The Importance of Color in the Legacy of Ancient Athens

When people think about ancient Athens, they think of a purified society that practiced democracy in a time of tyrants and was a cultural hub of antiquity. They believe that these notions of exceptionality were exemplified by the pure white marble structures and statues that are displayed in museums across the world. However, these artifacts from the past are not in their original state, and their altered state has been manipulated to paint a picture of the society we think of today. Ancient Athens was not this unadulterated white society in which all things were pure but was a vibrant city whose vibrancy was expressed in the vivid colors that adorned the structures and art of the Athenian people in the past, and this notion has continued into the present.

The notion of Greek purity was brought about by the ruins of the ancient Greeks, with the most famous example being the ruins of the Parthenon. Throughout the first 2000 years of its existence, the Parthenon had been maintained and in near constant use as a place of power and worship, only becoming a ruin in the end of the 17th century after it was bombarded by the Venetians. Through the unwanted neglect following this tragedy, the Parthenon reached its current state, in which the marble that constitutes its structure has reverted to its natural white state. However, the Parthenon was never like this, and was extensively painted throughout its history. Though it would be unethical to alter the original Parthenon to repaint it as it would have been, the replica of the Parthenon has projected the original paint scheme onto its façade (see image below). This projection shows the vibrant colors that used to adorn the metopes and the pediment of the Parthenon, and that the images we see today are just remains of the past.

Replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee with the original colors of the Parthenon at the time of its inception projected onto the façade. The Parthenon was originally colored in various colors, but over time the paint faded, and the whiteness of the marble remained. Photo by Shelley Mays of the Tennessean.

In addition to the metopes and the pediment, the frieze of the Parthenon was also lavishly painted (see image below). Though the paint was also lost over time, there was still some residual paint present on the marbles when Lord Elgin ‘purchased’ them from the Ottoman government. A hundred years later, officials of the British Museum, which housed the marbles in the Duveen Gallery, ‘cleaned’ any semblance of the paint from the marbles. They were under the impression that it was dirt and wanted it to look as white and pure as possible, as they expected all Greek art to be this way. They were really erasing any semblance of the original design of the ancient Athenians from the marbles and altering it to fit their image of pure white Athenian art.

Recreation of the Parthenon marbles comparing the original painted frieze to the frieze in its current state. The frieze depicts the Panathenaic procession that was the common celebratory action for the Athenian people. Much like the rest of the Parthenon, the frieze was originally painted but the paint degraded over time (Loth).
A kore (free standing statue) from the 5th century BC. The original statue on the left has been recreated on the right. This recreation, from 1888, was painted by Émile Gilliéron in watercolors that was most likely present during the original’s conception. Photo by Nikos Pilos (Blatsiou).

However, art of the ancient Athenians was not as white and pure as the officials of the British museum envisioned, and was often painted as lavishly as the Parthenon. This kore (see image to right) was found buried on the Acropolis in the late 19th century and its colors were incredibly well preserved in comparison to those exposed to the elements. Most sculptures in antiquity were painted in order to give them a more human appearance, but they were usually placed in prominent places exposed to the elements, which allowed their original color to be lost. It was only from preserved artifacts that we learned these statues were painted, and that our perception of Greek art was wrong all along.

Amphora depicting Heracles battling the Amazons, one of the twelve labors of Heracles. Ancient Greek pottery often portrayed mythological events, with black paint representing Greeks and white paint representing outsiders (Kelsey).

It was not only large scale and expensive items that were colored; common everyday items such as pottery were also extensively colored. Amphoras such as this one (see image to left) were used to store and serve water and wine. These were used daily and did not have to be painted to serve their function. Regardless, they were often eloquently designed, using color not only to add to its aesthetic appearance but for symbolic purposes. Black figures would represent Greeks (on this amphora it would be Heracles) and white figures would represent outsiders (Amazons). Opposite of what those officials at the British Museum would think, color represented the Greek people, while a lack of color – white – represented barbarians, or those that were not associated with Greece.

