the bruise under the boxer's right eye was produced by applying a sheet of bronze containing a high amount of lead, which "enabled an artificial patination in a highly realistic violet color."
With all of bruises, broken nose and bleeding wounds, there is no wonder that his earlier title, Boxer at Rest, may have seemed inaccurate. Indeed, close technical inspection has lead to a bold new theory about the identity of the Terme Boxer and the Terme Ruler.
The two bronze sculptures were excavated at the same site, in Rome, in 1885. Both figures share a distinctive attribute: the swollen "cauliflower" ears of a pugilist. Yet, there is quite a difference between the two. While the dejected Terme Boxer hunches in pain and exhaustion, the Terme Ruler stands in a triumphant pose. Could there be a connection?
By pairing the two statues in a joint narrative and scouring the record of Greek mythology, scholars now conjecture that the pair represent characters from the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. One of Jason's crew, Polydeukes, (the Terme Ruler) bested Amykos (the Terme Boxer), in a boxing match.
There were alternative endings for the bout between Amykos and Polydeukes. In one version, Amykos, a brutal brigand fond of beating people to death, was killed. In the second, which we see depicted in the Met's ancient Greek and Roman gallery, Polydeukes showed mercy to his defeated adversary, on condition that he cease his career of violence.
A dramatic story like this, complete with moral lesson, certainly adds to the status of Terme Ruler and the Terme Boxer, now that we know their likely identity. Just as we can now match the features of these bronze masterworks to characters in mythology, so did people in the ancient cities see them as the face of the gods and heroes.
Color in ancient art was thus a major feature of ancient religion. Over a great span of time, the priests and temple authorities in Greece and Rome raised-up colorfully painted statues depicting their deities.
These colorful representations of the traditional pantheon of Greece and Rome continued to resonate even after many people had come to doubt in the existence of Zeus and the Olympian gods. Indeed, there is a direct correlation and continuing timeline from the brightly painted art works of Graeco-Roman civilization to the value system of Christianity.
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, a Roman aristocrat serving the Christian Church launched a hugely influential cultural program which made use of the artistic techniques of the Greeks and Romans.
"What writing conveys to those who can read," Pope Gregory I (540-604) proclaimed, "a picture shows to the ignorant ... and for that very reason a picture is like a lesson for the people."
Drawing upon the Greek and Roman use of color on statues, bas-reliefs and paintings, Christian artists would go on to create the mosaics of Cefalu and Monreale, the stained glass windows of Chartres and Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes.
The Met's outstanding exhibition Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color and the incredible work of Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann have many lessons to teach. But the greatest one is this - where the visual depiction of authentic religious belief is concerned, there are no gray areas.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images copyright of Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved
Introductory Image: Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022) Reconstruction of a Marble Finial in the Form of a Sphinx. Details below)