The discrepancy between the true colors of the Greeks and the misconceived purity that public perception associates with ancient Greece can most readily be depicted through Anafiotika, an Athenian neighborhood located on the northeast side of the Acropolis. This neighborhood saw its origins during the reign of Otto I, when carpenters from the island of Anafi settled here so they could work on the many restorations occurring in the country. As time went on, archaeologists found that the neighborhood was located on ground that could be excavated, and they destroyed many of the buildings located there, as they were not culturally appropriate or significant. Despite this, the remainder of the neighborhood has continued to thrive, and uses color extensively in its neighborhood buildings (see image below). The colors on the building in the neighborhood, the whiteness of the buildings on the Acropolis, and the walls of the Acropolis separating the two exemplifies the divide between the ancient and the new; the appropriate and the inappropriate; the pure and the impure.

The neighborhood of Anafiotika in the larger neighborhood of Plaka on the northeast side of the Acropolis. The Parthenon and the Propylaia can be seen in the background atop the Acropolis. Photo by Anastasia Mangafas.

However, this divide is not true but based on a misconception. The ancient Greeks used color as extensively as the modern Greeks, and it is only in the manipulated presentation of the remains of Greek artifacts that a divide has been contrived. The affinity for pure white has not been lost in the centuries between the ancients and the modern Greeks but never existed at all. Color has been a part of Greek identity since antiquity and continues to be a part of Greek identity today, as seen by the annual Color Festival in Athens (see image below). Color in Greece should not be repressed as an impurity in the sanctity of antiquity but should be celebrated as a continuation of the greatness of the past into the greatness of the present.

Aerial photo of the Color Day Festival at the Athens Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece. Color Day is a music festival that is best known for the extensive and excessive usage of color powder by the performers and those in the audience. Photo by Lefteris Partsalis.

Works Cited

Blatsiou, Natasha. “Acropolis Museum: Recreating the True Painted Colors of Ancient Statues.” Greece Is, 4 Jan. 2018, www.greece-is.com/the-colors-of-antiquity/.

Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan.

Loth, Calder. “The Complex Greek Meander.” Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, 4 Dec. 2016, www.classicist.org/articles/classical-comments-the-complex-greek-meander/.

Mangafas, Anastasia. “What to Do in Athens – beyond Climbing the Acropolis.” Why Athens, 26 Mar. 2018, whyathens.com/what-to-do-in-athens/.

Mays, Shelley. “Nashville Parthenon Lit in Original Colors.” The Tennessean, Nashville, 1 Dec. 2015, www.tennessean.com/picture-gallery/news/2015/11/30/nashville-parthenon-lit-in-original-colors/76594166/.

Partsalis, Lefteris. “Color Day Festival Celebrated at Athens Olympic Stadium in Greece.” Xinhua, 1 July 2018, www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-07/01/c_137293553.htm.

Self Assessment

In deciding what topic I should focus upon, I was influenced by the picture I used as my feature image – which shows the Anafiotika and Plaka neighborhoods – and by the special exhibition of Ancient Color at the Kelsey Museum. Throughout the course, I noticed that the whitewashing of ancient Greek culture was prevalent in the past and present, and that color in Greek art and architecture was not thought to be up to the standards of ‘pure’ Greek culture. This was especially the case during the cleaning scandal of the Parthenon marbles, which I included in my argument. However, I did not start with this, as I decided to start with the coloring of the Parthenon, as it is the primary symbol of classical Greece. I felt as though using the replica rather than a computer animated image gave it a more realistic depiction of what was, and acted as a grander entrance into my argument. Next, I used the cleaning scandal of the Parthenon to show a blatant example of covering up color in ancient Greece, and decided to use a recreation of the original paint to show what used to be and what they erased (the remnants of it that is). I then used another recreation – a kore to be exact – because the original still has some semblance of paint on it that had not been erased due to exposure or a blunt copper tool. The amphora from the Kelsey museum was meant to show that color was prevalent in all facets of society, not just in temples and on statues. Finally, the last two images were meant to show the importance of color in modern Greece, and provide a link between the past and the present day Athenians. The picture of Anafiotika was chosen in particular due to the symbolism I concocted of a false divide in the past and the present. I feel that the order of the images were meant to first display examples from the past, starting with the grand and slowing moving down, and then examples of the present bring the argument into full circle.